In October 2014, there will be an “Extraordinary Synod on the Family,” a big Roman Catholic gathering of bishops to consider important issues of Catholic belief and practice.
In preparation for that October gathering, the Vatican sent out questionnaires; and now the results have been processed and a Vatican “working document,” called an instrumentum laboris has been written.
The questionnaire results show that large numbers of Catholics around the globe neither accept nor follow official Roman Catholic teaching on: birth control, sterilization, in vitro fertilization, homosexuality and homosexual unions, cohabitation before or without marriage, and recognizing the legitimacy of marriages for the divorced and remarried.
Some open-minded Catholics, encouraged by the apparently open-minded and friendly behavior of Pope Francis, are expecting big changes in October. That may occur; but the instrumentum laboris seems to reiterate the same old teaching, in a rather judgmental manner. It stresses that many Catholics do not accept church teaching because they have been distorted by the individualistic, relativistic, and secularistic cultures in which people live today. To summarize: Catholic people do disagree with official church teaching: but the people are misguided and wrong. Food for though.
In a recent article in The Tablet (July 12, 2014), Charles Curran, formerly of the Catholic University of America and currently Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, sees two current problems in official Roman Catholic ethical statements: (1) natural law as an outdated approach to ethical decision-making and (2) the papalization of moral truth.
Natural law: As I mentioned here a couple weeks ago, the official church understanding of what is “natural” has changed greatly over the centuries. Our understanding of what is appropriate human behavior and appropriate Christian human behavior is open to growth and development. We rely on human reason and we rely on Christian scripture and tradition, always realizing that our human and Christian understanding is always more contextual than something static and unchanging. We travel in time in and with the Spirit of Christ. We are the People of God in process. We are moving toward the truth.
Papalization of moral truth: Only in the last two centuries — and greatly emphasized more recently in the papacies of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI — have we seen an exaggerated understanding of Catholic ethics that would identify Catholic moral teaching with papal teaching.
It seems very clear to me, as I reflect about what Catholics around the world have been saying in their Synod on the Family questionnaire responses, that there is indeed a strong sense of the active and engaged belief of the faithful, what Catholic tradition has called, for centuries, the sensus fidelium. The official understanding of natural law and a strong sense of the papalization of moral truth appear to be out of sync with the contemporary beliefs of the People of God.
It will be interesting to see what happens in October.