Strongly Criticize the Preparatory Synod Documents
a guest book review by
Dr Maike Hickson
In addition to the earlier "Eleven Cardinals Book" (Eleven Cardinals Speak On Marriage and the Family), Ignatius Press published this month a book written by eleven African Prelates – Cardinals and Bishops – dealing also with the topics Marriage and the Family, in preparation for the upcoming October Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome: Christ's New Homeland – Africa (Ignatius, 2015, transl, by Michael J. Miller)
This review deals specifially with the first part of the book, which include two specific essays in which two prestigious African prelates, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, and Bishop Barthélemy Adoukonou, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, have analyzed and sharply criticized the essential preparatory Vatican documents for the upcoming Synod – both the Lineamenta (questionnaire which contains the Final Report – Relatio synodi – of last year's Synod) and the Instrumentum laboris (working document). Even though I recommend reading and savoring the entire book, I shall here in the following exposition only concentrate on these important, first two contributions in the book.
First, he asks whether the Final Report is "advocating trial marriage as a path to be followed." Sarah refers here to Paragraph 27 of the Final Report where it speaks of civil marriages outside the Church where, putatively, there can be stability, affection, and even worthy responsibility for children. Sarah comments: "It is disconcerting to read in the Lineamenta, after having heard it in the extraordinary assembly, that a period of 'civil' marriage may be recommended as a phase in which a couple's relationship can [gradually] mature." The results of this proposed gradualism for him are the following: "Set God and doctrine aside, and you create a major pastoral confusion."
The Guinean Cardinal has some other strong words to say about the ambiguities used in the document, seeing "slippery language," along "with treacherous expressions in the midst of doctrinally correct statements." Dissimilar situations are thus "linked misleadingly." These are strong indictments, if one considers that we are dealing with an official Church document. Another important observation from Cardinal Sarah is that, while the Final Report states that there is a "crisis of faith" among many Catholics, which is at times at the root of family problems, it does not draw any conclusions from that sad fact. "Why does it not say," asks Sarah, "that the first challenge to address is the crisis of faith?"
Cardinal Sarah quite beautifully reminds the readers that there is no third way – there is only the way of God and the way of the world. "Either we choose the way that leads us to God – and it is the narrow way of which Christ speaks – or else we take the broad way of the world that leads us away from God," says Sarah, reminding us that we should again and always place "God back at the center of our thoughts, at the center of our action, and at the center of our lives." He also sees that, along with the crisis of faith, there is also a pastoral crisis where pastors do not sufficiently teach the faith anymore. Therefore, Sarah proposes to "revive the faith within families."
The prelate also makes clear that the crisis that occupies the Church right now is especially a crisis in the West. The Cardinal comments: "In fact, one guesses that the Relatio synodi is actually the reflection of a malaise of the Church in the West – a Church stifled by a secularized, godless society [...]" In the context of the question as to whether the Church should allow "remarried" divorcees to receive Holy Communion, as discussed in the West, Sarah wonders why, then, are we to stop there: "why would we reject the lay faithful who had become polygamous? We would also have to remove 'adultery' from the list of sins."
Cardinal Sarah rightly criticizes the Final Report for not giving any adequate moral support to those families who try to live according to God's laws and who are now put at the margins of a secularized society. He sees that the Church herself, "with documents like the Lineamenta, seems to be pushing them [the loyal families] toward the exit. If the Lineamenta are expressed in the language we have just seen, what sort of Church, then, will take care of this 'little remnant'? [...] Have we not reached here the real 'periphery' of our postmodern global village?"
Sarah describes the document as being defective because it does not specifically call the sinner to repent. He therefore calls these sinners the "second category that is loudly crying for pastoral attention. They are the victims of the postmodern system who do not admit defeat." He decries the resort to a false sort of mercy when he says: "Instead of helping them to discover the horror of sin and to beg to be delivered from it, no one has the right to hold out to them a sort of 'mercy' that accomplishes nothing but lets them sink deeper into evil." The Church cannot, according to Sarah, help the sinners by just "bandaging with sacramental Communion a wound that has not been treated by the sacrament of Reconciliation [Penance] duly received." He calls for a "true healing." We are never to "call 'good' something that is evil." In this context, the Cardinal insists:
"Therefore it is not possible to find 'human values' or 'positive values' in forms of union that are objectively contrary to the Gospel, as the Relatio synodi [dubiously] asserts (RS 41). Although Catholic doctrine has never reduced the sinner to his sin – because the Lord never did so – it nevertheless declares it to be contrary to Revelation to think that one could find some 'good' in sinful relations." These sinful relations and acts, says Sarah, are "intrinsically evil," namely "because of their very object, independently of the circumstances and the ulterior motives of the person who acts."
With this strong Catholic witness and critique, Cardinal Sarah declares that the Catholic Church in Africa will thus resist the temptation to alter the Church's moral teaching. He describes the customs of his own people and ends with the following strong statement:
"In their wisdom our elders taught us, when we were children, that, in order to avoid meeting wild beasts in the forest, it is necessary to talk loud, it is necessary to sing along the way, for wild animals flee a path that is frequented by human beings. If along the pathways of the Church the voice of Christ's disciples clearly proclaims the Gospel of the Family, the wild beasts that seek to destroy it will flee, thus preventing families that are already wounded from being finished off by their ferocity."
Bishop Barthélemy Adoukonou is the second prelate in the book to address the current preparatory documents for the Synod. But, in his own essay, he especially concentrates on the Instrumentum laboris (working document) which itself has also retained the text of last Synod's Final Report (Relatio synodi) as a "basic component." This Instrumentum laboris will now be the basis for further discussion at the upcoming October Synod in Rome.
In his critique, Adoukonou raises the grave question as to why those parts of the last Synod's text that were contested and even rejected by members of the Synod are still included in the current Synod document. He says: "But one can perhaps be somewhat perplexed by the fact that this text [the Relatio synodi], which was not adopted without difficulty and which did not receive the approval of the Synod Fathers in all points – sent to the People of God as Lineamenta and, as such, [is] likely to receive criticisms and new contributions – has been simply reproduced in the Instrumentum laboris, as if the People had not been involved in the reflection on it."
This Bishop also sees a grave defect in the fact that the Synod's working document does not go to the roots of the problem of why the family today is in such a crisis. While the text "utilizes the resources of almost all the human and social sciences to put into context the topic of the family today without bringing to light the most important background, namely, the historical choices that led to this disaster," he rightly then points out that one can only solve the problem when one realizes where things first went the wrong way. Adoukonou sees that the wrong choices were not only at the philosophical level, "but also and especially at the spiritual and existential level," and that they are "summed up in man's conscious decision to exclude God from his thinking and from his everyday life." While man rejected God, he invented "different socio-anthropological, cultural, economic, and political paradigms that, becoming global, are gradually leading to the active destruction of the family."
Furthermore, in the face of the dangers of "a radical, militant Islamism" and of "a certain Western civilization that is secularist, hedonist, sensualist, and consumerist," the African and other regions in the world which strive to preserve the Faith are also in need of the Church's strong moral support and guidance. "If she [the Church] failed to do that, she would dangerously compromise the future of Christianity in these regions that are forcefully challenged today," warns the bishop. He describes the African's duty "to set ourselves apart from that postmodern civilization"; and he sees that Europe, which "openly denies its Christian roots" thus "provides a fertile breeding ground, not only for the radical atheism of postmodernism, but also for a no less radical form of Islamism." Adoukonou rightly speaks of the "original sin of postmodernity" to which the Church should not accommodate herself. And he insists: "We must be converted to God and ask the world to convert to God's mercy. It seems to us that there is no other way."
In this context, the bishop strongly criticizes the Instrumentum laboris for its description of the Gospels as a burden, when he says: "Wherever the document depicts the Gospel as a burden or [as] an inaccessible ideal, it is impossible for it to point to it as the final goal toward which we would like to lead so-called 'cultural values' that are described, in an astonishing rhetorical turn, as 'seeds of the Word' (no. 99). An anthropology rooted in an obligatory atheism will never be able to arrive at the New Man that Christ represents."
Moreover, when the working document speaks of a "new sensitivity" toward those couples who live in an irregular union (section 98), Adoukonou responds with a strong indignation:
"Has this new sensitivity that is supposedly part of pastoral practice today itself been discerned in the light of the Spirit of the Crucified that we just mentioned, or is it a norm derived from the formatting of postmodern man, who, as we know, is determined to fight against God?"
In his eyes, this section "contains elements that are highly debatable and even in contradiction with Catholic doctrine." He wonders, for example, whether we now have to "affirm a 'new sensitivity' that is now normative, recognizing 'positive aspects' in sinful situations?" The same, according to Adoukonou, applies to the idea of suddenly or gradually "finding 'seeds of the Word' in cohabitation." He rightly points out the problem of such an expression: "If it [a civilization] has rejected God and Jesus Christ, can we still speak logically about 'seeds of the Word'?" With this important question, Adounonou ends his essay.
Catholics throughout the world can profit from these analyses by two wise African prelates whose starting point is Christ Crucified. With that criterion of the Faith in view, they more clearly see what is strikingly missing in these different Vatican documents that are meant to be preparatory for the upcoming Synod on the Family. Both Cardinal Sarah and Bishop Adoukonou ought to be especially honored for their strong Catholic witness and for their loyal love and courage to speak up against official Church documents that are, objectively speaking, one source of confusion and of even gradual disloyalty to the teaching of Christ.