Thursday, 26 December 2013

Times: This is the Church of the future
Sunday, December 8, 2013, 00:01 by Mgr Charles Vella

In preparation for the forthcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis wants to hear the good and bad news about marriage, family life, contraception, gay adoption and sexuality. For the past 50 years the preparatory documents have gone only to the bishops; but this time, Pope Francis wants to hear from lay people all over the world.

Those on the fringe of the Church and non-practising Catholics are also invited to reply to the questionnaire. This unique opportunity should be taken seriously at all levels. Several bishops’ conferences, like the English and others, put it online as soon as it was issued. Now it is widely circulated, discussed and even criticised on a diocesan and parochial level in many countries.

Individual answers are also welcome and one can also send them directly, as in my case, to the Secretariat of the Synod, without passing through the local bishops.

I am very impressed by two issues in the questionnaire. The first says that because of the existing situation “many children and young people will never see their parents receive the sacraments”. Pope Francis often speaks of “God’s divine mercy”. This teaching is also found in his recent apostolic Letter Evangelium Gaudium. Francis has entered the hearts of millions, even those outside the Church, because he wants the Church to be a ‘Mother and a Pastor’ by offering mercy and reconciliation to Catholics in irregular unions or who are divorced and remarried.

If the synod, which will be spread over two years, will only achieve this target it will open its doors to the sheep outside the fold. For Francis, it is 99 sheep outside and only one inside. This will be one of the greatest reforms since the Reformation.

Some conservative prelates and papers are questioning why Francis is hinting at giving the Body of Christ to those who since the time of Christ have never had access. Firstly, he is reading the signs of the times in a post-secular Western world or in a post-Christian era.

In the Western world, about 50 per cent of marriages end in breakdown, so much so that the majority of couples divorce and remarry, often leaving the Church. There are more civil marriages than religious ones, and in Milan, for example, 60 per cent of the marriages are civil. Cohabitation, even between people of the same sex, is now acceptable.

In Great Britain, 50 per cent of children are born out of wedlock. Those of Catholics are often not baptised, and in the past, priests even refused to baptise these children.

This questionnaire, in my opinion, is rather ambiguous in its formulation. The most obvious case is the encyclical of Paul VI, called Humanae Vitae, on the problem of contraception. My pastoral experience in many countries, even in Africa and Asia, shows me that the majority of Catholic couples do not adhere to this encyclical. The few that come to confession do not even – unlike in the past – confess this as a sin.

However, I think Pope Paul VI was ‘prophetic’, and this is why Pope Francis poses this question:

“What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenthood? Is the moral teaching accepted? What methods are promoted by the particular churches to help spouses to practice the teachings of Humanae Vitae?”

The other question is about the education of children in irregular marriages, and yet another on the unions of people of the same sex: “What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in same-sex unions? In cases of unions of people of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in the light of transmitting the faith?”

These questions are followed by what I consider to be a very important query as to how to provide these children with a Christian education.

It must also be said that the questionnaire has been criticised in the way it is framed. It is rather complex, high flown in its theological terms (for example on Natural Law) and has been judged as non-scientific by experts.

I wonder who framed these questions, which when translated into Maltese are not at all clear. A priest wrote: “You need the theology of Aquinas to understand some of the phraseology and the intelligence of Einstein to give full justice to the questions.”

The danger is that many will not respond and find the questions too complex. Prof. Nicholas Mays of London wrote in The Tablet of November 9: “I cannot see how it could be possibly completed by the vast majority of lay people, including myself. I write as someone whose work for over 30 years involves designing questionnaires to learn about complex and sensitive issues.”

Notwithstanding its failures we should not be discouraged to respond, for each input is the voice of God’s people, including non-practising Catholics. We should not be afraid to express our negative and positive opinions about the doctrine, the pastoral work and even our own clergy.

The Church should, in the spirit of Francis, be an open Church and this is why he authorised such a wide consultation. With our replies we help the Church to come to grips with the complex questions concerning marriage and family life. Parish councils and lay movements, hopefully the Cana Movement, should encourage and help lay people to formulate their responses.

This is the Church of the future. Pope Francis is asking us to build the Church through change and reform.

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