It’s over. Finally. Sort-of.
As the pope and cardinals convened in Rome for a heated conversation about issues of the Church and family life, I was at home in Denver changing mountains of diapers and shuttling my kids to and from school and church and horseback riding lessons. I am fancy like that. In my free moments, though, I was able to follow along with what was happening at the synod–and oh, things were happening–and I regularly found myself thinking through what I would tell the congregation, were I invited to tell them. I may or may not have spoken out loud to the bishops in my computer. Because my opinions are very, VERY important.
SO important in fact that if by some small chance this post makes it to the Vatican and someone wants to pay my way to Rome, I’d be more than happy to show up and tell them, in person, whatever they wanted to know. Shoot, I’d tell them my entire life story, complete with endearing anecdotes and a childhood song on the clarinet, if that would be helpful. Cappuccino in hand. Just sayin’.
Now the first thing I want to point out is really more an obvious observation: people in the mainstream media (and non-Catholics in general) don’t realize that historic Christian doctrines don’t change. Because God’s truths don’t change. And yet headline after headline has folks thinking that the Catholic Church has now given the green light on insert-controversial-issue-of-choice, in large part due to the powers that be who leaked an unofficial document that a majority of bishops didn’t even agree with. So to people on the outside looking in, yes there are progressive bishops who would love to see things change, but they won’t. Not on a doctrinal level.
The messy reality is that there have been heresies and false teachings threatening the Church since her inception, but still she continues standing for truth like a city on a hill. Compliments of the Holy Spirit. Boom.
Incidentally there have also been meetings in years (centuries) past where actual fist-fights broke out–did you know that St. Nicholas punched a guy in the face once? Apparently he wasn’t always feeling so jolly up on the housetop, click-click-click.
Then there was the time when there was significant pressure from both outside and within the Catholic Church to allow for the use of artificial contraception, back in the 1960s. People really thought that it was going to happen, and plenty of Catholics were on board (including Catholics in high positions of the Church). But guess what actually happened? The recently beatified Blessed Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which of course affirmed the good, old-fashioned Christian view on sexuality and marriage. And so disappointed a lot of people. And was subsequently ignored by a lot of people.
So. For those on the outside (or inside) watching and waiting for the house of cards to fall, for the Church to reverse course on various doctrines, well, it won’t. If you’re sitting there scratching your head and saying “What a mess!”, you’re right. If you’re alarmed by people wanting to muddy the doctrinal waters of faith, I am too. If you don’t get why some people are alarmed because you don’t think it matters “so long as the doctrines don’t change”, well, I disagree. If you are so alarmed you can’t think of anything else because the sky is falling, take heart and spend some time thinking about happy things instead. Like gelato.
I’d like to move on now to something I found myself desperately wanting the bishops to know during the synod, and that is that clarity was unbelievably important for me on my own faith journey. No matter how you decide to approach or phrase something, no matter how difficult a particular teaching is, tell people the TRUTH. In love and with mercy, but tell them the truth. I remember the first time I read about the concept of indissolubility of marriage–incidentally one of the hot-button issues at the synod–I found it to be incredibly extreme. As in, who honestly believes this stuff in today’s world, where remarriage is incredibly commonplace? But when I looked at the relevant scripture passages and read Jesus’ words, and considered that the Church has historically held this forever and always, well, there was no denying the truth of it.
And people can, I think, handle the truth. We don’t give them enough credit when we assume they can’t. Sadly, many just don’t KNOW.
My particular perspective on the Catholic view of marriage is of course informed by the fact that when my husband and I got married, we weren’t Catholic. And I was using the birth control pill, because we wanted to delay having the two or three children we imagined we’d someday have. While both of us believed marriage was forever, we clearly didn’t grasp the God-designed relationship between married love and openness to children.
Which led to some problems, because the pill made me sick. Sick and miserable. Probably not the best way to kick off a marriage but then, like pretty much every newlywed couple wonders, how else were we supposed to go to graduate school and pay off mortgage debt and, most of all, build a strong foundation of love that can only be crafted by years of alone time and pursuing relationship with one another?
Babies are at odds with a good marriage, or so we believed.
What a mercy that contraception was such a wretched, painful pill to swallow. A profound grace to walk away willingly, knowing it was for the good of myself and our marriage–and then to conceive our eldest daughter before we had the chance to grow too comfortable with various other types of artificial contraception. When God stripped away our idols of perceived success, autonomy, and freedom? We truly began to live. Love grew in our home, unhindered. We encountered the deepest of joys in a most unexpected place: openness to life in marriage. This delightfully unexpected surprise has brought with it four biological children, and four adopted children.
Tell people the truth.
The Church must of course continue to find good and effective ways of ministering to married couples, mothers, fathers, children, and families. And I would suggest that this ultimately lies (at least partly) in a courageous and unapologetic recovering of the joy and beauty of the smallness of family life. Waiting to be discovered, if only we’ll open our hands and hearts. The embracing of St. Therese of Lisieux’s “little way”, and Jesus’ promise of life abundant. The Christian call to excellence, virtue and a life well-lived, that has echoed throughout the centuries, looks terribly humble and inconsequential within the context of the marriage vocation. It is a man and a woman mysteriously becoming one and building a life together. It is a baby birthed in pain, sweat and tears in the middle of the night. It is the painful cross of infertility. It is the commitment to remain, stay, keep trying, be faithful, through money problems and temptations and ambivalence and anger and wayward children and miscarriage and fear and illness. It is waking up to dirty dishes. It is hanging on by a thread, but hanging on just the same. It is believing and hoping in the dignity of the vocation of marriage, even when it doesn’t look or feel very dignified.
In order to do this the Church necessarily stands as a gentle but firm contradiction to the culture, boldly and lovingly proclaiming the truth of God’s love for humanity and merciful plan for men and women. People are starving for love, clarity and meaning. If Christians do not share this vision for a happy, fulfilling life with the world, who will?
Remember that when I first encountered Catholicism, it was as a Protestant quite accustomed to navigating my own way through the Bible and matters of faith. Many of the historic Christian doctrines and dogmas seemed completely foreign and, yes, arbitrary to me. I specifically sought out Catholic sources that were clear, orthodox, and reliable. I made myself stick with the reading, even when it rubbed me the wrong way–and often it did. Because I figured that whether I liked it or not, whether it was comfortable or not, I owed it to the Lord to see if it was TRUE. A lot was at stake! And so I give thanks for the brave souls down through the centuries that were not afraid to share, unflinchingly, the life-giving message of Jesus. Were it not for the early church fathers, popes, saints, priests, and apologists I encountered and read during the three years leading up to my conversion, would I have ever encountered the fullness of the faith?
As sad and, frankly, disturbing as it is that a bishop would want to obscure God’s beautiful plan for humankind, I don’t lose hope. In Sunday’s homily, our priest spoke bravely about how Jesus Himself was willing to share the truth of the Gospel message–even when it was uncomfortable, and even when it left him deserted and alone. There are many reasons I don’t despair of Catholicism in spite of knowing there are a few bishops confusing and misleading people, but one of the biggest? The fact that this has happened all throughout the Church’s history, and yet still she stands.
And I gotta tell you, good things are happening too! Right in my very own parish, if you’ll allow me to brag for a moment. People are being welcomed, loved, and experiencing radical transformation. My children are surrounded by men and women who love Jesus and His Church, who bless us with their friendship and openness of heart. We share laughter and conversation over coffee and donuts every single week. Our local parish is one of the biggest, most happiest parts of our lives, and I love that we are inspired to greater faith and holiness by this beautiful community of God-seeking people. We could not ask for more.
So yeah, the synod was controversial, contentious, and a well-known cardinal committed a terrible faux paux against the African bishops, and a bunch of people think Catholicism changes like the wind even though nothing actually changed, and it’s all really kind of a big scandalous shame.
But at the same time my faith in Christ and in His Church remains unshaken.
Of course you’ll never see me pretending that everything that happens in Rome is awesome–because it most assuredly is not. But. We know that is nothing new. We know things will be messy and difficult. We know that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), against whom the gates of Hell shall not prevail (Matthew 16:18). We know there will always be some number of faithful Christians living out the faith and standing for the truth. We know that we have Jesus in the Eucharist, and Apostolic Succession and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
So we have faith. We keep on keepin’ on. We believe in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. We seek to live good lives and make Christ known and point out problems and dangers when we see them.
We stay too busy about the business of love to linger too long over a falling sky.