October 16, 2014
There has been a lot of confusion regarding the Church’s pastoral position and doctrinal assessment of divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabiting couples, and persons who experience same-sex attractions. Much of the confusion follows the October 13 publication of the Relatio post Disceptationem, of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family (October 5-19, Rome).
The fact that the Relatio is a working draft designed to raise awareness of significant pastoral issues dealt with everyday within the Church makes it open to multiple misinterpretations. Neither an encyclical, nor an apostolic exhortation, nor a defining act of the magisterium, the document is designed to “put forward the fruit of the Synodal dialogue... to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured.” (Relatio, Intro)
A good deal of the confusion is inevitable, given the fact that contemporary commentators - and even some of the Synod participants - have adopted language that objectifies the human person. This makes it harder for the Church to reconfirm its positive stance towards the dignity of each human person.
Activity must never be confused with identity. The human person always remains greater than what he or she does or experiences. A person who is in a cohabiting relationship ought not be identified by the irregularity of that union. A man or woman who experiences same-sex attractions ought not be identified merely by the experience of these attractions. In these cases, as in the case of divorced and remarried couples, a person must always remain free from having his or her identity defined by what he or she does or experiences.
The Church is - and has always been - open to the individual person. By refusing to identify a person according to activity or experience, especially when this activity might be contrary to Scripture, the Church remains open and welcoming of each person’s individual giftedness. Quoting Pope Francis’ encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, the Synod Fathers rightly point out that “the Church is called to be ‘the House of the Father, with doors always wide open [ … ] where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.’ ” (Relatio, §37)
It is because the Church cannot compromise on the dignity of the individual person, nor reduce it, nor objectify it, that the Church can call every individual to live a life of chastity, regardless of his or her state in life and regardless of the sexual attractions experienced. Chastity, after all, pertains not just to our behavior but also to the state of our hearts.
The Church also understands how difficult chastity can be. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgements less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law.” (CCC, § 1787).
Discerning the will of God leads to true charity. Discernment begins with the honest acknowledgement that we are all sinners. The example of the merciful Christ teaches us that a person cannot be identified by his or her sin. An individual’s identity can never be reduced to what he or she does or experiences. Matthew always remains greater than his tax-collecting; Peter is always greater than his denying; and Paul is always more than a persecutor of the Church.
The Church exists to preach Christ; to extend His mercy to every sinner. The Church refuses to condemn those who are cohabiting, those who are divorced and remarried, those who engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, or any other sinner. But in recognizing that we are all sinners, the Church earnestly calls each of us to a conversion of heart - so that all of us be open to growing in virtue.