Note: The following is an article published last week in the journal, Avvenire, a daily newspaper owned by the Italian Bishops Conference. I thought it important to translate it, because it is indicative of what the “official” Church in Italy is thinking about the question of the relationship of doctrine to pastoral praxis, especially with respect to the Synod on the Family that will be held next October in Rome.
The reader will notice the references to the Church using images and words of Pope Francis such as the Church as a field hospital, and the reference to the “law of graduality”, attributing this “law” to Pope John Paul II. There is also the use of the Pope’s widely reported “rabbit” statement with respect to large Catholic families to explain what responsible parenthood means.
There seems to be no question to the author and to Don Paolo Gentili, the director of the Italian Bishops’ Office for the family, that pastoral praxis on family issues is changing and will change. But what is most striking is the use of Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae as the springboard for discussing “la svolta pastorale”, the change in direction of pastoral praxis. There is no doubt that what Paul VI says in that encyclical is supportive of and understands deeply the Catholic teaching on the family including sexual issues. But that encyclical is famous (or infamous) not because of its teaching on the family and marriage: it represents for the great majority of people an example of how a rigid attitude towards doctrine prevented the implementation of a more modern and “compassionate” pastoral praxis with respect to contraception. It is also in its own way a symbol of that dissent from Catholic teaching that became if not normative then certainly widespread after the Second Vatican Council.
Surely one cannot draw any definite conclusions from this article. But one can wonder about the “co-opting” of Humanae Vitae as a means of, for all practical effects, neutralizing its final meaning and import, pace what the writer says to the contrary. Is this, together with the firm assumption that pastoral praxis with respect to the family and sexuality is undergoing a change in direction, and using the “law of graduality” to describe, at least in part, how pastoral practice will change, and using “responsibility” to neutralize the “rabbit” statement—is this the beginning of the parade to drum up support for the Kasper way of looking at things when the Synod convenes in October? We shall see.
Responsible Parenthood: Pastoral Praxis Evolving
Luciano Mola, Avvenire, January 20, 2015
The family: new words for a pastoral praxis that is changing direction. After the ferment of renewal that issued forth from “phase 1” of the Synod last October, the Pope, while speaking with the journalists on the plane bringing him back to Rome after his trip to the Philippines, returned to the theme of motherhood and responsible parenthood, starting from the Encyclical Humane Vitae of Paul VI. He did so not to diminish the importance of the Encyclical nor to redefine its significance, but rather to actualize its pastoral implications. In fact, Francis referred to the contents of the Encyclical as “prophetic words”. Its implications have a new force in the light of the new pastoral praxis emphasizing welcome and mercy. The courageous teaching of Pope Montini on the responsible exercise of motherhood and fatherhood, now re-situated in the “Church as a field hospital”, preserves the counter-cultural import of his words intact. His words have a force of truth that today, as then, oppose, in the light of the Gospel and of human wisdom, the falsities of a certain dominant culture.“It is like a strong slap in the face of all ideologies”, says Don Paolo Gentili, national director of the Italian Bishops’ Office for the Family, who understands Francis’ words as straddling the levity of enthusiasm and the weight of responsibility. Yes, enthusiasm, because what the Pope said about responsible parenthood opens an important debate, too long lulled to sleep under a heavy blanket of silence and indifference, an indifference that has grown up even within our own communities.The ideologies that Francis declared as especially dangerous, against which we must concentrate our work and attention—explains Don Gentili—are at least three. The first is that of gender, whose effect is to break down the family internally, displacing the elements of fundamental anthropology from the plan of nature to that of the thinking of a particular culture. But another ideology is that of the “obligatory large family without the exercise of responsibility”, or, the opposite, that which fosters a prejudicial closed-ness to procreation based on a foolish “culture of well-being that anesthetizes”. The many movements like “No kids”, which have arisen above all in the English speaking world and looked upon favorably by certain radical-progressives at the fringes even in our own society at home, show that the danger of an egoism that is elevated to a way of life is ever present. And the importance of responsibility? “Take another look at the new pastoral paths that are encouraged, and even have become urgent and indispensible after reading the words of Francis”, the director of the Family office goes on to say.We are talking about proposals having the capacity to make in a real way the responsibility of the couple and the family at the center of pastoral praxis with respect to marriage, calling for that capacity of the married couple to be “pastoral subjects” that comes directly from the sacrament of matrimony. The path to achieving this wise pastoral integration, which reprises the teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae and re-launches its great teachings within the embrace of a welcoming tenderness that does not fear to be confronted with pain and fragility—this path is the rediscovery of the child as a gift. And the responsibility of welcoming does not derive from an a-critical deference to teaching that has the taste of a list you show to the Customs Officer so that you can pass through to the arrival hall, but rather from an intelligent adherence to a way of living one’s life that does not pay attention so much to the rigidity of the letter of the law, as St. Paul says, but rather to the dynamism of the Spirit, sharing in heart and will in the building of a future that is to the well-being of all. In this way of thinking it would be misleading to think that to speak of responsible motherhood and fatherhood is equivalent to the rejection of a large family.Less than a month ago, speaking to the European Association of Extra-large Families, it was Francis himself who said: “In a world marked by egoism you are a school of solidarity and sharing”. The “No” to “families and rabbits”, according to the colorful expression of the Pope, is intended as a call, made even more efficacious by the immediacy of his language, to a search for an equilibrium that is more aware of the exercise of conjugal sexuality that ought to be always commensurate, as Paul VI also taught, to the biological processes, to the natural erotic attraction, and to circumstances that are physical, economic, psychological and social. The word of the Church is not list of laws to follow because of the threat of sanctions, but an invitation to the rediscovery of a humanity that is more authentic, that is in this way the truth written by the Creator in the depths of the heart of each person.“To walk together with couples on the road to the rediscovery of this truth”, observes Don Gentili, “means to reclaim in a hands-on way without moralism that law of graduality that even John Paul II had taught in Familiaris Consortio, and that unfortunately we have not had the strength and the means to translate into pastoral practice.” In other words, according to the teaching that has come out of Francis’ mouth so many times, what this means is to take couples by the hand without judging their life situation, appreciating the positive elements that exist in every relationship between a man and a woman based on responsibility, in their plans for each other, and mutual respect.Are we really at the point of a real change of direction? “It would be a good idea to reread the implementation of the 47 questions published in the questionnaire with respect to the Ordinary Synod of next October”, concludes Don Gentili, “to become aware that the journey that has been begun has its own rationale for a change of direction. What the Pope said the other day is the confirmation of a working plan that will assist so many families in finding the way of the Gospel once again.