Recently, 461 Catholic priests signed a letter to the Catholic Herald which ended with the following call: “We urge all those who will participate in the second Synod in October 2015 to make a clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, so that confusion may be removed, and faith confirmed.”
I was not one of them.
Like many other priests in England & Wales, I was offered the opportunity to put my name to this letter. I chose not to do so, because I felt that the letter lacked trust in what the Synod was trying to achieve.
Doctrine has always developed in the Catholic Church. Unlike a democratic Prime Minister or President, a Pope cannot reverse a policy of his predecessor once it has been clearly identified as doctrine. But there is often room to nuance things. I do not believe the Synod – an organ of our Church, guided by the Holy Spirit – is in danger of reversing that which is clearly established. It is clear Catholic teaching that a ratified and consummated sacramental marriage between a man and a woman cannot be dissolved except by death of one of the spouses. It is clear Catholic teaching that a person in mortal sin should not receive Holy Communion. The Synod will not change these teachings, because it cannot.
For the record, I believe that the only appropriate context for a sexual act is between a man and woman married to each other.
For the record, I believe that Jesus did teach us that we are called to a form of marriage which does not admit of divorce.
I have taught and will continue to teach these clear truths as a Catholic priest.
But… I also think there are legitimate questions which the Synod can explore.
We know that there are reasons why a relationship which apparently was a marriage might not have reached the kind of mutual consent required to forge an unbreakable bond. Perhaps there are other grounds, beyond those already accepted, which might prevent something becoming a true Christian marriage in the first place?
We know that while those in mortal sin should not approach Holy Communion, those struggling with venial sin should, because Communion is medicine for the soul. Might there be circumstances where a person in a relationship which is gravely sinful would lack the freedom or knowledge to make that grave sin a mortal sin?
There are no easy answers to these questions; but these and similar questions are precisely those which our bishops should be exploring in a Synod; perhaps there will be innovative answers which develop the Catholic tradition without contradicting it. There again, perhaps it will become clear that there is no room for any practical change on these matters. Whatever position the Magisterium takes, when the Synod process results in a final document with Papal approval, that is what I shall teach.
Meanwhile, I could not, in good conscience, sign a letter asking Synod participants to make a “clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching”. The implication of this would have been that nothing further can possibly change, making the Synod a pointless exercise. I would gladly say to the Synod participants: “Without wavering from those points which are firmly established as the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, please clarify those things which can usefully be clarified at this point in the Church’s development of doctrine.”
May God bless the forthcoming Synod and all who take part in it; and may God also grant grace to those who are called to live out the church’s teaching yet struggle to do so in practice.
Signed – Revd Gareth Leyshon