Help! I’m a Catholic who wants to evangelise!

You are reading this page because you are a Catholic who wants to share the Good News of Jesus with other people, but you don’t know where to start.

First, congratulations! Trust your instincts. Don’t listen to the people who say “that’s a Protestant thing” or “Catholics don’t do that”. On the contrary, heed Pope Francis who reminds us that all Catholics are called to be Missionary Disciples.

There’s a broad sense in which all the good works done by the Church are ‘evangelistic’. But not all of the Church’s good works explicitly speak about Jesus. There’s a blurred line where evangelisation stops and catechesis begins, at the point where a listener knows Jesus is real and wants to learn more about him. Nevertheless, you know you aren’t called to join the SVP or be a leader in your local RCIA group. You want to evangelise – you want to introduce people to Jesus.

But, how do we evangelise as Catholics? The best place to start depends on your context. Who are you working with and for?

I’m a lone Catholic with no-one else who shares my vision.

Don’t panic! You can do a great deal on your own, because effective evangelisation generally takes place within existing relationships. There are some things you can do to hone your skills at sharing your faith in a way that doesn’t put other people off.

  • Learn to be sensitive to where other people are in their growth towards faith. Read Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and watch the Proclaim’15 video on Sharing the Gospel Message.
  • Practice giving your testimony – and watch the video on Testimonies.
  • You can volunteer to your parish priest to “mentor” anyone who needs a confirmation sponsor or has expressed interest in the Church.
  • You could get involved as a volunteer with one of the non-parochial Catholic groups which runs faith-deepening activities – groups such as Youth 2000 or Celebrate.
  • You could also get involved with other local Christians running Alpha.
  • There are lots of other ‘lifestyle’ suggestions from the Home Mission Desk.

There are a few of us in my parish who want to evangelize, but my parish priest isn’t interested.

This isn’t unusual. Hard-pressed parish priests might worry that they don’t have time to manage another parish group, or might be struggling to sustain the parish RCIA arrangements and worry about how they would manage if you were successful in your evangelising. Nevertheless, a parish priest has no authority to stop any group of Catholics from meeting and praying on their own private property (see paragraphs 19 and 25 of Apostolicam Actuositatem).

I’ve been asked by my parish priest to start an evangelisation group.

Great! So first you need to form your group and do some general training. Then you need to identify what particular opportunities there are in your parish and get some training and do some planning around your project.

A good starting point will be to watch the Proclaim’15 videos about Vision and Strategy and Parish Teams, and how to share the Gospel message and give a Testimony.  If you are also responsible for organising intercession in support of evangelisation, use the session on Prayer (but if you’re not responsible for that, make sure someone is!)

If your team doesn’t feel very confident, you could run some more extensive training – in 5 sessions you can do Pass It On, or in 18 short or 9 long sessions you can use the Relit Evangelisation Course (that’s not cheap to buy, though).

After basic training, it’s time to decide what kind of project your group will tackle. Here, the Southwark Handbook can be invaluable. You will probably settle on one of three kinds of projects – to reach non-churchgoing Catholics, to reach people with no particular faith background, or to help those who already worship in your parish to move from being mere churchgoers to missionary disciples.

Focus on non-Churchgoing Catholics

Of all the human beings who don’t attend Mass, non-Churchgoing Catholics are the easiest target. They are members of the families of the people who do go to Mass. They are parents at the local Catholic School. They are easy to identify – but hard to shift. Dr Ann Casson’s 2014 research established that young Catholic parents consider themselves “good Catholics” if they are kind to other people and turn up in church at Christmas and Easter.

The Catholic Church’s focus on non-Churchgoing Catholics in England and Wales is branded as Crossing the Threshold and an e-manual is available, as well as a video from Proclaim’15. There are also extensive resources for use around Christmas and Easter.

You may wish to adopt one of the established packages – Keeping In Touch, Landings or Catholics Returning Home.

Focus on non-Catholics

The most challenging project for most Catholics will be the prospect of sharing the Catholic faith with people who have no prior Catholic connections. Pioneering work in this regard has been done by the Seeker Centre at Pantasaph, who have developed an Evangelisation Manual. There is also a Proclaim’15 video. You could run an Alpha, which contains only basic teaching common to all mainstream Christian traditions. If you have a town centre location, you might consider the Nightfever model, or offer some other kind of Prayer Experience.

Focus on evangelising the churchgoers

Many regular churchgoers will fail to understand the need or importance of evangelisation. You may decide that your starting point is to raise support among the congregation before you start to reach outside. There are three Proclaim’15 videos touching on particular groups you may wish to work with:

You may decide that a formal cell-group structure will work in your parish. If so, there are several models available:

Other tools for deepening the faith of a congregation include Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism resources and the video sets from Cafébut remember that education alone may not be enough – parishioners need to be confronted with the challenge of taking God seriously. Some courses (e.g. The Gift) do include a step of personal commitment but a parish mission can help more people take that step, and help to run a parish mission is available from groups like Café and the Sion Community.

I’m a parish priest, but I’m not sure what to do.

Your calling is to be an enabler of evangelisation. Found a team, and let them take the steps above. Your job is to equip the laity – they will connect with people you would never meet in your daily activities. But also have a strategy for your parish with evangelisation as an integral part. If your resources allow it, have some kind of pre-RCIA activity, such as Alpha, running all year round, and some kind of parish “Connect and Explore” fellowship which can help regular parishioners deepen their faith, and also serve as a post-RCIA opportunity. If your parish is too small to do that, you may need to consciously focus on raising the commitment level of existing worshippers, following the pattern of Divine Renovation.

In your preaching, be conscious of the need to draw your congregation on a journey from membership to discipleship. You don’t have time to read a book, so try this short summary of Forming Intentional DisciplesWhen you feel the time is right to issue a more direct challenge, run a Parish Mission.

I’ve been made responsible for promoting evangelisation across a diocese, deanery or cluster.

Great! The most important thing is to resist the temptation to put on some “big event” aimed at unchurched people or non-churchgoing Catholics. Big events only ever work when you have an enthusiastic network of churchgoers ready and willing to invite their non-churchgoing friends to come with them.

There is value in having networking events for active evangelisers to support each other. The wider the area, the lower the frequency. A city might have a monthly gathering for evangelisers – a diocese might have a convention once every year or two.

You can organise regional events to pray for intercession – you can use the Proclaim’15 Prayer Resources, the Mass for the New Evangelisation, or the Masses on pages 810-823 and 1342-1345 of the British & Australian Roman Missal.

Above all, promote evangelisation at the grassroots level – most effective evangelisation is carried out by individuals and fostered by parishes. Promote all the small-scale solutions above and encourage your evangelisers to persevere. May the Lord who has begun the good work in you, bring it to completion!

Original Sin

Yesterday, I took part in a Radio Wales discussion to be broadcast on Sunday, prompted by the recent publication of a book.

Born Bad”, by Australian historian James Boyce, traces the idea of “Original Sin” and its influence on Western history. It got me thinking…

What is Original Sin? It’s a status that we have in God’s eyes. When God looks at the human race, He sees that we are all descendants of the Original Sinner, the first human who failed to carry out His will perfectly. We belong to an imperfect race – but God takes away our status of “original sin” when we are baptised.

How do we know this? It’s another way of expressing truths in the Bible which say we died through Adam but are made alive through Christ (Romans 5:12 and I Corinthians 15:22).a red apple clasped by open hands

When I was asked to make a closing comment for the programme, I said that Original Sin was a true concept, but not one particularly relevant in the 21st Century. Why would I call it “irrelevant”? It’s because in the past we have tried to use “Original Sin” as an answer to several deep questions, an answer that may have seemed plausible then, but can’t hold in the light of what we now know.

In what follows, we need to understand that there are some questions to which the Catholic Church has an official answer (a doctrine), solemnly defined by the authority of the Pope, and other questions on which we are free to hold differing opinions.

As Catholics, we’re free to believe that the Bible story of Adam and Eve is literal, or figurative. But it is a doctrine that all humans descend from one original sinner. Now that’s not incompatible with the theory of evolution; indeed, evolution proposes that for any particular trait which we regard as making us human, we are all descendants from the original ancestor with that trait.

Why do human beings sin?

It’s a doctrine that our vulnerability to being tempted (the technical name is concupisence) came into the world because of the first human’s sin. But inheriting Original Sin isn’t enough to explain why we sin – after all, the first human sinned, and Our Lord experienced temptation, even though neither of them were marked by Original Sin!

There are many questions for modern biology and psychology about “nature versus nurture” and to what extent our good or bad behaviour is driven by the genes we inherit. But the doctrine of Original Sin doesn’t allow us to claim that we were “born bad” – at most, only that we were “born vulnerable”.

Why is there death?

The Deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom asserts that “death came into the world through the Devil’s envy”. But there’s plenty of evidence that stars exploded, plants died and animals ate other animals long before humans were around. How can we make sense of this doctrine? St Paul affirms that death comes to all humans because of sin, and we need to nuance this reference to death so it applies only to bodily death experienced by human beings, creatures with immortal souls.

Since all the biological evidence shows that human beings are part of a natural world with a cycle of life and death, we cannot plausibly assert that the first true human to evolve should have been immortal on the basis of their biology. But if we believe in a God with the power to work miracles, we could believe that God wanted to give the miraculous gift of “never dying” to the first human. We could also then hold that God in fact withheld this gift because the first human wouldn’t live in perfect obedience to God.

In the fullness of time, because of our “happy fault”, Jesus died so that we could become members of his body and be more closely united to God when we are raised after our deaths – a gift even greater than the undying bodily life which could have been given to the first human.

Is it sinful to have sex even within marriage?

Discussions about “Original Sin” often get caught up with a very old idea that there’s something inherently sinful about the way babies are made within marriage. This in itself confuses original sin (which is a status) with the question of whether it’s a sinful act to conceive a child. But in any case, the idea that marital sex is sinful was never an official doctrine of the Church. Marriage between two Christians is a sacrament, and St John Paul II pointed us towards the idea that the bed of a married couple is a holy altar on which this sacrament reaches its consummation – a sacred moment indeed.

Do unbaptised babies go to heaven?

It’s a doctrine that infants who die before being baptised don’t deserve to go to heaven. But it is only an opinion suggested by scholars that God holds these souls in a place called Limbo which isn’t quite as happy as heaven. Pope Benedict XVI asked some top theologians to look again at this teaching and in 2007, their report said that we can believe that God does admit unbaptised children to heaven, but does so as an undeserved gift.

This case gives us a good example of how carefully we must express the Church’s teaching. Pope Innocent III taught that “the punishment for original sin is the loss of the beatific vision” – in other words, every human being born into our sinful race, because they belong to a sinful race, is not automatically entitled to go to heaven. It sounds like Pope Innocent III was saying that unbaptised babies couldn’t go to heaven. But the statement also leaves room to say that even though they are not entitled to it, God admits them to heaven as an undeserved gift, an act of mercy, a grace. In this Year of Mercy, perhaps we can comfort someone who has lost a child with the idea that the Church trusts in God’s mercy towards infant souls.

The only reason we can’t give a 100% cast-iron guarantee that unbaptised babies go to heaven is that neither the Bible nor the Tradition going back to the Apostles says anything definite on the matter – we can only extrapolate from our general knowledge of God’s love and mercy. Meanwhile, it’s right and proper that we do present our babies to be baptised because God wants us to work with him in the work of redeeming the world; every time we celebrate a sacrament, we do things God’s way, and heaven rejoices.

In summary…

Yes, we were born tainted by Original Sin. No, the act by which we were conceived was not intrinsically sinful. Yes, our bodies will die.

It was never logically coherent to blame Original Sin as the sole reason why we commit actual sins, but our modern scientific knowledge is beginning to allow a much more detailed consideration of how genetics shape human behaviour.

Empirical evidence rules out the idea that death (of plants and animals) only takes place because of the first human sin, and positing that the human body is meant to be intrinsically immortal is highly implausible.

Over the centuries, particularly concerning unbaptised babies, the Catholic Church has carefully nuanced its teaching so that statements which seemed to point in one direction are now taken as pointing in another. The very concept of Original Sin is therefore reduced to a status which a person acquires at conception and loses by baptism, but which has very little practical consequence when distinguished from concupiscence.

Born Bad? No – we are made in God’s image and Genesis assures us that we are very good.

Born imperfect? Yes – but we are invited by a merciful God to walk the path of the sacraments all the way to heaven.

May Feelings

Reflection for the May edition of the Catholic People Cardiff Diocesan Newspaper.

For the first thousand years of Christianity, not a single Catholic prayed the Hail Mary, let alone a rosary. The prayer simply hadn’t been composed, at least as we know it today. But we do know that from the earliest times, Christians asked the Mother of God to pray for them. The most ancient surviving text comes from the 3rd Century, and says: “Beneath your compassion, we take refuge, O Mother of God: do not despise our petitions in time of trouble: but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.”

As the Christian Faith became well established across Europe, monasteries were established everywhere – the Cistercians were a particularly strong presence in medieval Wales. Lay brothers, who had never learned to read, could not join in with reading the 150 Psalms. Instead they offered the Lord’s Prayer 150 times, using a string of beads to keep count. By the 12th Century, it had become common to pray the Hail Mary on the beads, and we know that English hermits had a rule breaking the prayers into five groups of 10. Lay men and women adopted the practice too.

At that time, the Hail Mary simply consisted of the words of the Angel Gabriel – “Hail Mary, full of grace…” and the words of St Elizabeth – “Blessed are you among women…”. By the end of the 15th Century, it had become customary to add: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

Legend has it that Our Lady appeared to St Dominic and taught him the rosary, but the first written claim of this appeared 250 years after St Dominic lived. What we are more sure of is that, in Lourdes in 1858, Our Lady was carrying a rosary when she appeared to St Bernadette, and at Fatima in 1917, she asked that many people pray the rosary daily for the intention of peace in the world.

In 2008 a young Spanish film producer, Belomásan (Santiago Requejo) decided to promote the rosary. He asked 50 of his friends – all young adults – to state a reason why they prayed the rosary and filmed them saying so. This video went viral, so the following year he produced another with the fifty young people in T-shirts proclaiming “I Pray the Rosary!” coming together. Each year since he has released an annual May video, each with a different focus – praying for the world, remembering the Pope, praying for priests, asking forgiveness – and by the time this newspaper goes to press, “May Feelings 9” will likely be revealed to the world. You can see these on YouTube by searching for “May Feelings”. More recently he established a social network to share prayer requests: www.mayfeelings.com

Anyone can be a Catholic in good standing and never pray a Hail Mary. It’s not part of the official Missal, though in the UK we do have a custom of including it in the bidding prayers at Mass. There are things we do because God commanded us to do so – praying the Our Father and celebrating Mass. But the best acts of love flow from the human heart as a freely given offering. Praying a Hail Mary or a rosary is such a gift of love. We don’t have to – but we can. So call your mother – she’d love to hear from you!

But is it true? Reflections on the Sellotape Effect

When I prepare a weekend homily, I take care to check my facts. It’s amazing how often a piece of information which I think I know turns out to be nearly right, but from a different author or source than I first “remembered”.

In this week’s homily, I assert that the more sexual partners a person has, the less strongly bonded that person is likely to become to each one in turn. This was based on a talk I heard in 2009 by Kaye Smith, using a powerful visual illustration with sellotape, and I see that an Irish chastity group uses a similar routine. One British newspaper picked up on this and reported it with great skepticism.

This caused me to wonder whether there was in fact good evidence for what I was going to assert in my preaching. Would this be one of those cases where a factoid is embraced by Catholics who “want it to be true” to support moral teaching? Finding the answer is not straightforward! As a scientist I cannot settle for “anecdotal evidence” – it is important to be rigorous, even though scientists are occasionally pilloried for “proving what everybody knows already”. Further, as a priest who has always been celibate, this is a topic where I am moving well beyond my own lived experience.

First, there IS good scientific evidence that within a monogamous relationship, sexual intimacy becomes less satisfying as the novelty wears off – this effect is known as habituation. This can be measured either by asking the person to comment on their experience of satisfaction (subjective) or less directly, but objectively, by tracking hormones known to have a role in bonding and pleasure, such as oxytocin and vasopressin. A key paper illustrating subjective habituation was published in 1995 by Call, Sprecher and Schwarz.

David Disalvo alludes to psychological research indicating that habituation also accounts for the higher failure rate of second and subsequent marriages, because subsequent marriages can never capture as much novelty as the first pattern of deep sexual encounters. See his book’s section Singing the Habituation Blues.

There is also research by Jay Teachman showing that a marriage is more likely to break down if the spouses cohabited prior to marriage, and more likely to break down if a woman has cohabited with more than one person prior to marriage. Other research broadly supportive of traditional Christian marriage has been gathered by Sir Paul Coleridge’s Marriage Foundation.

To some, sympathetic to the traditional Christian view of marriage, the stance I take on habituation – the reason why it is best to avoid multiple relationships – may seem simply common sense. To others, unwilling to be restricted by traditional norms, and prizing diminishing novelty above security, it may seem unduly paternalistic. Supporters of both positions might well be able to produce anecdotes – from couples who remained chaste until marriage, and from those who have tried multiple relationships yet finally succeeded in forming a strong bond. A scientific approach treats individual anecdotes cautiously, and requires multiple cases generating robust statistics before a conclusion is drawn. My view at this time is that the brief comment in my homily is not proven but is strongly plausible, and in the absence of better evidence, will have to do for now.

My thanks to Dr Foley and Dr Lewis for their assistance with this research.

Dementia, Faith, and Friendship with Christ

In a Facebook response to a recent homily, a friend posted:

People with dementia forget the relationships they have with people, eventually even close family members they have known for decades and meet regularly. Presumably a relationship with God is not exempt from this? What does this mean? I know that God will never blame me for something that is not my fault, and dementia isn’t anyone’s fault. How does faith fit into it all?

The short answer is that a person in friendship with Christ before the onset of dementia will not lose that friendship because of dementia, and a person who never knew Christ while they were of sound mind is in a similar category to an infant.

The long answer goes like this:

The importance of living in friendship with Christ, is that it is the key to spending eternity in happiness with God (a.k.a. “Going to Heaven”). We can’t earn heaven (Jesus did that on the Cross) and we can’t even make the first step towards accepting the offer of heaven (this needs God’s grace, though Pelagius didn’t think so). Yet some response on our part is needed when we are prompted. So what do we have to do to accept God’s offer of heaven? Different texts in the Bible point to different answers.

Matthew 25:31-46 (“The Sheep and the Goats”) implies that it all depends on whether or not you helped your neighbour when they were in need.

John 6:53-58 (“The Bread of Life”) suggests that only those who take Holy Communion will attain heaven.

John 3:3-5 (“Be Born Again”) says we must be “born again” of water and the Spirit. Some interpret this to mean baptism, though the Catholic tradition allows for the “baptism of desire” of anyone who had planned to receive water baptism but died before it was possible. Others interpret it as experiencing a personal infilling with the Holy Spirit (a.k.a. Baptism in the Holy Spirit).

Romans 10:9-13 (“Speak and Be Saved”) says that you must believe in your heart and profess with your lips that Jesus is Lord.

It would be wrong to rest everything on one passage alone, for God has given us the whole of the Bible that we may know His message. The Romans passage is key, for if we believe and profess that Jesus is Lord, we will become his disciples, and keep all the commands he has given us. We will seek water baptism, if we are not already baptised. We will receive Holy Communion regularly, because he commanded us to do so in memory of him. We will do our utmost to help our needy neighbours. If we fail to do this things, we will not be professing Jesus as Lord.

But two things are necessary foundations for any of this to take place. One is that the person hears the message of Jesus. The other is that they are of sound mind, at least sound enough to understand and respond.

Concerning those who never heard the message, St Paul says they can be saved by doing good according to their own conscience – “the law in their hearts”. This is why the Catholic Church has never said that all human beings automatically go to heaven (those who knowingly turn away from God’s law or who are of persistent ill-will may not), nor that only baptised Catholics go to heaven.

Concerning those who died before ever attaining the use of reason, the Catholic church is confident that baptised infants go to heaven and cautiously optimistic that all who die in childhood are welcomed by Christ, who affirmed children on earth.

What of those who, having lived an adult life, lose their use of reason? Here I am not aware of any formal doctrinal statements, so I will do my best to extrapolate what the Church does teach to cover this situation.

We understand that a person, of sound mind, cannot repent and choose Christ after bodily death. If a sudden and unexpected death befalls a thinking adult – as could happen to any one of us at any time – we receive a particular judgement based on our earthly decisions up to that point. It seems reasonable to say that we also lose our ability to repent and choose Christ if dementia reaches a severe degree, and this is no more unfair than the consequences of sudden death.

If a practicing Catholic is afflicted with dementia, they are only morally responsible for their personal actions to the extent that they understand what they are doing. Once extreme dementia totally removes personal responsibility, it is no longer possible for that person to sin. And since a practicing Catholic can receive the Sacrament of Anointing even though they have lost the use of reason, those sins can be forgiven. Canon Law also requires the priest to give the benefit of the doubt to an unconscious Catholic, so unless it is fairly certain that Catholic would have refused anointing, they must be given the Sacrament. This sacrament forgives sins. It is not uncommon for a priest to be called to the deathbed of a long-lapsed Catholic, and to confer Anointing, even if the person cannot communicate; the lapsed Catholic therefore receives God’s forgiveness before death. This echoes the paralysed man having his sins forgiven on the strength of the faith of the friends who brought him to Jesus (Mark 2:3-5).

I was once called to the bedside of a woman on a life-support machine and was asked, by her teenage children, to baptise her. They insisted that she had never been baptised but was a Christian, watched religious TV programmes with them, sang along with the hymns, and had had her daughters baptised. Now it looked like she would never regain consciousness before the life-support machine was turned off. Nothing in the Catholic rulebook for baptism explicitly covered this scenario. I could only baptise an adult if they explicitly professed faith, but this woman was now in the state of a disabled person who might permanently lack capacity to profess faith – and if she had been a child, could have been baptised on the say-so of her parents. I decided to go ahead with the baptism, giving strict instructions that were she to recover, religious instruction would be needed on how to live as a Catholic.

Coming back to my friend’s original question, how does faith fit into it all? In the Gospels, healing comes by faith. Often it is the faith of the sick person who approaches Jesus. Sometimes it is the faith of another – the friends of the paralytic, or a parent whose child is dying. Sometimes the Lord himself takes the initiative, raising a dead child or casting out a demon.

During our earthly life, that faith can only be expressed within the limitations of our flesh. Clearly, our immortal soul’s capacity to communicate is limited by being in flesh, and more so when there is some illness or deformity affecting the brain. When we die, our soul will meet Christ without the fetters of this earthly life. We can trust that God will be a just judge and will not expect more of any soul than was possible for its own individual circumstances. And yet in some way we will receive the reward of our faithful actions; there will be a greater kind of happiness for those who walked in obedient friendship with Christ, praying and receiving the sacraments, than for those who simply followed their conscience.

It is possible for God to overcome mental illness and brain damage, and communicate Himself to a soul in any way he chooses. But experience tells us that God will not often do this (at least in a way with external consequences), and so people of faith have the painful experience of seeing their loved one with dementia lose touch with their religious identity.

Ultimately, a key mystery of the Christian faith is that Jesus asks us to make disciples of all nations, scattering our seed on the thorny, stony, and barren soil. Only a few seeds bear fruit in abundance; yet the Lord’s work for us is to sow anyway. God chooses which souls are born in places and times which can hear the Gospel proclaimed. God chooses which souls should receive extraordinary calls to conversion (such as St Paul on the road to Damascus). Even those of sound mind can experience a ‘long dark night of the soul’ when God withdraws a conscious sense of his presence – this happened to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. God’s plan also allows those cases where the good soil loses its fertility through dementia, and personal awareness of God is lost until the soul awakens into eternity. This may seem like a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, but if God is the kind of God proclaimed by the Catholic faith, it is the only one consistent with the reality of the world around us.

Why I Did Not Sign That Letter

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