Thursday, October 9, 2014

Sex and the Synod

Ron and Mavis Pirola who spoke
on sexuality at the Synod on the

I am anxious to get back to the history of Anglicanism and to tie up the reign of Queen Elizabeth so that we can move into Jacobean Anglicanism where the story takes on several curious twists and turns, but this Synod on the Family is just producing so much important news signaling some interesting developments in the Church’s History-In-The-Making that I need to give it the attention that it is due.
Ron and Mavis Pirola are an Australian Couple who have been married for fifty-five years and have four children and eight grand-children. They are co-directors of the Australian Marriage and Family Council which is an advisory body to the Australian Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life.  Pope Francis invited the Pirolas to be among the lay auditors at the Synod.  As auditors they do not vote but have speaking rights on the floor and were among the first scheduled to address the Synod.  They gave a rip-roaring talk about the role of sex in marriage that could best be titled: The Joys of Sex.  They spoke very frankly how it was sexual attraction that brought them together in the first place almost six decades ago and how it continues to play the central role in their marriage even now when they are in their seventies. 
The little things we did for each other, the telephone calls and love notes, the way we planned our day around each other and the things we shared were outward expressions of our longing to be intimate with each other.
As if that wasn’t hot enough for a room full of aged celibate males to take in, they became more explicit and continued
Gradually, we came to see that the only feature that distinguishes our sacramental relationship from that of any other good Christ-centered relationship is sexual intimacy, and that marriage is a sexual sacrament with its fullest expression in sexual intercourse.
This is great because it lifts the veil—albeit discreetly by today’s standards—from the fact that husbands and wives actually “do the dirty” and moreover it is an essential part of their sacramental life—a conversation to bring the churchmen down from their lofty intellectualized towers.  But they went far beyond that. The Pirolas also spoke about sex in more than its role in traditional marriage. They told the story of friends of theirs, also devout Catholics, whose gay son asked to bring his partner to Christmas dinner with the family.
They fully believed in the church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family,” they said. “Their response could be summed up in three words: ‘He’s our son.’
This has sent a legion of the neo-trads totally and completely out of their minds, admittedly not a long journey.  At the Synod, Cardinal Burke is “pained” by the proceedings.  Just as well for him, then, that he mostly likely will over on Aventine with his Knights by the 2015 follow-up meeting where the input of this year’s synod will be discussed and acted upon after a year of reflection.  His Eminence can lead the Malta-teers in practice sword charges against imaginary Islamic hordes, unless of course, he gets his rapier tangled up in that 27 feet of scarlet silk he likes to trail behind him.  Closer to home, our friends at LifeSite News are rousing the peasantry to take their torches and pitchforks and storm the Synod Aula by reporting the dangerous ideas being advocated by such figures as the Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny and Archbishop of Wellington, John Dew.  Archbishop Dew is a member of the Synod; Bishop Bonny is not. 
And the mob is arming.  Just check out the Katholic Krazies and their blogs about the SinNod as they have retitled it.  Their usual hysterics totally miss the point about what is happening because they want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that the toothpaste of the modern world can be put back into the tube of Ozzie and Harriet.  Would that that were possible, but we as Church are confronted with the task of how to bring the Good News of Salvation to a world that no longer follows the traditional norms of Christian morality.  And part of that evangelization effort requires the Church to re-evaluate its teachings to bring them into line, not with post-Christian culture—but with contemporary knowledge of the behavioral, social, and medical sciences.   Doctrine is not something static.  It never has been.  Our understanding of the Truth is something that develops through history.  It took the Church three centuries to be able to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity.  It took the same amount of time to articulate clearly the Divine Nature of Jesus Christ.  This is not say that the ante-Nicene “Fathers” of the Church did not believe either doctrine, but both doctrines required drastic paradigm shifts from the Church’s origins in a rigidly monotheistic Judaism that could not begin to comprehend God as being personalized in three distinct persons or in how a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, could share fully in the Divine Nature.  Similarly, the oldest stories of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary date from the fourth century but it was not until the 8th century that it found itself officially accepted in the Western Church and only in the 20th was it defined as an infallible dogma.  The precise nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist was a matter of debate until the 13th century at the Fourth Lateran Council and even subsequent to that definition, the doctrine has been refined by subsequent councils and papal teachings.  Truth is eternal but our appreciation of the Truth is evolutionary. 
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the threat of modernism, a heresy which undermines the objectivity of Truth, led to an almost total paralysis of Catholic theological scholarship.  This radically changed the dynamic by which academic theology “informs” the Magisterium and left the Magisterium on its intellectual own—a precarious stance for intellectual credibility at any point of history.  The work of theologians in the first half of the 20th century was at best ignored and far too often censured in what was a theological dark ages.  It was Pius XII who began to open the doors again to a dialogue between scholarship and the Church’s teaching office, but it was a very tentative opening and especially so in the final years of his papacy when Pius’ health issues gave rein to Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, of the Holy Office (today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) to take over doctrinal supervision unsupervised himself.  It was a dreadful time when such theologians as John Courtney Murray, Jean  Daniélou, Marie-Dominque Chenu, and others were silenced.  Even the saintly mystical Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was prohibited from publishing his scientific findings.  John XXIII, Vatican II, and Paul VI opened the windows to a renewed effort at serious dialogue between theology and the various sciences, but the negative reaction to the publication of Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae caused a reaction in which those branches of moral theology that dealt with sexual issues were frozen shut.  Theologians like Charles Curran, Margaret Foley, Anthony Kosnik, John McNeill, Jacques Gaillot, among others were censured by Rome and forced from teaching positions and, in some cases, even from their religious communities and priestly ministry. The frankness of this Synod—and the tone set by Pope Francis—indicates that the thaw is on and the Church is open to dialogue again with the world outside its stained-glass windows to come to a better understanding of human sexuality, human relationships, and human reproduction.  It is long overdue.  Yeah Francis.  You go Synod Members.  Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Pirola—keep on making love.  


  1. Speaking (as you did a while back) of wily Jesuits, I was struck, in the famous Fr Spadaro interview, by the way Pope Francis answered his question on "the development of doctrine". It comes to mind now because this is the 27th Week in Ordinary Time in the Church's liturgical calendar and that fact featured in Francis' answer. Here's the quote:

    "At this point the pope stands up and takes the breviary from his desk. It is in Latin, and is worn down by continued use. He opens it to the Office of the Readings of the Feria Sexta, that is Friday, of the 27th week. He reads a passage to me taken from the Commonitórium Primum of St. Vincent of Lerins: 'ita étiam christiánae religiónis dogma sequátur has decet proféctuum leges, ut annis scílect consolidétur, dilatétur témpore, sublimétur aetáte' (“Thus even the dogma of the Christian religion must proceed from these laws. It progresses, solidifying with years, growing over time, deepening with age.”)

    "The pope comments: 'St. Vincent of Lerins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning.The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.'"

    By the way, some have wondered about Francis having a LATIN Breviary. The Krazies at first rejoiced. But he's NOT using the old Breviarium Romanum. He's quoting the Office of Readings from the post-Vatican II Liturgy of the Hours (Liturgia Horarum). In fact, it's where he got his episcopal motto: Office of Readings for Saint Matthew, September 21 (a day important for him because of the confession he made on a September 21 when he was 17, an incident from which he traces his priestly vocation): the summary of the patristic reading by Venerable Bede reads: "Vidit sum Iesus MISERANDO ATQUE ELIGENDO". So why does he have that old Liturgia Horarum (published in 1972)? Because apparently he wanted to start using the new Office as soon as it came out, and realized the vernacular editions would not be out for a few years.

    At any rate, this "development of doctrine" is something he's been thinking about for a long time - and anyone who knows that the answer to an interviewer's question is in Volume IV of the Liturgy of the Hours in the patristic reading for Friday of the 27th Week in Ordinary Time - has been thinking VERY SERIOUSLY about it for that very long time!