The weather has been ambivalent these last few days in Rome: rain and sun have alternated in the patient Roman skies, to the confusion of fellow Roman citizens. Not less confusing should also appear the landscape offered by differing camps inside the Catholic Church, battling for the defense of the family institution but from different perspectives and points of view. The occasion for this struggle is the celebration of the Synod of the Bishops with the family as the main theme.
The Synod opened on Sunday, October 4, with a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. But already a few days earlier, the key players (some highly unexpected) had began their opening moves. On October 1, the Holy Father had promulgated his message for the World Day of the migrants and refugees. In this message, as in many other homilies and speeches of Pope Francis, he has returned to one of the main themes of his pontificate: the Gospel of mercy. This catch phrase, “the Gospel of mercy,” will be the leit motif of the days to come and will have to face some unpredictable turns when faced with the question: what are the boundaries of this mercy?
I am not sure if Pope Francis had that difficult question in mind when he had to confront a bizarre report in the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera on Saturday, October 3. A theologian working at the Congregation for Doctrine of Faith, a theology professor in the Università Gregoriana and in the Regina Apostolorum University (the first managed by the Jesuits and the second by the Legionaries of Christ), has confessed to the Italian newspaper of being gay and having a partner. In this declaration, Msgr Krzysztof Charamsa, a 43 years old polish priest, has rejected Church teaching about celibacy and homosexuality using strong words and argumentations. He has argued that even homosexuals need family and family life and he invited the Church to rethink its teachings on this topic.
Now, for some, it may come as a surprise to discover that a priest is living a homosexual lifestyle, but in the case of Monsignor Charamsa the problem is certainly different, being a theologian in the spotlight and someone who once worked under Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. And all of this at the vigil of a Synod where consideration of issues concerning the LGBT worldwide community would have been one of the “hot topics.” I can imagine that Pope Francis would have thought it strange, even suspicious, that this Monsignor has waited years before revealing his secret and deciding to make this move only the day before the beginning of this important ecclesiastical event. And so the question persists: what are the boundaries of the Gospel of mercy? How do we answer people like Monsignor Charamsa and the many others like him? If we may be worried to answer such complicated and delicate questions, Pope Francis is certainly not. Even if he knows that people will try to pull him to one side or the other, the Pope will continue to promote the Gospel of mercy to meet those situations of discomfort and trouble that are so common in the life of millions in today’s world.
The Pope did not answer Msgr Charamsa directly, but on the same day of the declaration of the Polish priest, the Pontiff delivered a speech during a vigil for the Synod for the family. In this speech Pope Francis has affirmed:
“Let us set out once more from Nazareth for a Synod which, more than speaking about the family, can learn from the family, readily acknowledging its dignity, its strength and its value, despite all its problems and difficulties. In the ‘Galilee of the nations’ of our own time, we will rediscover the richness and strength of a Church which is a mother, ever capable of giving and nourishing life, accompanying it with devotion, tenderness, and moral strength. For unless we can unite compassion with justice, we will end up being needlessly severe and deeply unjust. A Church which is family is also able to show the closeness and love of a father, a responsible guardian who protects without confining, who corrects without demeaning, who trains by example and patience, sometimes simply by a silence which bespeaks prayerful and trusting expectation. Above all, a Church of children who see themselves as brothers and sisters, will never end up considering anyone simply as a burden, a problem, an expense, a concern or a risk. Other persons are essentially a gift, and always remain so, even when they walk different paths. The Church is an open house, far from outward pomp, hospitable in the simplicity of her members. That is why she can appeal to the longing for peace present in every man and woman, including those who – amid life’s trials – have wounded and suffering hearts. This Church can indeed light up the darkness felt by so many men and women. She can credibly point them towards the goal and walk at their side, precisely because she herself first experienced what it is to be endlessly reborn in the merciful heart of the Father.”
The Pope, despite the strong media pressure provoked by Msgr Charamsa, has not abandoned his Gospel of mercy stance. He has continued to emphasize the need for inclusiveness and being welcoming in the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church: “The Church is an open house, far from outward pomp, hospitable in the simplicity of her members. That is why she can appeal to the longing for peace present in every man and woman, including those who – amid life’s trials – have wounded and suffering hearts.”
But this approach of Pope Francis has not met with general approval. Far from that. As an example we may quote an article of Giulio Ginnetti (October 3) in the news agency Corrispondenza Romana. In his article the writer invites us to read once again the Liber Gommorhianus by Saint Pier Damiani, in which homosexuality is condemned with words of fire. In the article in Corrispondenza Romana (a news agency led by Roberto de Mattei, history professor and one of the most well known voices of the traditionalist world), condemnation of the homosexual world cannot be more severe:
“However, if the society has changed its opinion and attitude towards homosexuality over the centuries, the same has not happened to the Catholic Church because it has always remained true to its unchanging doctrinal magisterium. In this sense, the Church has constantly taught that the practice of homosexuality is an abominable vice against nature, which causes not only the spiritual corruption and eternal damnation of individuals, but also the moral ruin of society, hit by a deadly germ that poisons the very roots of civilized life. Over the centuries, this teaching has been transmitted uninterruptedly and confirmed by the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the holy doctors and pontiffs.”
Certainly, on this topic and on the other topics surrounding the Synod, there is huge debate inside and outside the Church. We know that one of the topics where there is a stark contrast between Church teachings and the actual behavior of people is the one surrounding the world of sexuality. Centuries of moral theologies based on strong condemnation and scary warnings about sexuality has led to an ambivalent attitude regarding this issue: on one hand there was the exaltation of the value of this human faculty and its place in God’s plan, on the other a fear that probably stemmed from the awareness of the huge power that this human need has on people’s lives. How many books have been written to show historical events that were influenced by decisions involving sex at some point? They are countless. Sex, money and power are really among the most powerful influences in human history. I think that what Pope Francis is attempting a balanced view on this topic and to trying to include in the care of the Church also those issues that were previously somewhat marginalized: Catholics that remarry, homosexuals, the evident crisis of the institution of the family and so on.
On October 4, the Pope celebrated in St Peter’s Basilica the opening Mass for this complex Synod of Bishops. Meanwhile newspapers and commentators from all over the world have continued to debate on the case of Msgr Charamsa thus obscuring other news about the Synod. (See separate statement by the Vatican’s official spokesperson Father Lombardi.)
Pope Francis is trying to remain standing amidst the strong opposition that consume the two camps that are at play in this Synod (and in the life of the Church). The ones that try to reconcile the teachings of the Church with modern necessities and the ones that want to remain faithful to traditional Catholic teachings. We may say, Cardinal Kasper in one side, Cardinal Burke in the other and a lot in the middle. Indeed, outside the official declarations, there is a lot of distress about the emphasis that some sectors have given to sexuality in its century old teachings. I heard from several priests that, even if issues surrounding sexuality are certainly important, the place it was given in this discussion was somewhat exaggerated, because sexuality is not the core of the message of Christ. I am sure that even the headstrong Pope Francis is having a hard time in keeping the ship’s wheel straight.
In the opening Mass for the Synod, the Holy Father has emphasized again traditional Catholic teachings about love and marriage, marriage that is only possible between a man and woman. In his homily the Pope has tried to stop trying to run too fast on the left but in the meantime trying to move those standing too still on the right:
“The Church is called to carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions. The truth which protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds. ‘Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love’ (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 3). And the Church is called to carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; even more, to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation. A Church which teaches and defends fundamental values, while not forgetting that ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mk 2:27); and that Jesus also said: ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mk 2:17). A Church which teaches authentic love, which is capable of taking loneliness away, without neglecting her mission to be a good Samaritan to wounded humanity. I remember when Saint John Paul II said: ‘Error and evil must always be condemned and opposed; but the man who falls or who errs must be understood and loved… we must love our time and help the man of our time’ (John Paul II, Address to the Members of Italian Catholic Action, 30 December 1978). The Church must search out these persons, welcome and accompany them, for a Church with closed doors betrays herself and her mission, and, instead of being a bridge, becomes a roadblock: ‘For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren’ (Heb 2:11).”
Not an easy task for Pope Francis, to ride the contradictions and changes of post modernity while remaining faithful to the traditional teachings of the Church: serva mandata mea et vives et legem meam quasi pupillam oculi tui – “keep my commandments and live, keep my teachings as the apple of your eye” (Proverbs 7:2).
From O Clarim