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A most beautiful risk

The celebration of the Synod on the Family was an extraordinary opportunity to deepen recognition of the revelation and to enrich the transmission of doctrine. However we shall not be able to do so with the care required of us unless we ask ourselves a basic question: is our understanding of the cultural transformations that have occurred in the field of sexuality and of the family really equal to the discernment needed by the Christian wisdom that the Church can and must offer? Many believers complain that they do not feel understood in the words and tones of Christian preaching.

Ben Crowder, “Family art” (2012)

Many complain of a lack of understanding and, as it were, a lack of love for the common human condition. The Gospel image of the Lord’s teaching and action, which indeed they have come to know through the Church, seems obscure. This perception of distance must be seriously analysed, with intelligence and with the affection of the good pastor who can listen and understand, to make himself heard and to follow the evangelical precepts. Words and actions must be found that bring the truth of the Gospel to the human condition in our time. These words and actions must be equal to the effective forms of life and experience in which the men and women of today find themselves making their decisions, in the realm of their affections, bonds and the family. In fact the perceived distance has something paradoxical about it. In her reality, lived and shared, the Church is certainly not foreign to the most common human experience. On the contrary we might say that her proximity to the affections and ties of families is virtually unique among the institutions of reference for human communities. This is moreover a recognized reality which is seems to be even more widely perceived in this moment of crisis. Yet it is true that the current ecclesiastical language at times seems too inflexible and in any case inadequate to convey the meaning of her relationship with reality. In other words the Church, at the level of the fundamentals of common life, does more and better than her own words and formulas are actually able to communicate. We should also take into account the distortions of the media and the prejudices of secularized opinion that do not help them to be recognized with clarity. The need to develop a broader knowledge of God’s word on the life of man, however, is indisputable. And it is exactly our task not to be satisfied with the lazy repetition of conventional and abstract theological formulas that subsequently encourage the working out of improvised and arbitrary pastoral solutions. Doctrine and practice should be elaborated along the lines of their clear harmonization. The kairos of today encourages us to find a decisive remedy to this perceived distance with the conviction that the Church lacks neither the wisdom nor the generosity necessary to give a new impetus to evangelization and pastoral action. The Lord’s word is clear and sustains us: “therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52).The urgency is thus objective rather than ideological: compared to previous epochs the new fact is that the family no longer functions on its own. The world culture is not favourable to it. At the same time, the structure of the family appears, according to all evidence, to be the crucial turning point for the future structure of human society itself. I shall omit to repeat the fundamental elements of the Christian doctrine of the sacrament of marriage but shall pause only to explain some of the core features of its human origins that are closely connected to its Christian form. It is obvious that it will then be a matter of going deeply into it and explaining all the necessary implications, in effect very neglected, of this relationship – absolutely traditional, in the doctrine – between the creatural aspect of the bond and the Christian aspect of the sacrament. A certain separation of the areas in which the Church herself has made discernments and given explanations (theology, canon law, pastoral work), needs to be, at the least, organically clarified and recomposed. As the recipient of and heir to God’s creatural covenant, the conjugal and procreative bond of the man and the woman is confirmed in its strictness and presented anew in its purity by the explicit words of the Lord. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mt19:6 and parallels). In presenting this word to disciples, the bond of the conjugal procreative covenant is therefore itself assumed in the definitive evangelical-Christological economy of the creatural covenant with God of both man and woman. This power of purification and redemption rendered explicit appears in the famous formula in Ephesians 5:32 which emphasizes the importance of this creatural mystery of man and woman which “refers to Christ and the Church”. The apostolic tradition has fully recognized the anti-Gnostic – anthropological and theological – import of this pronouncement that paves the way for its interpretation and actuation as a true ecclesial sacrament of grace rather than as a simple natural premise or external symbol of the New Covenant. This bond, therefore, is sacred from its creatural origin: and it is what Jesus himself authoritatively reaffirms. In addition, the doctrine of creation can illustrate, with the full precision and breadth desirable, that the human couple of man and woman is the beginning of all humanism in history and of every humanization in the world. Its recognition and protection by every people and tribe, by every nation and religion, is therefore a sacrosanct duty. Christian faith in this primordial (and founding) covenant must feel committed to the intelligent rehabilitation of its humanism and of its blessing. It is not yet the sacrament of the ecclesial testimony of faith but it is certainly an essential testimony of the good that is safeguarded in that sacrament. The history of the world and the history of its salvation are based on this covenant of God with the man and woman. Where it is active and fertile, humanism grows and the promise safeguarded by faith is supported and honoured. Where that covenant crumbles humanism stops and the promise of faith is mortified. The consigning of the human love of man and woman to faith in the Son Redeemer and in the Spirit of God’s agape that renews all things testifies to the irrevocable character of the creatural covenant. Furthermore it enables it to radiate the concrete evidence of the grace that saves us, even when we find we are weak and vulnerable, sinners and incapable, overcome by our weakness and betrayed by our own unfaithfulness. The revealed doctrine of the Creation is not therefore a mere rational deduction that pertains to human nature as biological science or philosophical abstraction conceive of it, within the framework of a prejudicial separation of the truth of creation from the economy of grace (a failing, moreover, to which not even theology has always been immune). A more profound theology of marriage, in this light, must recognize more clearly that the conjugal-procreative union of man and woman enters nonetheless into the sphere of God’s original blessing. In other words this creatural blessing is not in itself foreign or, even less, alternative with regard to the grace of (its) radical Christological redemption and of (its) full integration in the Church. The seriousness of this objective approximation to the sacrament should perhaps be more consistently recognized. Yet at the same time it should not be abstractly inscribed into a sort of legal automatization of the sacrament. There is no reason to despise and reject, from a Christian point of view, the creatural covenant of a man and a woman, in the seriousness of its procreative and family commitment, even when it remains subjectively and/or conjuncturally in a condition of temporal distance from or in a state of virtual approximation to the Christian celebration of the sacrament. The final report of the Extraordinary Synod fits into this perspective. It could be said that God makes no distinctions between families: the Spirit heeds the creature’s cries and the Church must be generous in confirming the grace received and the salvation destined, while proclaiming the call of the faith that must direct him or her to fulfilment in the recognition and testimony of faith. The institutional guarantee of a serious civil form or a proven habitual form of union between a man and a woman must be able to be appreciated as objectively converging with the goodness of the primordial sacrament conferred with the Creation (and also confirmed in the fallen condition). Thus today, when the man-woman couple represents a true and proper human question, a specific opportunity seems to be afforded to recognize and sustain the goodness of the conjugal-family form of the man and woman, when it is oriented in accordance with God’s commandment. When the man and woman want to rediscover their personal faith and are ready to do so, the Church naturally has the faculty and the obligation to ascertain the conditions for it and to sustain its fulfilment. There is no doubt that a greater transparency of this articulation between creatural covenant and ecclesial sacrament could dispel numerous prejudices and obstacles that obscure the call to the quality of the Christian faith which requires the complete fulfilment of and generous witness to the ecclesial sacrament. It must also be understood that the couple’s personal decision concerning the degree of their testimonial-ecclesial involvement with the Christian faith is a deeper and broader theme that cannot be resolved by a few pre-marital encounters, even if they squeeze in instructions on birth control and poetical comments from the Song of Songs. Let us thus attempt to widen the horizon. And let us give some examples. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; she shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). However let us think what beauty and what strength could be achieved, in the meantime, by a Christian word of faith that relaunched the connection between God’s creatural covenant and the mystery of the seed, of the woman, of procreation, of the transmission of humanity and of the divine meaning that are inscribed in the universal experience of being a son. This subject has been widely explored as regards the heritage of sin, but totally disregarded as regards the heritage of salvation. Starting precisely from that phrase born “of a woman”, reduced to birth “in sin”, instead of being preached as the way in which God decided “to give human life” to the Son who conquers evil “for every human being who comes into this world”. If we had to expound this implication we would have to begin precisely here: from the revelation of the mistreated chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis. Grace and salvation pass from there, from the woman’s womb. Do we have a theology and an anthropology of grace equal to this revelation? If we had one, a large and beautiful chapter of the theology of marriage where the connection of salvation and of birth from a woman would be central and available to us. However, at this point it would no longer be a theology of marriage; it would also be a Christology and an ecclesiology in which the woman’s womb – to begin with – would be a theological place. And further “what therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder”. The Lord’s words refer directly to the bond between the man and the woman, in the context of a discussion on the interpretation of the tradition with regard to separation. Nevertheless, especially if one takes into account the context of the revelation of Genesis evoked by Jesus (“in the beginning”), it does not seem at all inappropriate to deepen the relevance of these words to include the entire significance of relations involved in God’s act of creation. Not only should the man and the woman not be separated but neither should sexual difference and human socialization, family union and life’s work, governance of the world and custody of the creation. God thought of these elements in the beauty of their union and entrusted them to the covenant between man and woman. Where the intimate deepness of these connections – that are biological and psychological, and likewise spiritual and social – is lost or violated, the entire richness of the act “of giving life”, in the harmony of its many components, is destined to be frustrated in the collective conscience. And how could we sustain the whole order of human affections, the forms and energy, languages and knowledge that arise from the very power of this generative covenant? The union of man and woman is an elementary grammar of the human, whose deciphering is within the reach of us all. But it is also a complex syntax, full of fascination and enigmas which may overcome us and which must be explored and recognized with delicacy and respect. The call for the strictness in personal relations, which demands uniqueness and faithfulness in the relationship, together with its irrevocability as an event that changes life for ever, impressed Jesus’ disciples themselves. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). The conjugal and procreative covenant – physical and spiritual – is to be restored to its lofty vocation, which cannot be replaced by any other covenant of love, from whose power and fertility a new culture must develop. In fact, it is not by chance that our culture has become barren on the two fronts of the social bond: the generative and the symbolic. The complicity of a man and a woman determines the success of the whole history of the human bond with the created world: the lordship over things, the development of knowledge, the culture of work, the institution of justice, the reparation of the earth, the harmony of the habitat: all depend on their complicity. The man knows too little of the human without the woman and the woman knows too little of the human without the man. The mystery of the human is transmitted only in the covenant between the two. It is against this horizon that the new vocation and mission of the family is played out today, both in the Church and in the world. Like faith, the sacrament is not something that may be imposed. Indeed the divine commandment of love is something else: it is the authorization of a risk to which no one trusting in his or her own strength alone would feel equal. The grace of the sacrament is not an ornamental blessing, it is an effective strength. The man and the woman who are prepared to accept the challenge of a lasting conjugal and family covenant are therefore worthy of all admiration and every honour. The Church herself, like the rest of the civil community, must return far more to them for what every day she has always received from them.

Vincenzo Paglia

The author

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia (1945) is President of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He holds degrees in theology and in pedagogy and was ordained a priest on 15 March 1970. In 2002, the Holy See appointed him President of the International Catholic Biblical Federation. The first priest to have had permission to enter Albania even before the first free elections in March 1991, he is also postulator of the cause of beatification of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero of San Salvador. His most recent book is “Storia della povertà”.

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