Why family and marriage remain so central to the Catholic Church

Given the media attention around the Catholic Church’s latest synod on the family, with its rumours of schism, plots, and the self-outing of a gay Vatican priest with his partner, one might think that the whole event was scripted by Umberto Echo or Dan Brown. But its effects, which reinforce much of the Church’s teaching on the family, may prove long-lasting.

Despite reports saying otherwise, the Pope’s office has not been undermined. It is being used in a fresh, dynamic way, to give space to the complex plurality of experience and meaning about the spiritual and religious realities of marriage and family life. This is particularly relevant given the shifting social, economic, political and cultural circumstances.

The Catholic Church is a global reality, with roots in the cultures of many nations and peoples. It is a major provider of education, healthcare, assistance to refugees and other marginalised and vulnerable groups. It has a special and lasting commitment to the poor, vulnerable and displaced. So, the church’s understanding and approach to such fundamental social and human institutions as marriage and family will have impact.

The role of the synod

A synod has no real analogue in secular society. It is a meeting of bishops gathered to determine some aspect of the faith or discipline of the Catholic Church. No doubt such meetings will entail a fair amount of politics, but bishops in the church are not politicians or representatives, like elected members of local councils or parliaments.

Their primary responsibility is to preserve the truth and vitality of the Christ’s revelations, and the integrity, mission, and unity of the church. The bishops are also called to have a special care for those who are poor and vulnerable in and beyond the Christian community.

Since the second Vatican Council in 1962-65 international synods of bishops have become a regular part of the church’s process of reflection and renewal. The process is not only one of deliberation and debate but essentially one of discernment: a desire to discover and co-operate with God’s action in the community of faith and in the world.

A collegial way of leading

One of the most important and innovative aspects of this synod on the family is way in which Pope Francis, who summoned it, has listened and contributed. There was a free “space” for the debate and encounter, for arguments and difference. Yet, he has not let the synod forget that it is also experiencing and implementing a process of discernment.

However this synod is ultimately judged, it marks a significant change in the role of the Papacy within the church and the way it fosters the reality of “collegiality” – the collective and shared nature of the church’s leadership.

The synod was well prepared both in content and process by the Pope who skillfully opened up the theme in 2014 with the extraordinary assembly of bishops and a wide process of consultation. He combined this with strong signals that the church needed to review its pastoral practice in supporting families – particularly those who found themselves divorced and remarried and therefore formally excluded from receiving holy communion.

The Pope emphasised the need to promote the family and its privileged place is society, especially when under pressure from movements in the economy and the resulting social upheaval. In September, he also announced the streamlining of the church’s procedures for annulling marriages, or declaring them invalid from the start. This is so that people, rather than waiting for a length of time – years in some instance – are not denied their right to a speedy judgement.

An institution to stand up to all others

The synod ended with the publication of a final document, Part One, La Chiesa in Ascolto Della Famiglia (The Church listening to the Family) attempts to understand the diversity, energy, and importance of family as a real and necessary human and social good. It is not naive about the personal as well socio-economic problems that people have to face.

It recognises that “family” is also a changing reality with a wide range of expressions and meanings. Yet, the family is enduringly resilient and adaptable, especially in times of crisis: its bonds not only support us, they locate us even when we leave or reject them. An often overlooked aspect of the church’s commitment to the family is its perception of the family as the personal space or sanctuary from the intrusive and over reaching tendencies of the State. The family is the first great bulwark against totalitarian systems whatever way they manifest themselves.

The church has never wavered in its defence of the family, not in opposition to social progress but as essential to its achievement. In Europe and North America we have been experimenting with the practice and meaning of marriage and family for some time. It is too easy to dismiss the church as out of step – holding on to a simplified past rather than embracing a liberal, complex future.

If Pope Francis has changed the context, at least for the church, the synod has contributed to a deepened understanding of what marriage and family means beyond the recent debates in Europe and the West.

Apart from a comprehensive sketch of the different dimensions and circumstances of family and marriage life, the synod has also viewed it within a teleological perspective: what is the ultimate purpose of marriage and family and what is the final good to which they are directed? Contemporary culture is suspicious of such a teleological approach, but in Catholic thought it allows for a much fuller and less reductionist understanding of human beings and the societies that we are attempting to create.

In its final report, the synod offers questions and challenges which can only serve the much more sustained reflection that we all need to have if we are to create and shape a richer, healthier, human and social ecology. The synod submitted its report to Pope Francis who will use it in fashioning his own fuller response. It will be interesting to see what he does with it.

James Hanvey Is The Master of Campion Hall, University of Oxford, a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), a male religious order of the Catholic Church.

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Republicans and Democrats alike have love-hate relationship with Pope Francis

The visit of Pope Francis to Capitol Hill this week promises to be good theater. It also will lay bare some of the polarities of the political system in the United States.

In the context of American politics, which views everything and everyone in relentlessly dualistic terms – conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat – Francis gives both sides something to cheer. Conservatives applaud his condemnation of abortion. Liberals embrace his warnings about climate change, his attention to economic inequality and his advocacy for the poor, including immigrants.

Francis also gives both sides something to dislike. When the pontiff described free-market capitalism as “savage capitalism,” Rush Limbaugh characterized his views as “pure Marxism.” Congressional Democrats are uncomfortable with the pontiff’s denunciation of abortion.

As a professor of American religious history, I’m interested in the novelty of the pope’s first address to the US Congress, but I’m also aware this is not the first time that the Roman Catholic Church has intermingled with American politics.

Electing from the pulpit

Only three times in American history has a Roman Catholic been a major party nominee for president. Only one, John F Kennedy in 1960, was elected to the White House.

Alfred E Smith, the Catholic governor of New York, lost in 1928 amid a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 2004, when John Kerry was running for president, several Catholic bishops threatened to withhold communion from the candidate because of his pro-choice views. The bishop of Colorado Springs took the matter even further, arguing that American Catholics who voted for candidates who supported same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia or stem-cell research should also be denied communion hop over to this site.

“Anyone who professes the Catholic faith with his lips while at the same time publicly supporting legislation or candidates that defy God’s law makes a mockery of that faith and belies his identity as a Catholic,” the bishop wrote.

Curiously, although capital punishment is also condemned by the church, no bishop to my knowledge has advocated withholding of Holy Communion from politicians who support capital punishment. Similarly, although the Vatican roundly condemned the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, no bishop to my knowledge has denied the sacraments to politicians who supported the war.

An altered calculus

The elevation of Francis to the papacy has altered the political calculus somewhat. His advocacy for the poor, his attention to climate change and his criticism of predatory capitalism has shifted the rhetoric in a slightly more liberal direction. Sister Simone Campbell and her Nuns on the Bus drew the ire of conservative bishops for their campaign in support of the Affordable Care Act, but drew no reprimand from the current pontiff.

In his appearance before Congress, Francis is likely to hit on several of these hot-button issues: abortion, climate change, immigration, income inequality. But since the pontiff is appearing in a political context – and, more than likely, addressing issues generally viewed as political – it’s fair for American politicians to demand something in return. That’s the nature of the political process.

My suggestion would be that members of Congress demand that the Vatican stop shielding those complicit in the priestly pedophilia scandals. Although Francis has now established a Vatican tribunal to deal with sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic Church continues to insist that it should deal with the matter internally, rather than turn miscreants over to secular authorities. That tactic, however, has proven unsuccessful – witness the scandal surrounding Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, and Robert Finn, bishop of Kansas City-St Joseph, who was convicted of shielding a pedophile from the authorities in 2012 yet retained his rank as bishop until his resignation earlier this year. Finn is still a bishop, and Law lives in comfortable retirement inside the Vatican.

The pope polls well

One thing about Francis that politicians on Capitol Hill – or anywhere else, for that matter – can appreciate is his popularity. According to a recent survey, Francis enjoys a 63% approval rating, a figure that would be the envy of most politicians. The question is, how will Francis expend that capital this week? Will he press issues that some see as political, or will he frame them as moral issues?

If he does the former, he can expect to meet with resistance. Although six Republican aspirants for the White House are Catholics – Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, George Pataki and Rick Santorum – none has warmed to the pontiff’s statements on immigration, economics or climate change. As Bush said, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” If, on the other hand, Francis frames his arguments in moral terms, his sentiments cannot be dismissed so blithely.

As Barack Obama noted in an ABC News interview about the reopening of American relations with Cuba, “The pope does not wield armies. He can’t impose sanctions. But he can speak with great moral authority, and it makes a difference. And it certainly made a difference in this case.”

Randall Balmer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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What will happen when the Pope meets the Patriarch?

The latest diplomatic coup for Pope Francis I – whose papacy has been marked by an ever-more expansive foreign policy – is the announcement of an interesting development in relations between the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches, relations that have been more-or-less non-existent for more than 1000 years.

On February 12, Pope Francis – who will be on his way to visit Mexico – will meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill at Havana Airport in Cuba. Kirill is not the formal head of the world’s estimated 200m Orthodox Christians – that is his All-Holiness Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch, whose seat is in Istanbul, not Moscow.

But the Orthodox churches are effectively independent, national units with Bartholomew enjoying only a sort of “primacy of honour” over them – rather like the archbishop of Canterbury over the world-wide Anglican Communion. The Russian Church is easily the largest of the Orthodox churches with more than 80-100m members. Consequently, the Russian Church and its Patriarch have enormous influence in the Orthodox world, arguably even more than Bartholomew himself.

The Vatican’s relations with Russian Orthodoxy have historically been poor. The papacy was at loggerheads with the Tsars over their treatment of Polish Catholics when Poland was ruled by them. And during World War I, the Vatican feared a possible Russian victory over the Ottoman Empire, leading to a reinvigorated Orthodoxy and the creation of a sort of “Vatican on the Bosphorus”.

In 1917 it thought Catholicism could profit from the collapse of Tsardom and the subsequent disestablishment of the Orthodox Church but those hopes were quickly dashed by the Soviets’ “Godless campaigns” which were aimed at all religious groups, not just the Orthodox. The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not improve relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches – on the contrary, the Russian Orthodox Church has consistently accused the Vatican of proselytism, of trying to poach its own faithful, a not entirely unjustified accusation.

Bones of contention

So what will Francis and Kirill talk about? They will seek détente, a general improvement in their relations, but this will be difficult given the highly nationalistic mood of Russian Orthodoxy at the moment. As in previous centuries, many Russian Orthodox prelates are deeply suspicious of Western Europe – Catholic, Protestant and secular – which they see as an area of religious and moral decadence.

The schism between eastern and western Christianity, which originated in the 7th and 8th centuries and centres around the dispute over the nature of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but also in the Orthodox rejection of the Bishop of Rome’s claims to universal primacy over Christians, is still unresolved despite ecumenical gestures on the part of Rome.

Another issue between Rome and Moscow is the question of Ukraine. Rome is unhappy about Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and his assistance for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine which sections of the Orthodox Church have supported with jingoistic fervour. In the western Ukraine, the Greek Catholic Church, which – like the Orthodox – has a married clergy and shares similar liturgical practices, is nevertheless in communion with Rome. No love is lost between the Greek Catholics and the Ukrainian Orthodox.

Will Francis and Kirill talk about this thorny problem? One issue which they will certainly discuss and on which they may reach a measure of agreement is the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, though even here the situation is complicated by Putin’s foreign policy objectives in Syria.

“Old man in a hurry”

Pope Francis is 80 this December and has only one lung. He was elected on a reform ticket and so far has succeeded in sorting out the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank – and Vatican finances in general. He has started the process of reforming the Roman curia (the central government of the Catholic Church in the Vatican) and devolving power to local bishops.

He has other objectives, including re-establishing diplomatic relations with China and thereby achieving some sort of re-unification of the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association and those Chinese Catholics who lie outside the CPA and are therefore subject to occasional governmental repression. Vatican diplomacy also played an important role in bringing about the restoration of diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba last year.

He probably also nurtures hopes of an historic compromise between the Catholic and the Orthodox churches – and his meeting with Kirill may prove to be a step in that direction. It is, however, unlikely to lead to any radical change in the relationship in Francis’ lifetime. This schism runs deep.

John Pollard receives funding from the British Academy and the Scouloudi Foundation.

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‘Vatileaks 2’ scandal hinders attempts by Pope Francis to reform Catholic HQ

For the second time in four years, the Vatican has been plunged into crisis by the publication of books exposing not only the battles for power within its hallowed walls, but also the misbehaviour of staff members of the Roman curia, the governing bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church.

In his latest book, Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’ Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican, investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi lays bare the resistance which the Argentinian pope has encountered in his efforts to clean up not only the Vatican Bank (Istituto per le Opere di Religione) but also the wider financial mismanagement that has been endemic in the Vatican for years.

The first claims about financial mismanagement, this time in the Vatican City of which the pope is head of state, came from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó who was head of its administration. After his claims were made public, Viganó was packed off to Washington as papal envoy to the US. But the “Vatileaks” scandal really broke in January 2012 with programmes on Italian television that revealed the goings-on behind the scenes in the Vatican of Benedict XVI.

In May of the same year, Nuzzi published His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, which further revealed the in-fighting around the ailing and ageing pope, including the existence of an alleged “gay lobby”. Eventually, the investigation by the Papal Gendarmerie, the Vatican police, identified the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, as the person who had removed the papers from Benedict’s private apartment. After being tried and spending a few months in the Vatican jail, Gabriele was eventually pardoned by the pope.

But the scandalous stories swirling around the Vatican in 2012 and early 2013 undoubtedly contributed to Benedict’s decision in February 2013 to resign, the first pope to do so since Celestine V in 1294 (in his case, after only a few months in office). Though in his resignation speech Benedict attributed his decision to age and infirmity, by then he felt that the Vatican was out of control and he clearly had little confidence in his “chief minister”, cardinal secretary Tarcisio Bertone against whom allegations of cronyism and incompetence have been made.

New broom

The subsequent election of cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, less than a month after Benedict’s resignation, as the first non-European pope in hundreds of years, was the clearest indication that the cardinals of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church wanted change, a cleansing of the Augean Stables and a substantial reform of the Roman curia.

This is indeed the programme on which Francis I has embarked. So far, he has had notable success in making the Vatican Bank more accountable to both the Vatican and European financial authorities and ridding it of dubious accounts whose holders used them for the purposes of money-laundering and even, allegedly, sanctions busting.

But the latest Vatileaks episode only confirms what has long been known, that resistance inside the Vatican to Francis’ reforms is strong and tenacious and that the bad habits long-established there die hard. Among his revelations are that a canonisation (the investigatory process leading to the declaration that someone is a saint) can cost over half a million pounds (US$755,000) and that costs remain out of control in some dicasteries (departments) of the Roman curia.

There has been unhappiness in Italy for years over the financial privileges and tax exemptions of the Roman curia and related organisations, not to mention the thousands of religious houses – some of which operate extremely profitable businesses throughout the peninsula. But these latest revelations once again cast the Vatican and its financial management in a bad light which, in the long term, will certainly affect the willingness of the Catholic faithful throughout the world to contribute to funding the headquarters of their church through the annual “Peter’s Pence” collections.

Feeling dog collars

The Vatican of Francis I is no happier with the second Vatileaks episode, than Benedict’s Vatican was with the first and so investigations have been carried out and arrests made. This time they involve a Spanish monsignor, Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda, and an Italian PR expert, Francesca Chaouqui, both recent appointments to Francis’ reform commissions. The Nuzzi revelations are regarded as being hostile to Francis, but it could equally well be argued that they support his cause inasmuch as they demonstrate the strength of opposition to his reforms in the curia and potentially isolate his chief opponents there.

It can also be argued that all this is simply a case of chickens coming home to roost. The fact that the curial bureaucracy is located in a sovereign state, the Vatican City, or in “extra-territorial” buildings scattered through Rome, that it is the servant of an infallible religious leader – the pope – and that the Vatican Bank, in particular, has been virtually immune from effective oversight has inevitably led to mismanagement, cronyism and corruption.

It must also remain a matter of scandal to many Catholics that the curia is largely staffed by priests (and a few nuns) whereas there are many Catholic dioceses throughout the world desperately short of priests to say mass and administer the other sacraments, ironically enough, especially in Latin America.

John Pollard receives funding from the British Academy and the Scouloudi Foundation.

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Why we should pay attention to Poland’s elections

The Poles are about to take a dangerous step into the unknown, and the rest of Europe may not be far behind.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 25, and the far-right Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) is going to win more votes than anyone else.

That’s about the only thing I can say for sure: precisely how many votes they will win, how many other parties will have delegates in the new parliament, and how the balance of power will shake out — all this remains too close to call.

The Polish political landscape is so convoluted that an outside observer would be forgiven turning away with a shrug. After all, at a time when the world is plagued by so many major crises, should we really divert our limited attention to events in a small east European country?

Yes, we should — and not only because Poland isn’t really that small (with 38 million people it is about the size of Spain, and nearly four times the size of Greece).

The main reason we should pay attention is because the political danger currently facing Poland is an example of a broader European phenomenon, and events in Warsaw will echo in Paris, Rome, Berlin, London, and above all in Brussels.

Which law? Whose justice?

I just called PiS a “far-right” party, but that’s a bit oversimplified. It’s hard to define them with a straight-forward ideological label.

A perusal of their program shows that on the one hand, the party calls for more social spending, higher taxes on the wealthy, and the re-nationalization of key sectors of the economy. One of the pillars of their support is the trade union confederation, Solidarity (the heir to the movement that toppled communism in the 1980s).

On the other hand, PiS is opposed to immigrants, gays, feminists, liberals, and in general all “foreigners.”

The party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, recently warned that refugees from the Middle East carry “various parasites, protozoa that are common and are not dangerous in the bodies of these people, (but) may be dangerous here.”

In the past he has said that his goal was to create a Poland “in which there lived only one Polish nation, and not diverse nations.” He believes that the Polish government of the past eight years is nothing more than a group of agents for Germany and Russia, and that the goal of that government has been “the disintegration of the Polish nation.”

Kaczyński has previously admitted that his goal has been to remain in power for life, and that he wants to create a “Budapest along the Vistula” alluding to the political system built by conservative Viktor Orbán in Hungary).

PiS advocates centralized authority, a strong military, and national unity grounded in Catholic values. Indeed, the second main pillar of PiS is the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and most of the Polish clergy, which remains extremely important in Poland despite the steady secularization of the country.

Not unique

This combination of a “leftist” socio-economic agenda with a “rightist” cultural and political agenda might seem strange, but in fact it has deep roots in Poland and throughout contemporary Europe.

We see it most prominently in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has proclaimed that “the era of liberal democracy is over” but at the same time has increased taxes on big businesses and banks, re-nationalized several firms, and established price controls on electricity.

Orbán himself has cited the examples of Russia, China, Turkey, and Singapore as models for Europe’s future online task management.

It has been possible (so far) for EU leaders to dismiss Orbán as an East European peculiarity, condemning his anti-democratic policies while assuming that he will eventually fall from power and return Hungary to the European mainstream.

If a similar regime emerges in Poland, however, it won’t be so easy to ignore.

The Polish success story – so far…

Poland’s economy is inextricably linked with Germany’s, both as a source of cheap labor and as a huge market for German-made goods.

Turmoil in the Warsaw stock exchange (which lists companies worth a combined 139 billion Euros) would shake markets everywhere. An increase in emigration from Poland, which has already transformed the linguistic profile of the United Kingdom with over half a million residents speaking Polish, would further stoke nativist fears there.

Even more important than these practical concerns, however, is a symbolic issue.

Poland has been held up as the EU’s great success story at a time when the continent’s reputation has been undermined by the Greek debt fiasco, the refugee crisis, and the overall stagnation of the European economy.

Amidst all these problems, Poland’s recent history could be cited as evidence that Brussels’s approach to integration and economic management can work.

The Great Recession of 2008 hardly touched the Poles: incomes have been rising every year, the overall size of the economy has grown much faster than any other postcommunist country (doubling in size since 1989), and a majority of Poles now say that their lives are good (compared to only 9% who report that their lives are bad).

Yet despite all these accomplishments, the party that has guided Poland through this economic miracle is almost certainly going to lose the elections on October 25.

Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, or PO) currently trails PiS in the polls by about a dozen points. The only hope Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz has to hold on to power is within a broad coalition of anti-PiS parties. As I have argued elsewhere, this would entail a government including everyone from social democrats to libertarians, which would be too ideologically diffuse to accomplish much. There’s a risk that an impotent grand coalition would only further alienate voters and strengthen PiS over the long run.

But why would those voters be alienated in the first place? Juxtaposing Poland’s economic success with the rise of a radical populist formation like PiS seems to make no sense. We might be tempted to see it as an idiosyncratic story of political dysfunction, without any larger lessons for the rest of Europe.

But such complacency would be risky, because what has happened in Poland is happening everywhere in Europe.

The middle losing ground

In fact, neither PiS nor the cluster of parties that could realistically join with them in a coalition government have won over anything close to a majority. As the chart below suggests, support for this party and its potential allies rose a bit over the summer but is now settling back to where it was at the start of the year.

Support for Kaczyński personally has remained stuck around 30% for many years, and he continues to have one of the highest disapproval ratings of any Polish public figure.

In a strange twist, his party is doing better at the moment precisely because he has remained in the background in recent months, insisting that he will not become the Prime Minister in any future PiS government (though no one doubts that he will be the power behind the throne).

Meanwhile, PO had the support of more than 40% of the electorate at the start of 2015, but is now polling below 20%.

No, this is not a story about the rise of the radical right; it’s a story about the impotence of the mainstream middle.

Respectable opinion in Europe (and beyond) has long revolved around an illusory consensus about the virtues of fiscal frugality and the assumed solidity of “European values.”

Social democrats like France’s François Hollande claim to offer an alternative to conservatives like Angela Merkel, but neither have managed to speak to the anxieties of the 21st century.

A self-satisfied conviction that an abstraction called “Europe” embodies democracy, tolerance, and social welfare has remained intact even as these values are challenged within every European country.

Merkel’s high-minded (and admirable) approach to the refugee crisis has led to a revolt within her own Christian Democratic Party.

Union leaders in France have warned of a “social explosion” because of Hollande’s efforts to “reform” and “modernize” his country. A recent controversy over his support for layoffs at Air France is merely a symptom of a much larger conflict.

The examples could be multiplied, even without crossing the Atlantic to consider the phenomenon of Donald Trump, whose basic rhetoric echoes that of Jarosław Kaczyński.

In all of these cases, the unrest emerges not from the marginalized or the dispossessed, but rather from those who have gained some modest prosperity and stability, only to see it threatened or undermined by the aftermath of the Great Recession (or by 21st century modernity more broadly).

Most Poles do feel successful, and they are proud of their achievements in recent years, yet they are nonetheless turning their backs on those in power.

They represent on a European scale a force that can be seen within every country: a population that is not wealthy or powerful enough to feel secure in these insecure times, yet one that can’t identify with any of the labels used by the left.

These people won’t be attracted to socialism, because they don’t think of themselves as “workers” in the traditional sense of that word. They see whatever success they have as the product of their own efforts, so they won’t support parties of the left that promise more aid to the poor. They resent the attention given to ethnic minorities and immigrants, because they perceive a battle over resources between themselves and those who “don’t belong” (whether because of perceived personal failings or because they are “foreigners”). Yet they are equally angered by the growing inequality at the top of the social hierarchy, by the corporate or financial elites who place themselves above the rules, above all norms of social solidarity.

Poland, as a relatively wealthy country (when viewed from a global perspective) that remains a great deal poorer than its neighbors to the West, provides a national example of this insecure, in-between condition.

The European Union is about to confront the consequences of that insecurity, not just in the aftermath of the Polish elections, but across the continent in the years to come.

Brian Porter-Szücs does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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What do Australian Catholics think of church teaching on sex and family?

Pope Francis has announced significant changes to the marriage annulment process for Catholics. The possibility of reform gained support during the Synod of Bishops in October 2014. Some commentators have suggested it was a strategic move by Francis aimed at “recalibrating” the discussions at the second synod gathering from October 4-25 this year, defusing tension between progressives and conservatives.

This announcement was met with a further round of commentary claiming that Pope Francis is a “great reformer”. Is this the case? What we know of Australian Catholics and their attitudes to reform reveals a more complex picture.

A key part of preparations for both synods has been an plausible commitment to widespread consultation. This includes the distribution of questionnaires to Catholics around the world.

The response of Catholics in Australia to the consultation ahead of the first synod gathering reveals two areas of agreement. Australian Catholics agree that the way the church is dealing with challenges facing families is problematic. They also agree that they want to talk about solutions.

Different views fall into three categories

Unsurprisingly, however, the research also reveals that Catholics are not unanimous in their perceptions of what the problem is or of where solutions lie. The differences seem to turn largely on whether or not there is any need for change in Catholic teaching on sex, marriage and the family, and if so, what kinds of change are possible. We have identified three standpoints.

First, there are those who think that no change to church teaching is necessary, but communication or education regarding the teaching needs to be improved.

Where people think the church’s teachings or their philosophical and theological underpinnings are not widely understood, they advocate more effective education. They maintain that the church is teaching the right thing for the right reasons: if people only understood these reasons more fully, they too would ultimately accept the teachings.

Second, there are those who think there needs to be doctrinal change, that is, a change to the church’s official teaching.

For example, a person may judge that he or she has an adequate understanding of the church’s teaching on contraception and nonetheless rejects the teaching. This person sees the church as teaching the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

Here, the implications may be both doctrinal and pastoral – that is, practical. If there are real objections to the theological and philosophical arguments underpinning moral teachings, then it makes little sense to simply reiterate the teaching and demand obedience.

Third, there are those who do not advocate for doctrinal change, but see a need to reform pastoral practice.

Prior to the 2014 synod, the consultations revealed a strong agreement among Australian Catholics that simplifying the legal processes of marriage annulment would assist the church’s pastoral capacities. Other areas where Australian Catholics also seem to hold this position include with respect to children of marriages deemed “irregular”, co-habiting couples, divorcees, single parents and couples in same-sex relationships.

Francis’ recent changes to the annulment process illustrate the kind of reform that this third standpoint can achieve. The consensus among Australian Catholics on this issue seems to have been echoed by other parts of the world and consequently by their representatives at last year’s synod.

Pastoral reform likely to happen first

Francis seems to be realising his goal of a church that listens. But it is a standpoint with both strengths and weaknesses.

The first strength of this standpoint is that it is more likely to achieve consensus because it doesn’t explicitly challenge a person’s own doctrinal position. Whether one is a so-called progressive or conservative on a particular issue, most people seem to agree that the Catholic Church should be caring, inclusive and merciful in its practice. Any reform that appears to achieve this is an attractive option.

The reforms to the process of annulment have in no way changed the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Both “progressives” and “conservatives” can claim it as a victory for their view.

There is another important, though perhaps less obvious, strength to this standpoint. If maintaining the global communion of more than one billion Catholics is a primary consideration, as it is likely to be for the pope and for most people in positions of leadership in the church, then enacting changes to practice along the lines of the third standpoint can begin a process of reform by affecting practice without the upheaval of a doctrinal revolution.

In light of these two strengths, any reforms that do arise from the synods, and from the pontificate of Francis, are probably going to be pastoral reforms, or reforms of process and practice.

Doctrinal reform may still be needed

That said, it is not impossible to imagine some kind of doctrinal reform. This arises from an apparent weakness of the third standpoint: it is doesn’t address possible doctrinal inconsistencies.

Though this third standpoint may look like it only requires a pastoral response to find ways to act in a merciful and inclusive manner, the very idea that the church should be merciful and inclusive in a pastoral sense may require a reconsideration of doctrinal assumptions.

Effectively, the third standpoint could be claiming that the church is teaching the right thing according to one set of right reasons (such as natural law), but that the church may be doing the wrong thing according to another set of right reasons (Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful; Luke 6:36). Which reasons should hold sway and how the conflict should be resolved are doctrinal issues that will have practical consequences.

So, the kind of radical change to church doctrine that the second standpoint advocates seems unlikely. And yet, because the pastoral reforms of the third standpoint can bring implicit doctrinal tensions to the fore, they may also open a door to deeper discussions about doctrinal reform. And this is a conversation in which Australian Catholics seem to want to be heard.

Natalie Lindner L’Huillier is a member of the Australian Labor Party.

David Kirchhoffer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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