On October 4 of this year Pope Francis will convene the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Synods of Bishops are one of the results of the Second Vatican Council; the purpose of the Synodal process is to provide the Vatican with input and guidance from all the Bishops of the Church. The issues that the Synod of Bishops will discuss in October are also the results of the Second Vatican Council.
When Vatican II began in 1962 the Bishops in the western world were deeply concerned with the steadily falling numbers of Catholics attending Mass on a regular basis and the steadily falling numbers of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Among the issues that were judged to be contributors to the decline in participation in Catholicism was the Church’s lack of attention to divorced and remarried Catholics.
The attempts by the Bishops attending the Second Vatican Council to deal with this issue were opposed vehemently by the Vatican bureaucracy. At the time, the Church’s stance toward the divorced and remarried reflected the static, rigorist ethics of the Nineteenth Century. Due to Pope John XXIII’s untimely death, and Paul VI’s unwillingness to oppose the Roman Curia, no progress was made toward resolving the dilemma that divorced and remarried Catholics faced when they desired to participate in the Church’s sacramental life.
The dilemma remains today; it is a dilemma created by two opposing ethical principles, both of which are authentically Catholic. On the one hand, marriage is a sacramental union intended to be a lifelong partnership of mutual love and fidelity; when such a union ends in divorce, remarriage is permissible only after an annulment is granted. On the other hand, faithful Catholics who are struggling with the difficulties entailed in divorce deserve the Church’s acceptance and pastoral care; to deny such would be to deny a central aspect of the Church’s mission: the sanctification of the faithful.
The situation in the Church today is the result of the Council Fathers’ inability to enact the reform they desired. Consequently, we have two competing sets of ethics in the Church. The static, rigorist ethics of the Nineteenth Century now co-exists with an Utopian ethics from the 1960’s. The former sets a standard of ethical performance that is all but impossible to achieve and the latter sets a standard that is all but impossible to fail to achieve.
The conflict in this Sunday’s Gospel between the Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples has the appearance of being about faith, but it was actually about two opposing sets of ethics. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat their meals with hands profaned by daily activities?” (Mark 7:5) Ostensibly, their question was about observance of the Law of Moses. The author of Mark’s Gospel provided his gentile readers with some of the background information that explained the Hebrew kashrut laws. (Mark 7:3-4)
During Jesus’ lifetime urban Jews had both the time and wealth to follow a very strict observance of the kashrut laws; by contrast, rural Jews had neither leisure time nor wealth. Two observances of the kashrut laws developed, a strict observance practiced by city dwellers and a more relaxed observance practiced by rural villagers and farmers. The Pharisees and scribes in this Sunday’s Gospel were city dwellers who followed the strict observance; Jesus’ disciples were country folk who followed the less stringent observance.
The basis of this conflict was not religion, but socio-economic class. The urbanites were expressing their disdain for a band of rural bumpkins (Jesus and his followers). The Pharisees and scribes used a socio-economic distinction to accuse Jesus of being unfaithful to God, and Jesus found this despicable. He called the Pharisees and scribes “hypocrites” (Mark 7:6), which means literally, “impostors” or “pretenders.”
In the teaching of Jesus, and in Catholicism, faith always takes precedence over morality; faith is primary because morality is derived from faith. Jesus considered the practices of the Pharisees and scribes to be a counterfeit religion because it was centered on their self-righteous actions rather than on the righteousness of God. Sadly, in the Church today, we have two groups vying for ascendancy, both of which expound a self-righteous religion based on ethical standards.
All of us would do well to listen again to Jesus’ lament about the Pharisees and scribes, “By abandoning the Divine commandment you’ve managed to achieve great success in following human tradition.” (Mark 7:8) The “human tradition” to which Jesus was referring was an ethical standard; the “Divine commandment” was the obligation to love God and neighbor.
When the Bishops gather in Rome for the Synod in October the issues under discussion will be the ethics of divorce and remarriage; underlying those issues, however, are questions about the nature of religion. Each of us faces those questions on a daily basis. Is authentic religion accomplished by following a finite number of moral imperatives? Or, is authentic religion a lifelong effort to know and love the infinite God by knowing and loving our neighbor?
According to Jesus, one’s morality is an expression of one’s religion. (Mark 7:15) The Pharisees and scribes worshiped their own efforts and accomplishments; their religion of self-righteousness was manifest in an ethics that condemned anyone who didn’t imitate their example. Some Catholics today practice this same type of religion that allows no room for anyone but themselves; others practice a religion of self-indulgence that is manifest in an ethics that is entirely fluid. As vehemently as these two opposing religions are defended by their practitioners, neither meets Jesus’ definition of authentic religion. According to Jesus, a morality focused on oneself is a sure sign of a religion focused on oneself; by comparison, authentic religion is focused on God, and produces a morality of faithfulness and service to one’s neighbor.