Pastoral Discernment and the Synod on the Family: A Medical Analogy

St. Joseph, Mary and Jesus, pray for families.
St. Joseph, Mary and Jesus, pray for families.

With the publication of the summary document of the 2015 Synod on the Family, the brouhaha about the synod appears to be taking on a new life. The most vocal people on both the liberal side and the conservative side seem equally displeased with the results. Father James Martin, well known for being sympathetic towards the liberal side, although I have never seen him specifically define his position, wrote a piece for CNN in which he undertakes to explain for the benefit of the rest of the world why some Catholics are so afraid of change. By implication he is explaining why the hard-nosed reactionaries in the Church have been so frustrating to good ol’ Pope Francis who just wants to extend mercy to everyone.

In the middle of the road, Fr. Longenecker insists on confidence in the Holy Spirit’s direction of the synod, while taking some issue with Fr. James Martin’s approach to the topic, and expressing some concern with the “internal forum” approach that seems to be a main liberal take-away from the document.

To balance out the picture, Fr. Z laments the ambiguity of the document, and considers paragraphs 84 – 86 to be lamentably adulterated by the liberals. However he also unapologetically crows over the “defeat of the Liberals.”

In the meantime, I am waiting for the full official English language translation, which I will read when it appears. Even the “controversial” paragraphs (84 – 86) do not seem all that controversial to me. They seem to be make it very clear that no rules or teachings of the Church have changed, that discernment and wisdom are as necessary now as they have ever been, and that this wisdom consists in knowledge of and obedience to the teachings of the Church.

Discernment is not an internal wrestling with one’s own subjective feelings of guilt or innocence. This might be the case in non-moral matters, such as discernment of a vocation, but in moral theology, how I feel about my situation is largely irrelevant.

Discernment is a quite objective process of looking at the facts of one’s own individual situation to see where it fits in with the teachings of the Church. If the facts of my situation are out of line with the Church’s moral teachings, then I must change the facts, i.e. change the situation, in order to bring myself in line with the Church’s teaching. I must go to confession, receive absolution, and evidence a “firm purpose of amendment,” which implies concrete steps to remove that sin from my life. Once I do that I can be restored to full communion. Until then I am out of communion, living in a state of sin, and therefore may not receive the Eucharist.

This is the role of pastoral discernment, pastoral “accompaniment,” in the language of the Synod. It is to help the faithful to examine their lives to see where they fall short of the truth, and to change their lives to be in accord with the truth. This is both mercy and justice. It is just because it acknowledges the truth of the situation, that it falls short of God’s will, and that it must be restored to God’s will. It is mercy because it enables the person to reform his or her life, and to be made right with God, i.e. justified.

I am not a priest or a marriage counselor, so you may wonder where I get off offering my advice on the process of pastoral discernment, and you would be right. Perhaps a medical analogy would be more appropriate, and better illustrate what I am trying to say.

Suppose you are a doctor in a primary care practice. A patient comes in to see you, complaining about fainting spells and a lack of energy. Her chart says that she is a 25-year-old female, 5’5” tall, 63 Lbs. Right away you know that that is not healthy. When she walks in the office you see that she is pale, lethargic and emaciated, but dressed to the nines, with perfect make-up and hair. After your examination and history you further know that she eats less than 500 calories a day, works out for an hour a day, has stopped menstruating, bruises and bleeds at the drop of a hat, has a heart rate of 45 and a blood sugar of <20.

When you ask the patient to rate her physical appearance she describes herself as slightly overweight and unattractive. She describes her health level as overall very good, with just few “tired spells here and there.”

The truth of this situation is that she is unhealthy and in imminent life-threatening danger. She doesn’t realize how badly off she is. Her subjective feeling is that she is fine, and that unreal perception is itself an ominous sign.

In a way, her feelings are irrelevant. The numbers don’t lie. She might feel like she is doing well, but she is wrong. Justice, or in this case objective truth, demands that you as a doctor do not play along with her illusions. She must know the truth.

She must know the truth so that she can be healed. Healing is a physical symbol of mercy. In order to say “healing” we must acknowledged that there is a disease, that is, we must have justice. In order to say “mercy” we must acknowledge that there is a sin. Healing then consists in slowly guiding the patient back to health. Mercy consists in slowly guiding the person back into justice.

The role of discernment in medicine is very similar to the role of discernment in spiritual guidance, I think. A doctor who says, “You are anorexic. You need to eat more,” and thinks that he is thereby somehow “healing” her, is going to lose his patient. She won’t come back. A skillful and caring physician’s job is to help the patient discern all the (often painful and humiliating) details about how and why they are unhealthy, so that these can be fixed. So for example, I said above that the anorexic patient’s subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to her situation because they are not informed by reality and so are not a reliable guide to the state of her health. On the other hand they are very relevant, because very often there are either the source of her poor health or a contributing factor to it. Part of the healing process is to acknowledge and address these poorly formed feelings of self-image, so that they can be more reflective of the truth.

That, at least, is my take on the whole question of pastoral discernment.

In the end, I am not a pastor or spiritual director. All I can do is pray, read and discuss, and try to give the best witness I can to the truth by my life. It is not up to me to implement any of this.

But I can pray for those who do have that responsibility.

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