Over the last several weeks, a Roman Catholic synod of selected cardinals, bishops, and archbishops from around the world has met in Rome. The synod addressed several controversial topics related to Roman Catholic teaching about the family, e.g., same-sex marriage, the ban on divorced persons who have remarried without an annulment of their prior marriage receiving Holy Communion, and who has the authority to forgive a woman for the sin of having had an abortion.
Those topics reveal the real gulf that separates Roman Catholicism from progressive Christianity.
Strictly theological issues that people were once willing to fight to the death to defend (or oppose) are now sidelined, e.g., the correct formulation of the relationship between Jesus and God. Revealingly, the Episcopal Church and the Orthodox Church are moving toward agreement to adapt the version of the Nicene Creed that states the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and not the Father and Son. The conversation has attracted little notice and, apart from a handful of theological zealots on both sides, not generated much of a response beyond a yawn.
The sidelining of theological issues represents the inroads of scientific thinking and post-modernism. People are increasingly aware that theological statements are at best human efforts to encapsulate the ineffable and infinite in finite, human terms of reference.
Instead, the real issues that separate people today are ethical and ecclesiological. The latter, which include the ordination of women, clerical celibacy, and open communion, constitute barriers that limit participation, impose artificial limits, and exclude people. In a world increasingly committed to justice, all of these policies evoke strong opposition.
Ethical issues, among which are same-sex marriage, abortion, and the status of divorced persons, also represent sharp divides between contemporary followers of Jesus. One of the attendees, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is from Guinea and leads the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, told the synod, “What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today.” The Cardinal's comment that expresses an obviously heated rhetorical excess underscores the breadth of ethical divides.
Why is there this tremendous difference between disinterest and lack of passion about strictly theological issue and concurrent the interest and energy invested in ethical and ecclesiological issues?
I have two answers. First, in the twenty-first century, diminishing numbers of people accept revelation as a definitive, exclusive source of knowledge. Revelation in this context also connotes the Roman Catholic Church's teaching magisterium, which posits the Church's authority to speak definitively on behalf of God. Spiritual insights stand alongside knowledge and information gained from other perspectives, such as the scientific and historical. Unlike strictly theological issues, these complementary perspectives can have much to say about ethical and ecclesiological issues.
For example, a person's sexual orientation is not a matter of choice but birth. Defining the precise moment at which life begins is impossible; no evidence exists for ensoulment (God putting a soul into the new cell at a moment an egg is fertilized). Ergo, abortion is not and cannot be, by definition, murder. Women and men differ because of their sex but are in all other respects are the same. Arguing that an ordained male can represent Christ in a way impossible for a female to emulate is nonsensical, trivializing the priestly role as one defined by gender.
Second, institutions and humans too often prefer judgment to mercy. Pope Francis is calling the Roman Catholic Church to return to Jesus' thematic emphasis that mercy trumps judgment. Progressive Christians – at least theoretically – try to incorporate that theme in their ethics and ecclesiology. Twentieth century German-American theologian Paul Tillich argued that Christianity has a continuing need for reformation (his Protestant principle) precisely because of our human proclivity for judgment and our expanding knowledge base.
I'm not optimistic about the odds of the Roman Catholic Church undergoing significant internal reformation in my lifetime. I see their current struggles as a reminder that I too live in a glass house: instead of throwing stones, may God always help me to embody mercy rather than judgment.