New world synod
In a few days, Oct. 5 to be precise, representatives of the world’s Catholic bishops will begin a two-week meeting in Rome that could shake and shape the Church deeply. Called an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, it could have an impact similar to that of the Second Vatican Council of a half-century ago.
Or it could turn out to be a cautious repeat of themes we already know.
The formal purpose of this synod is to consider “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” So far, it appears to be a serious effort from the center of the Church to look at the reality of marriage and family life as experienced today around the world. In an unusual gesture of interest in what we all think on this subject, a questionnaire sent to bishops last year for their input on the synod’s agenda was shared with the laity in many places. This was no scientific survey of opinion, but it suggests a broad admission by bishops that they need the voice of experience.
And the way that Pope Francis has structured this synod also indicates a desire to avoid rushing to judgment. Rather than one assembly, which both takes up and settles the subject at issue, this synod will first listen to evidence and testimony and then allow that work to circulate for reflection in the Church before a second assembly in 2015. The second session gets the hard work of judging what to do and forming a response in Church teaching. Even a quick survey of some 21st century challenges to marriage and the family suggests that the wisdom of Solomon will be needed in that assembly.
The separation of sex, love, marriage — or commitment of any kind — and childbirth is already a fact of life and seemingly destined to be more so in the future. We read in Chapter 1 of Genesis that “God created humankind in his image; …male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it….’” With today’s technology the divine blessing has to fall on individual sperm and eggs as well as human persons.
Twenty-first century fruitfulness can be obtained in a laboratory dish where freshly thawed eggs can be fertilized in a process called intracytoplasmic sperm injection, with the resulting embryo planted in the uterus of any woman. In other words, the human garden can be, and already is, planted and harvested somewhat like the way we breed animals. Of course the Church views this development with dismay. It separates the creation of new human life from loving acts of full human union.
The current estimate of people now alive who were conceived through in vitro fertilization is about 5 million. That will surely increase now that it’s possible to freeze and thaw unfertilized eggs. A young woman who wants to postpone childbearing but knows that her best eggs come when she is younger, can induce and store those young eggs for use later when she has her career in hand and meets the man who fits her more mature self. He, of course, will have stored sperm when he was younger.
Or she may not want a man around and merely picks her sperm from a catalog of technical qualities.
The resulting children may be a disappointment to whoever takes responsibility for them after all the planning that went into them. But this is nothing new. Hopes and dreams — and some dread, it must be said — have always been part of pregnancy and childbirth. But the systematic elimination of uncertainty, the attempt to control, the dismissal of wonder and mystery — all of that self-centered energy doesn’t disappear when a new human being is born. Will the child find what it needs: the self-abandonment of an unconditional love?
We are in a brave new world of possibilities that beg for fresh and honest attempts to understand how we might love today. In our Scriptures we hear God creating and sending us on our way to fill the earth with the image of God. We thought we knew how to do that. Our old self-confidence isn’t holding up. The Church at the center is responding with the calling of a synod. All of us need to respond with thought and prayer. We’re in this together.
New world synod