Historically, Church synods have sometimes been the occasion of acrimony. A series of rancorous ecclesiastical gatherings in the 9th Century culminated in the “Cadaver Synod” in 897, when His Holiness Pope Steven VII dug up the rotting corpse of his predecessor Pope Formosus, dressed it in pontifical robes and put it on trial in the Basilica of St John Lateran. Declared guilty of perjury and other offences, the papal cadaver was then stripped, mutilated and eventually dumped in the Tiber. In more robust ages than our own, ecumenical councils have provided the setting for name-calling, beard-pulling and broken noses. Judged by these standards, the proceedings of the recent Synod on the Family in Rome seem to have been positively civilised. Clashes of opinion on such occasions are only to be expected, however, and so, in itself, the fact that there were reports of disputes around the Synod should not shock.
Religious differences tend to evoke a passionate response. We see many examples of this in Our Lord’s ministry, which culminated in Him being crucified at the instigation of the religious hierarchy of His day. In the Gospel of St Matthew we find an account of a man sick of the palsy who is carried to Him on his bed. Our Lord horrifies the Scribes by telling the man his sins are forgiven. The forgiveness of sins is an indisputably divine prerogative. As His Holiness Pope Francis is reported to have said in a recent sermon, “God is a God of surprises”, and this particular expression of Our Lord’s compassion is evidently one surprise that the Scribes are not ready for. Rather than rejoicing at His mercy, they accuse Him of blasphemy.
Telling a sick man that his sins are forgiven today, in the current climate, would be likely to cause outrage for different reasons. The very suggestion that there might be any connection between sin and sickness would have most people up in arms. “How cruel”, we would hear; “How ‘judgmental’. How dare you talk about sin to someone who is ill?” The tyranny of the cult of sentimentality under which we now live means that a priest has to be especially sensitive in the way he asks a dying patient if he would like to confess his sins. Even the faintest implication that a sick person might not be guaranteed an immediate front seat in the Heavenly Court is likely to provoke uproar on a hospital ward.
The media reported some very strange news from the Synod in Rome. There were accounts of proposals being made for the Church to abandon all use of words like sin in connection with premarital cohabitation, or adultery with regard to divorced couples who remarry without gaining an annulment. As ever, we should exercise extreme caution here. The media’s main priority is certainly not the promotion of the Kingdom of God. As Catholics, we do not base our Faith on the reports of the press. Our Faith is founded on the word that the Incarnate Word entrusted to the Apostles, a life-giving doctrine that has been transmitted unchanged for two millennia, and which will continue to be taught, unchanged, until the end of time. Our Faith is sustained, not by reports from the BBC or even the Catholic press. It is sustained by the divinely revealed truth of the Gospel. And in the Gospel, Our Lord has very clear and unmistakable words about divorce and remarriage. He uses the word ‘adultery’ in this context without hesitation.
In the Gospel account of the healing of the man with the palsy, Our Lord leaves us in no doubt whatsoever about the main priority of His mission. Yes, He desires to heal the sick and to befriend the poor. But first of all, and most importantly, He comes to conquer sin, and to save us from our sins. Thanks to sin, we are all sick and we are all poor.
Saving men from their own sins is, for Our Lord, the highest form of compassion. It would have been easy for Him just to tell the paralysed man “Arise and walk. You are healed”. That would have been politically more astute, from a worldly point of view. Then He would have gained the adulation of the multitude without opening himself up to the charge of blasphemy.
But Our Lord is the Saviour and not a politician. He goes straight to the very heart of the human predicament, and tells the man: “Your sins are forgiven.” And the fact that the man then gets up, and carries the bed on which he has been carried up to now, gives credibility to Our Lord’s claim to forgive sins. It leaves the scribes looking very silly. Rather than acknowledging their fault in humility, however, these professional religious men plot revenge.
There is no suggestion in the Gospel that the man’s sickness was a direct result of any sin that he had committed himself. But Our Lord knows that all sickness and all suffering is ultimately a consequence of that Original Sin of Adam and Eve. That act of rebellion was a calamity, which sent fault lines ripping through the whole of Creation. And as Our Lord has come to make all things new by reversing the deadening consequences of Original Sin, He goes straight to the origin of human suffering: “Be of good heart, son, your sins are forgiven thee.” The man is made whole in body and soul.
Today, there is a frantic, frenetic effort to drive a wedge of opposition between compassion and mercy on the one hand, and orthodoxy in Faith and Morals on the other. All that matters, apparently, is to be ‘nice’, and to be accepted by the society in which we live. We are told that we cannot talk to people about sin any more, because that will sound ‘judgmental’ and it will only drive people away. The damage to the Church’s credibility from an internal culture of cover-up and dissimulation which has prevailed in recent times also makes the clergy understandably timid about talking about other people’s sins.
But look at how the Good Shepherd shows compassion. He goes out in search of His sheep and He saves them from sin. He does not leave them drowning in the mire of sin, with the empty assurance that everything is alright. He risks the wrath of the Scribes and Pharisees by forgiving sins. That is true charity and true compassion. And it is the very essence of the Church’s mission. When He looks at the sick man, He does not just see someone who is physically paralysed. He sees a wonderful potential for spiritual flourishing which has been thwarted by sin. His desire is to remove that obstacle so that the man is liberated and free to grow in the divine likeness for which he was created.
We just cannot have true charity or true compassion without humility. And humility means recognising ourselves for what we are. It means realising that, while we have been created in God’s image, we have lost the likeness to God through sin. So humility involves acknowledging the reality of sin, and the fact that we have all, each and every one of us, sinned, and we all need God’s forgiveness. Take this acknowledgement of sin away, and our efforts at compassion and charity become mere humanitarian activism, and that cannot save anyone.
So we have to be honest about sin. At the same time, we cannot expect anyone to take the moral teaching of the Gospel seriously if all we do is bang on about sin and the need for doctrinal orthodoxy. When Our Lord forgave sins, He supported this with a sign of credibility – the very powerful sign of healing the sick. This meant that when He claimed to forgive sins, He could not be dismissed as a mere fantasist or story-teller. People had to take notice, whether they wanted to or not, because His claim was backed up with a mighty miracle. And those with eyes to see acknowledged that this was truly the Saviour, Who had come into the world to save the whole man, body and soul.
And we must give signs of credibility to the Faith that is in us. Our generosity, and the compassion and the love we show to our neighbour, and especially to the sick, the poor and the elderly, must make our whole lives a sign of credibility. But for our good works to have a supernatural value that counts for Heaven, we first of all have to acknowledge our own sins, confess them and be restored to the Likeness of God in the Sacrament of Penance. Then we shall be spiritually alive, and we shall have something to offer.
The recent Extraordinary Synod in Rome marked the beginning of a whole year of discussion, which is set to culminate in another Synod next October, at the end of which the Holy Father is expected to publish an Apostolic Exhortation. Pray that the Holy Ghost will conquer the forthcoming deliberations, so that they bear nutritious fruit in the Church and in the world. Pray that the Church will speak in the language of Our Saviour with renewed energy and a life-giving zeal, so that the beauty of family life, matrimonial faithfulness, chastity and virginity are proclaimed with dazzling conviction and credibility. The modern world is like a parched wasteland thirsting for this Truth like never before. Pray that, as a result of this Synod in Rome, many sinners will be drawn to repentance so that through confession, absolution and conversion they may be raised up and set to walk again in the Life of Grace that was given to them in Baptism.