by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris

Let us begin by defining our terms, distinguishing between "ecumenical" dialogue" (or "ecumenism") and "inter-religious" dialogue. The word "ecumenism" comes from the Greek word "oikoumene," meaning "universal." Ecumenism refers to a dialogue among Christians. Inter-religious dialogue occurs between Christians and members of non-Christian religions.

Authentic dialogue is an open, frank and honest conversation about the real divergences and commonalities that exist between one religion and another, between one Christian tradition and another. It does not mean that religious leaders gather around a "bargaining table" like politicians to haggle over doctrinal matters in search of forced compromised positions that undermine each religion or denomination's original beliefs.

The Catholic Church condemns "religious indifference," which holds that all religions are the same because ultimately they lead people to the same God. Religious indifference is offensive to all religions because it denies the uniqueness of each one. Moreover, the Catholic Church does not consider herself merely one among many Christian communities but historically the Mother Church of Christianity, the one and only Church actually founded by Jesus Christ on the rock of Peter and his profession of faith.

Fathers of the Church, like St. Cyprian of Carthage, taught that "outside the Church there is no salvation," ("extra ecclesiam nulla salus"). This is a doctrinal expression that has a long and complicated history, and many theologians still dispute its precise significance. Suffice it to say, that while, as the Second Vatican Council affirms, there are elements of truth and sanctification in all religions and Christian bodies, the Catholic Church believes that she alone possesses the fullness of the truth and administers the fullness of the means of sanctification and salvation. For this reason, the Catholic Church sees her mission in the world as the "universal sacrament of salvation," as Vatican II’s "Lumen Gentium" put it.

At the Ordinary Synod on the Family, "fraternal delegations" of Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians are present because they have received a special invitation from the Holy See. This, however, is not a novelty of this year's Synod because fraternal delegations have participated in earlier synods and councils, for example, at the Council of Trent, the Second Vatican Council, and the Extraordinary Synod held last October and of which the present Synod is a logical continuation.

Although the fraternal delegations do not have the right to vote as the Synod Fathers do, they interact with the Synod Fathers and with the other participants. They also may make formal presentations.

One of the key ideas discussed at the Synod is inspired by the marriage discipline of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians allow their adherents who marry sacramentally to divorce on account of human weakness (sinfulness) and then remarry in a secondary ceremony that they regard as part of a penitential process and not a cause for celebration.

Along these lines, the German theologian, Cardinal Walter Kasper and other bishops who think like him have proposed that the Catholic Church develop its own "Via Penitentialis" ("Penitential Way"), whereby divorced/ remarried persons may be reconciled with the Church in order to be re-admitted to sacramental communion.

The main problem with the Orthodox model and Cardinal Kasper's proposal is that, either wittingly or unwittingly, it undermines the indissolubility of the Sacrament of Matrimony. We recall that God permitted divorce among the Israelites on account of the hardness of their hearts, but that this was not God's original plan for men and women before Adam and Eve fell from grace in the Garden of Eden. When Our Lord Jesus came in the fullness of time, He taught that marriage between one man and one woman is an indissoluble bond ("What God has joined, let no man put asunder"). The Catholic Church, indeed no Christian community, has the legitimate authority to change the Word of God (Divine Revelation), to add to it, or subtract from it.

There are certain truths that are immutable; they cannot change because they are established as integral to the natural law and divine law. Among these many truths are the Catholic Church's teachings on marriage and the family. We cannot alter the very definition of marriage to accommodate the multiplicity of irregularities that human beings have created through weakness and sinfulness. At the same time, the shepherds of the Church have a grave pastoral responsibility to accompany individuals (spouses, children, grandparents, grandchildren) in irregular marital and familial situations, so that they can draw closer and closer to God and His Church.

This means that well-trained, well-formed seminarians, deacons, priests and bishops, with the assistance of lay people who strive to live out faithfully their marriage vows, must exercise the virtues of mercy and compassion in dealing with all those who find themselves in sensitive, irregular situations, and who experience a vast array of problems that weigh heavily on them, making Christian marriage and family life all the more difficult in our contemporary society.

Although ecumenical dialogue enables the partners to learn from each other, on the question of the indissolubility of marriage, Catholics have little to learn from either the Orthodox or Protestants. The Orthodox do not have a uniform policy among themselves and the main approach used by them is little more than winking at the clear problem of second and even third unions. Most Protestants have had a totally permissive attitude toward divorce and remarriage, as they try to finesse the Lord’s clear words in the Gospel. Thus, in this instance, it is our dialogue partners who have something to learn from us, not the other way around.

The Church has taken marital indissolubility so seriously that she was willing to lose all of England to herself in the sixteenth century. That historical example remains the challenge in the twenty-first century.

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