Dialogue on the challenges of Christian unity


The Synod on the Family continues in and Rome includes quite a good representation from the major Orthodox and Protestant Christian communities worldwide. They are also churches that struggle with the same issues of how to teach on marriage, sexuality and family life. We read in the papers everyday how other Christian churches openly struggle with issues of inclusion and how to remain loyal to the teachings of Christ as found in Sacred Scripture and the various teachings of the Fathers or reformers.

They too struggle with how to address fidelity to traditional family values and understandings of marriage in a modern context where cohabitation, same-sex partnerships, divorce and remarriage and those who no longer see a need for Christian marriage abound.

As we have seen played out time and again at general assemblies of various Protestant denominations, there are those who want to preserve traditional teachings of marriage and family and those who want to reform teachings or practices to be more relevant in the modern world. This too is taking place on some level at the synod in Rome. The pope has called for a dialogue with “Parrhesia,” “openness or frankness.” No issue related to the realities of family life, marriage or sexuality are being excluded.

The fear of many Christian traditionalists is that any nuanced change in the discipline regarding who can receive the sacraments and who cannot, could lead to an abandonment of doctrine. The synod participants, Catholic and non-Catholic, are wrestling with issues that go beyond just a discussion of sexuality and marriage law but to the very nature of the Divine and what are the core teachings of the Gospel. Is the core just a deposit of unalterable truths or a Gospel that impels us to liberate humanity from suffering by a God that allows and sanctions change to reach this good end?

I think it is a great blessing that the Synod Fathers who will eventually give advice to Pope Francis are hearing the witness of married couples and the experience of ecumenical guests. Some of these invited guests spoke about issues concerning diversity and unity. Some spoke on the need to address many of the issues that affect marriages and family life in a more decentralized manner, using the local episcopal conferences. This would help develop more pastoral responses rooted in a more local understanding of the human experience in a local area. This would exclude any doctrinal aspects but would touch on local pastoral solutions to regional challenges in marriage and family life.

The voice of the laity, the view of women in the church, advice of ecumenical partners, can only widen the view and scope of the synod. Faithful Christians, whether Catholic or not, have a particular contribution to make in our modern world as various societal changes affect our families and married life. All of us have the words of Christ as taught in Sacred Scripture to be our ultimate grounding and guide. How to apply these life-giving words to our human struggles in an ever-changing world is a great challenge. Open and frank dialogue and interchange among the followers of Christ seems healthy and just what the spirit of the Second Vatican Council calls for among all the baptized. Not to mention that none who follow Christ are ever alone. We have been given the Spirit, which leads us to truth, a truth that will set us free.

The list of “Fraternal Delegates” are: Representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople — His Eminence Stephanos, the Patriarchate of Moscow — His Eminence Hilarion, Patriarchate of Serbia — His Eminence Andrej, Orthodox Church of Romania — His Eminence Iosif, Orthodox Church of Albania — Bishop Andon, Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria — His Eminence Bishoy, Syriac-Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East – His Eminence Mar Youstinos Boulos, The Anglican Communion — The Very Reverend Timothy Thornton, World Lutheran Federation — The Very Reverend Ndanganeni Petrus Phaswana, World Methodist Council — Rev. Dr. Tim MasQuiban, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — Rev. Dr. Robert K. Welsh, World Baptist Alliance — Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley, Ecumenical Council of Churches — Rev. Dr. Walter Altmann, and the World Evangelical Alliance —The Very Reverend Thomas Schirrmacher.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.