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A template for the synod

A few years ago we had this pope. He was very popular. First pope to travel a lot. Huge crowds everywhere he went. He wrote extensively on marriage, family and human sexuality. His writings, his example and his holiness changed countless lives, including mine.

Perhaps you remember him? Handsome guy. Charming Polish accent. His given name was Karol Wojtyla. Pope name: John Paul II.

I ask only because it seems we as a church have come down with a sudden, massive case of amnesia where our beloved St. John Paul II is concerned. Only last year, more than 7 million people showed up to witness his canonization in Rome. And yet, as our church continues to grapple with issues surrounding marriage, the family and human sexuality, it's as if nobody has ever heard of the man.

Perhaps St. John Paul II's best known work is a series of talks collectively known as "Theology of the Body." It is essentially a theological exploration of God's creation of man as male and female, and how our human bodies reflect our divine Creator. One of the central themes is that there is a language - and inherent meaning - in human sexual expression. Sex speaks the language of permanent self-donation, the language of marriage. And the marital love of husband and wife is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and His church.

Certainly St. John Paul II didn't come up with these truths on his own. The church has taught them from the beginning. To me, and to others whose understanding of human sexuality has been transformed, the beauty of the theology of the body is that he lays out in great detail how the church's sexual morality all boils down to love. The human person - each human person - carries the incredible dignity of being created in the image and likeness of God. Love means always looking out for what is best for that person - that image and likeness of God. And taking sexual expression out of the context for which God designed it always does damage, in some way, to the human person.

Of course, two paragraphs couldn't possibly do justice to five years of catechesis. I'd encourage you to read more. But the point is that the starting place for discussion is always these cohesive, underlying truths - the truths of the faith that has been handed down to us from Christ.

And yet, in the discussions I've seen leading up to and coming out of the Synod of Bishops on the family, you would think that we were starting from scratch. I have seen no mention, even, of the beauty of God's plan, or the damage wrought when we abandon it and take matters into our own hands. What I am seeing instead is a lot of talk about "eliminating exclusionary languages" and "embracing complex situations."

There is discussion of practical situations that people and families find themselves in, and practical ways to deal with those situations. But I see scant attention paid to the underlying truths that should inform those decisions. The discussion of doctrine seems to revolve primarily around "where is the line between doctrine and discipline?" and "how far can we cut into the doctrine without formally changing it?"

Pope Francis, God bless him, has repeatedly made it clear that doctrine cannot be changed. But I don't see anybody delving into the content of that doctrine, and how it can impart the mercy that everybody acknowledges needs to be applied in abundance to people in "irregular situations."

And yet, the truths explained in the theology of the body impact directly on each "irregular situation" - divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, polygamy - that the synod is wrestling with.

It's not just that they aren't referring back to St. John Paul II, which is a great loss in itself, as the cohesiveness of his presentation would do a lot to unite the fragmented discussion I'm seeing. But in my reading of the reports coming out of the synod, I am seeing far too little acknowledgement of the Christ to whom St. John Paul II was leading us - the One on whom our church is built.

Please do not read this as some kind of unfavorable comparison between Popes John Paul II and Francis. It is not. Different popes have different gifts, and we need all of them. Pope Francis has brought his own marvelous charism to the church. But when a recent pope has written extensively and beautifully about the Gospel message on the family, it seems odd to hear nothing whatsoever about those insights in a synod on that very subject.

The focus of many of the cardinals seems to be on mercy. And mercy is, of course, very important. I doubt that there is a single person reading this who does not know and love a Catholic in an "irregular" situation involving divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, homosexuality or some other issue. We all see so much good in our loved ones, and we would love to see them reconciled with the church. But while talk about "open doors" and "welcoming" is very important, it is incomplete unless we are sharing with them the full message of the love of Jesus Christ and the reasons for the doctrines that we believe flow directly from Him and His Spirit.

St. John Paul II gave us a masterful template for that. I wish somebody at the Vatican would dig it out and start using it again.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We're On a Mission from God and Real Love.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015