In Rome, prelates prepare to debate the nature of the marital bond, the nature of the family in an age of “familylessness,” at the same time that the family of the faith, the Church, remains divided. The wisdom of Simone.

“Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication… Every separation is a link.” 

Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

Pope Francis in prayer.

Pope Francis in prayer.

At the end of September, the Vatican Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, was in New York to speak to the United Nations. His message, delivered on September 24, was of deep concern for the global situation. “Every region of the world faces the dehumanizing impact of terrorism,” Parolin said. Therefore, he concluded, “nations must come together in order to fulfill our primary responsibility to protect people threatened by violence and direct assaults on their human dignity.”

In short, Parolin, on behalf of the Holy See, was calling for a global alliance “to defend countries and peoples from acts of terrorism.”

He also affirmed — echoing Pope Benedict XVI in his much-criticize, deeply-misunderstood speech in Regensburg on September 12, 2006, now eight years ago — that “people of faith have a resolute responsibility to condemn those who seek to detach faith from reason and to instrumentalize faith as a justification for violence.” Parolin was also echoing the words of Pope Francis in mid-September on his visit to Albania: “Let no one consider using God as a shield while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression!”

The key point is this: there is a continuity of Catholic and papal thought on the matter of global terrorism, from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis and now in the words of Cardinal Parolin. And that thought is that faith must not be detached from reason, and that religious faith cannot be used to justify indiscriminate violence.

As this magazine was going to press, the Vatican took a further step. It announced on September 30 that Pope Francis — on the eve of the important October 5-19 Synod on the Family — is so concerned about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and about terrorism in general, that he has summoned his envoys (nuncios) from the entire region to meet in Rome to discuss a response to the crisis. The October 2-4 gathering was to include Vatican ambassadors to Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinians, as well as representatives to the United Nations and the European Union. These ambassadors were to hold talks with more than a dozen top Vatican officials, including Parolin.

A group calling itself the “Islamic State” — which on September 30 was fighting on the outskirts of Baghdad, capital of Iraq, and threatening to take the city — has declared a “caliphate” in the territories it controls in Syria and Iraq, and has killed or driven out large numbers of Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, and others who do not subscribe to its hardline version of Sunni Islam. Asked about the Islamic State last month when returning from a trip to South Korea, Francis endorsed action by the international community to stop “unjust aggression.” This “Islamic State” is battling Shi’ite-backed governments in Iraq and Syria, and other Sunni groups in Syria and Kurdish groups in both countries, as part of a multi-sided civil war in which nearly every country in the Middle East has a stake.

There are seven points to make about these events.

First, Francis and his advisors, like Parolin, are extremely concerned about the events in the Middle East. Despite years of war (including the 1991 and 2003 American invasions of Iraq) the situation of Christians in the region has almost continually deteriorated. The Pope wishes to protect the Christians of the Middle East, to end the terror, to bring about a situation of sufficient peace to allow those Christians who remain to stay and rebuild.

Second, the Vatican is seeking allies in this effort. This is what Parolin meant when he said “nations must come together.” The hope is for a united action of many partners, not the unilateral action of one power.

Third, all this suggests the advisability of forging some sort of alliance with Russia, a country with centuries of experience in the Middle East, rather than deepening the present confrontation with Russia.

Fourth, this sets the struggle in Ukraine in a different light. Ukraine, a beautiful country with a complex history which includes both openness to the West and connection to Russia, needs “honest brokers” to craft some sort of compromise plan for Ukraine’s inclusion into the European Union without NATO membership (which threatens Russia with encirclement) while retaining the country’s close connection with Russia. The Christian Churches of Ukraine could provide these “honest brokers.” This requires Catholic-Orthodox collaboration.

Fifth, these events make very clear that some sort of “pragmatic alliance” between Catholics and Orthodox, of the type we have proposed through our Urbi et Orbi Foundation, is important and urgent.

Sixth, the fact that Francis is taking time off from preparing for the Synod on the Family just three days, two days and one day before the Synod begins, to discuss all of these matters with his nuncios, shows clearly that, despite the importance of the Synod for the life of the Church, it is not an urgent, “code red” matter like this situation in the Middle East, which threatens to go global.

And, seventh, this suggests that the debate over marriage and divorce and remarriage and the admission of the divorced and remarried to communion, despite its importance, risks becoming a distraction in the face of much more serious matters.

In this context, I would like to recall a deep truth of our tradition all of us we once knew, but which many seem to have forgotten.

The essence of that deeper truth is this: human beings were not made, ultimately, for superficial pleasure, but for a mysterious, granite-like, joy — joy, as it were, beyond space and time, beyond words like “happiness” and “fulfillment,” joy in the myster­ious space where the abyss swells with the ineffable presence of the holy.

“Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude,” Simone Weil wrote in her book Gravity and Grace.

All human relationships may be “good” or “bad,” “fulfilling” or “unfulfilling.” But we judge as humans, not as God. And Christ, when he walked among us, told us that marriage, in its essence, is an eternal reality, perhaps filled with laughter, perhaps filled with tears, but, in either case, partaking of eternity. That is an eighth point.

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