Where Jürgen Moltmann Found Hope

Where Jürgen Moltmann Found Hope

I have not heard much from theologian Jürgen Moltmann in recent years. Presumably he is, at age 88, enjoying his retirement in Tübingen. Yet I was not surprised to see a recent report that he has been corresponding with a death row inmate in Georgia, Kelly Gissendaner, who will be executed Monday, March 2 for recruiting her lover to murder her husband, Doug Gissendaner, in 1997.

This New York Times article explains how Ms. Gissendaner completed a theological studies program on death row. One of her teachers, Dr. Jennifer McBride, put her in touch with Professor Moltmann, with whom she began a regular correspondence.

For a number of reasons I could discuss at length, Moltmann has been a significant influence on me and my study of Christian theology, which I have pursued either full- or part-time my entire adult life. It also happens that one of the most beautiful stories I have ever heard involves Moltmann, and I wish to share it here.

I heard the story from the Reverend Dr. Paul Wesley Chilcote in 2006 or 2007. When Chilcote was studying for his Ph.D. at Duke under the Reverend Dr. Frank Baker, he had the opportunity to meet Professor Moltmann, who was giving a series of lectures at Duke Divinity School. As a relatively undistinguished person who has been fortunate to meet a few prominent people -- some of whom became mentors and friends -- I can relate with Chilcote's excitement at meeting the legendary Protestant theologian. The story Moltmann told Chilcote is one I shall never forget:

While introducing myself to [Jürgen Moltmann] more fully, I explained that I was working in my doctoral studies with Frank Baker. He interrupted and said, ‘Oh, I’d like to share a story with you about Frank and Nellie Baker.’ And I sat back to take it all in.

Moltmann said that during the Second World War there was a German prisoner of war camp on the northeast coast of England. A young pastor and his wife served a small Methodist circuit close by. They felt called by God to reach out to these foreign soldiers in some way. They were filled with compassion and concern.

So they went to the commander and asked permission to take a German prisoner with them to church each Sunday – to share in Word and Sacrament – and then to eat their Sunday dinner together in their home. It was agreed. So Sunday after Sunday, a steady flow of German soldiers worshiped and ate with the Bakers in their home throughout the course of the war.

This world famous theologian paused, looked at me intently, and said. ‘One of those soldiers was a young man named Jürgen Moltmann. And I want you to know that the seed of hope was planted in my heart around Frank and Nellie Baker’s Sunday dinner table.’

The brilliant mind who gave us 'A Theology of Hope' in our time found hope in the humblest and unlikeliest of places. May it be so for each of us. And for Kelly Gissendaner. And for Doug Gissendaner's family.

 

Southern Baptists' Martin Luther King Problem

Yesterday, on the holiday honoring the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a tweet from a Southern Baptist seminary administrator caught my attention.

How nice! At a time when many white Christians in the South remained virulently racist and most of the rest were shamefully timid, these three Christian gentlemen welcomed Dr. King to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's campus in Louisville, Kentucky.

While thousands of Southern Baptist pastors vehemently opposed integration, the forward-thinking men of SBTS were on the Right Side of History.

But what do today's Southern Baptist leaders really think of the Reverend Dr. Henlee Barnette, the legendary Baptist ethicist who taught at Southern from 1951-1977? Probably not much.

Here are some thoughts I tweeted on the matter:

The SBC is justly proud of its academics, ethicists, and activists who prophetically denounced racism and called on white Protestants to repent of their sinful, discriminatory attitudes – attitudes that many perversely derived from the Bible itself. But how many of these leaders (and their proteges) survived the denomination's purge of moderates in the 1980s?

Henlee Barnette would not be allowed to teach at SBC seminaries today. So why, exactly, do Baptist elites want to celebrate him? Did he invite Dr. King to Louisville in faithfulness to a Bible he did not believe in and a God he did not know?

Barnette did the right thing because his theology and biblical interpretations were right. Southern Baptists can't have it both ways. Maybe the Reverend Dr. Barnette was right about a few other things, too.

For All the Saints (w/ Videos)

All Saints' Day has long been one of my favorite holy days. No matter how closely I have hewn to the church or how far I have wandered, I have always, at least in some small way, marked this feast day.

All Saints' is an important solemnity in the Catholic Church, but it is widely ignored in low-church American Protestantism. The mainline, middling United Methodist congregation of my childhood tended not to emphasize the day. As I encountered a more robust liturgical Protestantism in my student years (most prominently at Boston University's Marsh Chapel), I learned to appreciate the theology, comfort, symbolism, and continuity that the church's observance of All Saints' Day represents.

I do not pretend to understand with precision what "the communion of the saints" means, or "the blessed rest of everlasting peace" or "the glorious company of the saints of light." But it does mean something to me.

Several years ago, I made a YouTube video, setting images to a recording of the magisterial hymn, "For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest." I tried to thoughtfully select images that were true to to the plain meaning of the text, even if many modern hearers have reservations about the militant/triumphant language and the spiritual/material dualism. The recording I used, a performance by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, omits several verses.

The video below, taken from the funeral of President Gerald Ford at the Washington National Cathedral in 2007, includes more of the verses composed by Anglican Bishop William W. How and first published in 1864. The hymn begins about a minute into the video, but it is worth watching from the beginning in order to hear the Prayer of Commendation and the Blessing as proscribed by the Book of Common Prayer. The audio quality is not spectacular, but the images are poignant. Note the Ford children holding each other and their bereaved mother, First Lady Betty Ford. Note also President George W. Bush and three living ex-presidents (and their wives), witnessing to their faith. The civil religion and public display of devotion may trouble some. But I find it compelling to see great men and women bowing their heads in reverent acknowledgement: "All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia."

Here is the text of "For All the Saints" as most commonly sung in Anglican and high church traditions. Three other stanzas are usually omitted.

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor's crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Observations on the ERLC Conference

A number of people, including friends and foes of Southern Baptists, appreciated my blog post Monday night reflecting on the first day of this week's ERLC National Conference.

Thursday, I published a commentary for Religion News Service. But I thought I might share some observations from the conference that I was not able to fit in my column.

I watched many of the sessions via live-stream, and intend to go back and watch more of them. I believe this conference is important because it self-consciously seeks to set the tone for conservative evangelical teaching and witness on human sexuality in a rapidly changing (and, in many ways, objectively deteriorating, public moral climate).

Here are a few observations.

-Non-gay Issues. Some twitter commentary represented the ERLC Conference as a three-day gay-bashing confab. That is simply not true. There was talk about marital strength generally and pastors' marital health specifically. There was talk about the devastating effects of pornography generally and specifically for pastors. Panelists talked about cohabitation, divorce, intimacy in marriage, and other issues. The Rev. Dr. Albert Mohler even said that no-fault divorce threatens the family more than gay marriage ever will. 

-Tone. Some are noting a somewhat more gracious tone. Not just a lack of "ick factor" and crude, dismissive "Adam-and-Steve" rhetoric, but a sincere desire to engage, to acknowledge that sexual orientation is a thing and that gays are not choosing to be hardwired toward vile sin. And they quite explicitly condemned persecution regimes (including criminalization) in some developing nations. And they said gay homelessness among youth is a big problem and that parents should not shun their gay children. The Rev. Dr. Russell Moore explicitly rejected conversion therapy as counterproductive. Even so, some speakers' presentations and other speakers' life stories seem to reflect the idea that orientation can change.

-New Ideal Types. Substantively, the conference was largely the same ol' people saying the same ol' things. (I'm not saying this is good or bad – just a factual observation.) But they had two new-ish voices: Dr. Rosaria Butterfield and the Rev. Sam Allberry. Butterfield is a former lesbian atheist feminist English professor who was writing an anti-Christian right book and eventually got saved, later became a Reformed pastor's wife. She is being touted by the ERLC/TGC crowd quite prominently ever since she published her conversion story in Christianity Today. She's a kind and gracious woman who talks about how she learned hospitality and community among gay people. She says unbelief was her greater sin, not serially monogamous lesbian relationships. Sam Allberry is a Church of England pastor who is living as a celibate gay man. Perhaps because they rejected not only same-sex erotic expression, but also liberal church and social institutions, these two are being held out as the choicest new converts to the traditional/orthodox view.

-Youth/Demographics. A PRRI report published in February said that 43% of evangelicals 18-34 support SSM. But that's just self-identified evangelicals or people who self identify with an evangelical-denomination or tradition. That level of evangelical support is probably overstated. Mark Regnerus's data has only 11% of 18-39 year old evangelicals supporting SSM. His definition of "evangelical" includes people who both a) self-identify as evangelical and b) attend worship regularly. So basically, the conservative traditions and churches are holding the line on homosexuality pretty well if you do not count infrequent attenders or nominal identifiers. At the elite level, there are strong incentives to toe the party line, as Rich Stearns and other leaders have discovered. The ERLC conference crowd was pretty young, and so were a lot of the speakers. So there's always the question of how long they can sustain their opposition in face of strong cultural pressures and, increasingly, personal and familial relationships, that might lead them to change.

-Reception Outside the ERLC Conference Hall. It was pretty brutal. Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network tried very hard to be conciliatory, but basically the same ol' people had the same 'ol reactions: That in spite of a deliberate tone that was as conciliatory as the ERLC thinks it can be, gay people are not buying it. Gays still blame these attitudes for gay youth homeless, gay youth suicides, gays ending up depressed and addicted, etc. Might it actually be better for gays if conservative evangelicals just kicked them out and told them to stay away? People will wonder if it might be more psychologically and spiritually harmful for a gay person to endure what the church wants for them than to just stay away and either a) find an affirming church or b) quit religion altogether. This is obviously a very controversial question. But it can be a matter of life and death.

-Effects of Tone Changes. I really think that some of the tone shifts may unwittingly be setting up rank and file evangelicals and some leaders to rethink their positions. As the PRRI (and other) data show, proximity and engagement with LGBT people leads toward acceptance. Lack of proximity helps maintain rejection. If parents let their gay kids stick around, if evangelicals fight for basic civil rights (such as opposing criminalization of homosexuality and blatant discrimination laws), if they befriend gays without an agenda to convert them, if they accept that sexual orientation is innate and not a choice -- then don't many people eventually end up accepting non-celibate gay people? If evangelicals do all these things, then the exegetical leap with regard to a few Bible verses may not be so great after all.

-Politics. Did conference speakers and panelists advocate for religious exemptions and conscience protections? Of course. But I heard nothing implicitly or explicitly suggesting that voting for the Republican ticket in next week's election is going to strengthen the church, the moral fiber of America, or the precarious state of the American family. (I did not watch the entire thing. Maybe I missed something.) This is a significant change. I cannot image a similar ERLC event 20, 10, or even 2 years ago lacking any blatant electioneering or partisan cheerleading a week before a federal election.

Political science research shows that ideology is often a core part of social identity, especially for elites. It takes restraint to eschew partisanship. Democratic and Republican pastors and lay leaders struggle mightily with this tension. No politicians were invited speakers, which was a conscious decision because there are, in fact, politicians who might speak credibly on these issues from a faith perspective as public servants. I am almost certain that the ERLC Conference speaker lineup was unanimously Republican. But, to their credit, whether you agree or disagree with them you have to concede that they do have a higher loyalty than party.

Coincidentally, the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, held a half-day conference Tuesday morning on economic issues causing and stemming from the breakdown of the family. AEI's proposals are still conservative, but AEI promotes policies that the ERLC and other sensible Christian right groups will end up supporting. There needs to be an acknowledgement that divorce doesn't just happen because people are sinners. There are strong economic forces at play. And frankly, neither the Catholic Church nor Protestants should be okay with the fact that marriage is becoming a luxury good and divorce a plague on the poor. I believe we need more robust economic supports than AEI or reform conservatives are proposing, but I also believe that we need to emphasize virtue and commitment and intact families more than the Left is usually comfortable talking about.

-Conclusion. I offer these reflections in the spirit of fair-mindedness and dialog. I have, at times, publicly and stridently opposed various aspects of Southern Baptist theology and institutional life. But I count many Baptists – clergy and lay, elite and rank-and-file – among my family and friends. I think the approach embodied at the ERLC Conference is intriguing, and I look forward to analyzing Southern Baptists' and other Christians' future debates and engagement on these vital issues.

ERLC Conference, Day 1

At the moment, I have no plans to publish any commentary or analysis specifically on the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's conference on the gospel, homosexuality and the future of marriage. Yet, as I am able, I am watching the conference with interest. I wish to share some reflections on the conference's first day.

I am not watching the whole thing, so this is not an exhaustive analysis. Frankly, I expect little that is new from the speakers. (I'm not saying that is good or bad – just a fact.) Everyone knows what the SBC believes about homosexuality. I think the real question is, "What do you guys want for these people?" To that degree, I am most interested in hearing from conference speakers Rosaria Butterfield and the Reverend Sam Allberry.

Here is a partial summary and some analysis, followed by three quick observations.

I missed the Reverend Dr. Albert Mohler's sermon on ministering in a post-Christian culture. However, a number of commentators (or, depending on your perspective, hashtag trolls) seemed heartened that Dr. Mohler acknowledged that sexual orientation is a real thing that does, in fact, exist. I would not have thought such a statement was noteworthy, but it brings to mind the sense that many in the evangelical community cling to the notion that being gay is a choice.

In his characteristically gracious way, Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network expressed appreciation of Dr. Mohler's acknowledgement.

The Reverend Sam Allberry, a same-sex attracted Church of England pastor who is himself a speaker at the ERLC Conference, also appreciated Dr. Mohler's comments.

In an afternoon panel discussion, the ERLC's President, the Rev. Dr. Russell Moore, set the record straight on two issues where American evangelicals often receive criticism. Dr. Moore reiterated that some developing countries have unjust persecution regimes (including criminalization) against gays and lesbians, and that we should oppose them. He also repeated his view that parents should not shun their gay children.

Again, the ever-gracious Justin Lee:

Those in the convention hall may not be aware that Erik Stanley and Kristen Waggoner's presentation received the iciest reception of the day, at least as far as those outside the hall were concerned. Stanley and Waggoner, lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom, veered sharply from other speakers' "convictional kindness." Their rhetoric about "the homosexual agenda" offended many. (Though I am usually ambivalent about ADF, I found its involvement in the Idaho wedding chapel drama unimpressive.)

I stepped away for this part, but did Dr. Moore walk back some of ADF's convictionally unkind rhetoric?

Monday evening, I made a point to hear Sherif Girgis's presentation. Girgis is coauthor with Ryan Anderson and Princeton Professor Robert P. George of a book offering a rational argument against amending civil law to recognize same sex relationships as marriage. Girgis won't win many converts, but he does offer a robust defense of what has become (at least in some elite circles) an unfashionable opinion. He pointed out that you do not have to be religious to argue that a healthy marriage culture contributes to the common good.

Girgis asks: If law, culture, schools, and other organs of civil society promote the idea that emotional intensity make a marriage and that it's inauthentic to stay in such a relationship if that intensity is gone, then why will people bother to, say, stay in their marriage for the sake of the kids? Won't the existence of legal same sex marriage harm society the same way legal no-fault divorces have?

Girgis supposes that while secular liberal elites (specifically, polyamorous philosophy professors, evidently) have an agenda against marriage, most rank-and-file people are warm toward same sex marriage because they don't want gays to be lonely. People support SSM to be compassionate without really thinking about why they support it. Or something. Girgis closed with a story about a friend who decided to quit the Church and embrace his identity as a gay man. "What convinced you to leave?" "Dan Savage," the friend said, citing the It Gets Better videos popular on YouTube a few years ago. Girgis said he was sad that his friend rejected the best It Gets Better message of all time: the Kingdom. That line seemed ill-considered and pretty dismissive of gay people's experiences. There are controversial aspects to his argument, of course.

I dwell on the Girgis talk because he and his coauthors have said that there is a secular case against SSM. The trouble is, I don't see any secular people making it. I am actually fairly well disposed toward parts of their argument (namely, that marriage should have more to do with the well being of children than the emotional desires of adults). But I wonder why it only appeals to people who also accept the belief that non-celibate gay people are vile sinners living in active and lifelong rebellion against God.

Can we count on Girgis and the ERLC Conference attendees to support these 7 LGBT issues that "matter more than marriage?"

On Twitter, one person noted that Girgis "drifts smoothly from facts to opinion without batting an eye."

The evening ended with ERLC Vice President Dan Darling moderating a panel with NAMB President Kevin Ezell, FamilyLife CEO Dennis Rainey, Carmen Fowler Laberge of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, and Heath Lambert, executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.

There was an earlier panel discussion that addressed divorce, cohabitation and other trends. This panel dealt principally with: marital health and flourishing; the devastating effects of pornography and sexting; and the urgent need for pastoral holiness and accountability so that clergy can experience and model healthy, vital marital relationships and preach and teach on marriage with integrity.

I note this catalog of issues to make the point that the ERLC Conference is not a non-stop, 3 day sermon against homosexuality. Reasonable people can disagree about whether they focus too intently on this one issue. The fact is, plenty of other issues are receiving attention.

Finally, I urge people on both sides of the marriage and sexuality debates to watch the rest of the conference in light of these three observations:

1. Southern Baptists' "Surprising Tone." At least a few observers have been surprised at the tone. I did not hear much (any?) rhetoric about "loving the sinner but hating the sin," the "ick factor," or reparative therapy. Not that Mohler and Moore deserve medals for saying that sexual orientation exists or that gays should not be executed, but their tone is deliberately as conciliatory and compassionate as they believe they can be. For a sympathetic take on the rhetoric, see Chelsen Vicari's initial impressions of the conference. Perhaps the ADF lawyers did not get the memo. But let's see if the rest of the conference adheres to Moore's mantra of "convictional kindness."

2. Areas of Disagreement. There won't be much ideological diversity in the speaker lineup, but there will be some. Are people who disagree with the ERLC to be seen as enemies? Is gay orientation sinful in and of itself? When we talk about Genesis 3 and The Fall, how literal are we being? Should we refer to "gay Christians" or "Christians who experience same sex attraction?" (If at all,) how does Denny Burk depart from Al Mohler? How does Christopher Yuan depart from Sam Allberry? Wouldn't it be helpful to acknowledge that most non-celibate gay people do, in fact, attempt to conduct their sex lives ethically?

3. Good Cop/Bad Cop Roles. At a conference that unanimously views any same sex sexual intimacy as sinful, no one expects a message of acceptance or affirmation. Yet some speakers did receive praise for conciliatory or compassionate remarks, and even for acknowledging a full menu of social ills and sexual sins, so that homosexuality was not held out to be uniquely defiling . But at the end of the day, everyone on the platform believes that all non-celibate gay people will endure an eternity of conscious torment in the fiery pits of Hell. Everyone wants to say something nice, especially when they perceive that elite culture thinks they are mean bigots. Which speakers will ratchet up the "turn or burn" rhetoric?

If time permits, I will try to write another post at the end of the conference.

Divorce, Remarriage & Communion: A Primer for Protestants

Most people following this month's Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome are aware that the specter of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion is the most controversial and difficult issue among many controversial issues being discussed.

I have followed reports from the Synod closely and have been very interested in Catholic perspectives on divorce, remarriage, and the sacraments. As a divorced and remarried person with an abiding respect for Catholicism, I suppose I am more interested than most. Few Protestants believe that remarried persons are unworthy to receive Communion. Many Protestants are wondering, "What's the big deal?" A few have asked for help in understanding the debate. I hope to helpfully to offer some explanation here.

The puzzled Protestant must first consider Catholic teaching on marriage. For one thing, marriage is a sacrament (one of seven, whereas Protestants have only two – baptism and the Lord's Supper). As an efficacious sign of grace, a man and a woman, after giving consent, mutually confer the sacrament upon one another in the presence of the Church. It is not the work of a priest or a church or a civil magistrate. And, following words attributed to Jesus himself, marriage is indissoluble: "What God hath joined together let no man put asunder."

The next difference concerns divorce. Protestants typically assume that if a court grants a divorce, then the marriage no longer exists. In Catholicism, civil divorce is a mostly meaningless distinction. Church tribunals can grant annulments, which degree that the marriage was invalid. In recent generations, especially in territories like the U.S. where courts came to easily grant divorces, the standards for receiving an annulment have liberalized. (Though fewer U.S. Catholics are marrying, marrying in the Church, and seeking annulments.) Without an annulment, the Church considers the couple married as long as both spouses are still living. No action of a civil court can change that reality.

Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has complied some helpful data on marriage, divorce, and annulments. 

Source: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate  blog

Source: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate blog

Here is where it becomes complicated regarding Communion. A civilly remarried Catholic is, in the eyes of the Church, living in adulterous relationship. Every sex act with the new spouse is considered a mortal sin. Whereas Protestants came to accept subsequent marriages and stepfamilies without much trouble, the Catholic Church considers these situations "irregular" and maintains that without an annulment, the initial marriage remains intact. A civilly remarried Catholic could receive Communion if s/he is celibate. In Protestant churches, it would be virtually inconceivable for a pastor to confront remarried people about receiving Communion. But this gets to two more differences: fitness for receiving Communion and the nature of Communion itself.

In the United Methodist Church of my childhood, the minister invited everyone to the Lord's Table, saying, "Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to your comfort." Over time, the language of intentionality was shortened and arguably watered down a bit. The most frequently used UMC Communion ritual now says, "Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another…" Regardless of denomination, the invitation is relatively simple for Protestants: If you repent, you are welcome to partake. In true Protestant fashion, you are competent to determine for yourself your fitness to receive the sacrament. You and God know your heart. No priest or catechism is necessary to assist in that determination!

Not so in Catholicism. You cannot say, "Well, I am in good conscience, being happily and faithfully remarried." Furthermore, if you receive Communion in a state of grave sin, you commit another grave sin.

A final significant difference between Protestants and Catholics on this question concerns the nature of Communion itself. Most Protestants suppose that the major Christian debates about Communion concern the frequency with which it is celebrated and the mode by which it is received. But this obscures a greater, more fundamental difference. For Protestants, Communion is a community meal, a moment of personal devotion, and a remembrance of Jesus himself. For Catholics, it is Jesus himself. Christians differ about how exactly Christ is present in the bread and wine. Liturgical Protestants hold that Communion is more than a remembrance. But for Catholics, through transsubstiantation, the elements become the actual body and blood of Christ.

With an arguably "higher" view of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Catholics take more seriously the idea that communicants must receive him worthily. For the civilly remarried Catholic, this is apparently impossible without changes in Church doctrine.

In convening the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis deliberately sought a diversity of views. Some theologians, most prominently Cardinal Walter Kasper, have argued that civilly remarried Catholics be allowed to receive Communion. The most vocal opponents have been Cardinal George Pell and Cardinal Raymond Burke. Their Eminences have engaged in a spirited and sometimes pointed public debate. Based on reports of the Synod's first week, there seems to be an openness to pastoral innovation, but there is no sign that bishops want the Church to abandon its belief in the indissolubility of marriage.

Unsurprisingly, many lay Catholics have also weighed in on the question. Since Protestants will instinctively be sympathetic to the view that remarried people should be permitted to receive Communion, I will highlight two traditionalists. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has a characteristically thoughtful blog post that includes links to his other writings on this and related issues. In a provocative column, civilly remarried laywoman Louise Mensch states: "I am a divorced Catholic. And I'm sure it would be a mortal sin for me to take Communion." Her perspective gives expression to the Church's sense that Catholics in irregular relationships should attend Mass and remain part of parish communities even though they cannot receive Communion.

Protestants who wish to understand why it's a big deal for Catholics to even debate the idea that remarried people can receive Communion, must bear in mind these vital differences:

  • Marriage as a sacrament vs. 'merely' a God-ordained union

  • Sacramental marriage vs. civil marriage

  • Annulments vs. divorce

  • Clerical/Church determination vs. individual determination of worthiness to receive Communion

  • "Real presence" as real presence vs. "Real presence" as holy mystery or 'mere' remembrance

Regardless of your position, Protestants should take note of the Synod's consideration of how the Church can nurture marriage and family life. The challenges the pope hopes to address are not uniquely Catholic problems.