Cleaning up for a bath

And now the fighting over What It All Means has begun.

If you followed the developments of the Synod on the Family at all, you know that – watching from the outside, at least – it was like a tennis match, with one side serving up its thoughts and the other responding just as forcefully.

One side claims it is following the teachings of Christ, who walked among the sinners, ate with tax collectors and was heralded by sheep herders. The other side says it is protecting the very foundations of the church, which is built on unbreakable moral law and cannot bend to the winds of social change.

If the whole thing drives you crazy (decide already!), here’s the bad news: This was really only the first step. In a year of ruminating on it, they’ll come back again and make a final decision. Which means a year of bickering before the real fight begins.

Should this debate even be happening at all?

The fact that it is happening, many say, is in itself huge, even if nothing actually changes.

But there’s another side of this, too: In the weeks leading up to the Synod, it became clear that many people simply wanted to be heard. The fact that they were – including 14 married couples who spoke directly to the gathering – was in itself a bit surprising, because many bishops have taken the view that, since we already know what church teaching says, there’s not much point in listening to another perspective.

Listening, some argue, gives an unwarranted legitimacy.  And church doctrine is not a democracy, where the marketplace of ideas sets the agenda.

But listening has an effect on both sides that makes the exercise worthwhile – even when it is just an exercise. I see this with my children when I choose to sit down and listen to their concerns and explain the reasons they’re not allowed to use the chainsaw rather than dismiss them with a “Because that’s the rules,” or – even worse – a “Because I said so.”

Listening to them doesn’t change the rules. But they view the rules – and the enforcer of them – differently when there is a conversation. For too long, too many people have asked only to be listened to and gotten only a closed door in response.

I don’t have the answers to the deep theological questions of our time, and I don’t pretend to know what is right. But I do know that you don’t get cleaned up before you take a bath, and that if being free of sin is a prerequisite to entering the church, there will be no one inside.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report.]