John 9 and the Extraordinary Synod

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Mary Aquin O’Neill


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Read in the light of the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the story of the man born blind in the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel is a marvel. Read in light of the Gospel story, aspects of the Synod open up and reveal possibilities for development.

Because of the man’s condition, the disciples assume that sin is in his very nature. They want to know whether it is the sin of his parents or the man’s own sin that is the cause of his blindness. Because Jesus violated a sacred law by the way he chose to effect a cure for the blind man, the religious leaders are certain that neither the one who cured nor the cure itself can be from God. Yet Jesus proclaims that this man’s condition will be a means for the work of God to be displayed.

The man who was born blind and who was wondrously cured is not concerned about any of this. He has had an experience. To that he clings through all the disappointments and interrogations of the ensuing scenes. Not only does this man hold on to his experience, refusing to deny it, but he begins to defend the one who cured him – even though he has never seen him and does not know where he can be found. The entire passage is a study in deductive thinking confronting inductive thinking. That is, while the religious leaders begin with statements of what they know from tradition, the man born blind works from his experience to statements of belief. The two parties do not arrive at the same place.

The reasoning of the religious leaders goes from belief to experience: thus, because, in their theology, mixing mud with saliva constitutes a violation of the Sabbath and puts one in a state of sin, no good can come from anything the man in question does. “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” Still, some of the bystanders wonder, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” (9:16). When challenged by the authorities to give his opinion, the man who was cured confesses, “He is a prophet,” thus taking the first step in developing a theology of his own – one that arises from undeniable experience (9:17). 

As the pressure mounts, the man grows bolder – even to the point of asking if the leaders also want to become disciples of Jesus (9:27). Here he identifies himself as a follower, committed to Jesus in a special way. Then, under a barrage of insults coming from the religious leaders, the previously blind man spins out a coherent theology that totally contradicts that of the leaders:

“Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If the man were not from God, he could do nothing” (Jn 9:30-33).

Seemingly unable to counter this argument, the leaders resort to personal attack, declaring that the man born blind is “steeped in sin” (Jn 9:34), and they throw him out of the community.

It is easy to feel superior to the disciples and the religious leaders in this pericope, wondering how anyone could think that being born blind is a sign of sin on someone’s part. Yet in our own Catholic faith community, there was a time when sons and daughters born out of wedlock or even of divorced parents were denied entrance into religious communities. There was a time when men who were disabled in any way were prevented from becoming priests for that very reason. Though we have moved past the theology that underlay those proscriptions, are we really past a theology that maintains that homosexuals are disordered in their very nature – another way of saying born in sin? 

Like the religious leaders of the Gospel, many of the Synod fathers are used to beginning with traditional beliefs, in light of which they judge experience. They believe the teachings about homosexuality are eminently clear. In this Synod, however, reports indicated that a good number were open to letting experience – their own and that of others – challenge certain traditions. It seems that the married couple who spoke of homosexual partners in their families did so in ways that cast a different light on such unions. One way to understand the difference in tone relative to “homosexual persons” in the interim report and “persons with a homosexual tendencies” in the final Relatio is that the former was shaped by the experience of actual persons and the latter by a certain understanding of traditional teaching. 

It appears from all reports that there is still a commitment to the proposition that persons of a homosexual orientation and practice are “steeped in sin,” unable to do anything that is good in their interpersonal lives – for the same attitude was not displayed regarding heterosexuals living in cohabitation or in second marriages without an annulment. While this theological position held sway for centuries, it now meets a theology being developed in the light of experience: the experience of homosexual persons themselves and of their families, friends, neighbors and coreligionists. Unlike the man born blind, who was abandoned by those who knew him best, homosexual persons in the church are finding others willing to speak up for them and what they experience in their lives and loves.

This is a precarious time in the life of our church. It is not easy to see old certainties challenged, especially when the stakes are high. The genius of Catholicism is to know they are indeed high where sexuality is concerned – for what is at issue is human life itself. Clearly the laws of Sabbath could be and were changed as Jews became Christians and welcomed into their communities believing gentiles. In the next year, all of us who hold our Catholic life and practice dear will need to consider what laws no longer reflect the truth of experience; how those laws ought to be adapted; what theology will give us a sense of development rather than destruction; how to relate to those who feel themselves betrayed by change – if it comes. The marvelous story in John 9 cannot provide answers to our contemporary dilemmas regarding family life and the ways it has morphed among us. It can and does provide a framework for understanding how important it is to allow experience to shape what we believe, even as our belief will eventually shape our experience. Through it all, may the work of God be displayed.

[Mary Aquin O’Neill  is a Sister of Mercy who holds the doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt University. After many years of college teaching, she founded Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women and was its director from 1992 to 2009. Since the center closed in August of 2013, Sr. Aquin is in semi-retirement, writing as well as giving lectures and retreats. ]