Synod must find new ways to present Church teaching

We need a new creed on marriage and the family, writes David Quinn

At every Mass we read either the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed, but for the most part we do so without thinking about it and without even considering why the Creed is part of the Mass at all.

The Nicene Creed was agreed by the bishops of the then Christian world at the Councils of Nicaea (325 AD) and Constantinople (381 AD), both in modern Turkey. 

It was necessitated by doctrinal disputes in the early Church, especially about the Trinity. Above all it was necessitated by the Arian heresy which was very widespread, especially in North Africa. 

The Arian heresy was named after a priest named Arius and it became so widespread in the Church that many bishops succumbed to it and so did the Emperor Constantine for a time.

In North Africa, its strongest opponent was Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, at the time one of the most important sees in Christendom. And what was that heresy? It was that Jesus was not really God. But if Jesus was not really God, protested Athanasius, then we were not redeemed from our sins and the Gospel was based on a lie. So the stakes were very high.

The decrees of Nicaea were intended to put an end to the dispute, but the Arians were so powerful that numerous attempts over several decades were made to nullify the decrees and Athanasius was banished from his diocese no fewer than five times, basically whenever the Arians got the upper hand politically speaking.


Tellingly, one reason the Arian heresy became so strong was because of the weakness of certain bishops in standing up to it, most notably Alexander, the Patriarch of Alexandria. He did eventually condemn Arius as a heretic but by then the horse had bolted.

In any event, after a great struggle that threatened the unity of the Church the Nicene Creed became accepted. The second paragraph of the Creed is about the nature of the Holy Trinity and is basically a word-by-word refutation of Arianism.

It became an integral part of the Mass from the 6th Century on.

Why do I bring up all this? I’ve been prompted to do so by the Synod on the Family, which kicked off last Sunday. Today, the Church is again riven by disputes. Some of these are over the nature of the Church and over the nature of Christ, but for most ordinary people they are about moral issues, especially those related to marriage, the family and human sexuality. That is why this synod is so important.

For centuries there was very little dispute about any of these issues. The Catholic Church and the various Protestant Churches disagreed over the indissolubility of marriage, but apart from that they basically agreed on all the big moral questions. That agreement spread out into society at large.

Today things are completely different. Secular society to a large extent rejects what the Church has to say about sex, marriage and the family and the Churches themselves have been heavily influenced by secular society. 


The result is that many Christians also reject what their Churches have to say on these matters, and some denominations have decisively broken with the settled doctrines of almost 2,000 years on these same questions. The outcome is intense disunity and some of this disunity threatens to spill over into the synod.

The disagreements for now are focussing specifically on the matter of whether or not Catholics who have divorced and remarried can receive Holy Communion. 

Out of fidelity to Christ who said that marriage is indissoluble and that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery, we do not admit the divorced and remarried to Communion.

A party within the Church, led by Germany’s Cardinal Walter Kasper, is doing its best to come up with a formula that will allow Catholics in this situation to receive Communion under certain circumstances. It is very hard to square this with the teachings of Christ which were repeated at the Gospel reading at Mass last Sunday.

The only reason this is an issue at all is because divorce has become so widespread in the West, and widespread divorce is a very visible and painful symptom of the way in which the old moral consensus around marriage and the family has collapsed, even among Christians. 

Do we now need a new, or rather supplementary creedal statement on these questions to put alongside the Nicene Creed that should be read out if not at every Mass, then at several Masses each year?

Such a creed, in the highly unlikely event any such thing was ever to be formulated for use at Mass, should encompass moral issues other than marriage and the family. 

It should also encompass what we as Catholics believe about the right to life, and to be true to the spirit of Pope Francis – and the Gospel more importantly – it should be wider in focus even than this, taking in other moral issues like care for the poor and the environment.

So what would such a creed say? It would say that as Catholics we believe that we must love our neighbours as we love ourselves. It would commit us to helping the poor and protecting God’s creation.

It would state that we believe in marriage, that we believe marriage is indissoluble, and that it must be open to new life. It would assert the right to life of the unborn and the right to life of the old and infirm. Would a creed along these lines bring all the present disputes to an end? It would not, any more than the promulgation of the Nicene Creed did so in the decades after it was agreed. 

But Catholics must somehow be led to a deeper understanding of what their Church has to say about these matters because they go to the heart of how we live our lives and because the destruction of the old moral consensus around these questions has been so harmful. (Who can possibly say that widespread divorce is good for society?)

This synod must thrash out these questions and find a new and better way of presenting the Church’s age-old answers to the world. The bishops must then take responsibility for educating ordinary Catholics about those answers and not vacillate as Alexander did when first faced with the powerful Arians.