The All-Important Synod on the Family
Although the Synod on the Family concluded its second session in October 2015 and Pope Francis’ final document on its conclusions will probably not be issued until sometime in March 2016, it still remains the most important gathering in Catholicism over the last several decades, perhaps even since 1965 and the end of Vatican II. The Synod met in two sessions in October 2014 and October 2015.
Things seemed quite optimistic for more open, pastorally-oriented Catholics at the end of the first session. The provisional document that was issued marked a change of tone with the Synod document saying that homosexuals had ‘gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community.’ The document suggested the Church needed to take a ‘more merciful approach towards unmarried couples, the divorced, and those who use contraception.’ But optimism needed to be tempered by the fact that this was a discussion document and that it would not immediately change the Church's teachings or practices. But it did get these kinds of issues onto the synod agenda. Choosing the topic of the family was a shrewd move by Pope Francis. He did for the simple reason that he wanted to get something that everybody was interested in, and not one that just interested church insiders.
Between the two meetings of the synod many of the more doctrinaire bishops got together and were determined to wrest back control of the agenda from the pastoral majority. They wanted to draw the line on the church's teaching on family, sexuality and gender right where it is now, with no concessions to pastoral care, which they saw as a Trojan horse weakening Catholic morality.
At the second session the ‘no change’ group were well organised, with Australian Cardinal George Pell playing a leading role. There were much more sharp debates and disagreements at this session and at a superficial level more pastorally-inclined bishops and Catholics might have felt disappointed at the conclusions reached.
However, in a very sensible editorial, the lay edited US monthly Commonweal summed up the Synod story very well: ‘No knowledgeable observer expected the Synod on the Family to alter church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage or homosexuality. The synod’s final report, a consensus document replete with the requisite ambiguities, opens a path for divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment to be welcomed back into the church. Whether they may receive Communion, the synod suggested, is a decision that in certain circumstances could be made in consultation with their pastors. Sacramental marriage is not possible for homosexual people, the bishops reiterated, but they too have a secure place in the Catholic family. On these hot-button issues, the synod affirmed traditional Catholic doctrine but avoided condemning those whose lives do not conform to church teaching. Engagement rather than denunciation marked the synod’s formal pronouncements, a pastoral style deeply rooted in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and profoundly embodied in everything Pope Francis does’ (22 October 2015).
In a comment piece in John Menadue’s blog Pearls and Irritations (18/12/15) Paul Collins struck an optimistic note about the synod. Here are his comments:
I was talking recently about the Synod with a very experienced parish priest. He said that if the bishops thought we were all waiting with bated breath for their decision regarding the divorced remarried receiving Communion, then they really do live in cloud cuckoo-land. Nowadays divorced Catholics don’t just hang around waiting for a bevy of bishops to decide for them. They follow their consciences and do what they think is right, especially if they have talked to a sensible, pastoral priest. Sure, many have understandably walked away from the church, but many have stayed having made their own decisions about going to Communion – the internal forum solution.
So really it’s irrelevant what the Synod decided. Even on the gay issue sensible Catholics already understand that talk about people being ‘intrinsically disordered’ is not only utterly insensitive; it is also ‘intrinsically’ un-Christ-like and evangelically ‘disordered’!
But that doesn’t mean the Synod was a failure. It was a success because it recovered something of the church’s Catholicity. Genuine Catholicism implies a universal, multi-ethnic, non-sectarian church, a community of many parts and differing views. My major criticism of the two popes before Francis is that they were essentially ‘uncatholic’; they promoted a narrow, ‘pure’, sectarian church, the antithesis of Catholicity. That’s why they loved outfits like the Neo-Catechuminate and Opus Dei; they are sectarian in structure and intention.
But the present bishop of Rome, as Francis likes to be called, encouraged the synod to be genuinely Catholic and, unlike his predecessors, called on participants to express views that differed from his own. For the first time since Paul VI revived the Synod in 1965, this gathering was actually free. Bishops could speak their minds and weren’t constantly second-guessing the pope.
Perversely, it was the conservatives at the Synod who openly disagreed with the line Francis took who did most to relativise the high papalism that has absorbed the church, lock, stock and barrel since the Counter-Reformation and that reached it apogee in John Paul II. We had the wonderful spectacle of conservatives indulging in ‘cafeteria Catholicism’, i.e. picking and choosing which doctrines and popes they were going to follow and which they weren’t. For instance many preferred John Paul II’s dogmatism to the pastoral emphasis of Francis, claiming that the presumed indissolubility of marriage was more important than Jesus’ unequivocal teaching on mercy, love and forgiveness.
Another positive was that the Synod toyed with localism and the idea that one size doesn’t fit all. Being Catholic in sub-Saharan Africa is different to being Catholic in the Middle East, or Asia, or Australia. The spirituality, faith experience, liturgical expressions, moral dilemmas and religious culture of each region is different. So decisions about these issues need to be devolved and the local church needs to assume much more responsibility for its own life. This immediately relativises the Vatican and returns the bishop of Rome to his much more traditional role: that of being the guarantee and heart of the church’s communion and the touchstone of its orthodoxy.
So the great thing about the Synod was not what it decided, but that it happened and participants took the first tentative steps in the direction of realizing Vatican II’s doctrine of collegiality.
But the Synod also revealed some profound weaknesses in contemporary Catholicism. First, the church’s leadership cadre was revealed, at best, as second rate. This is the result of a bench of bishops chosen by John Paul II and Benedict XVI who saw themselves as the church incorporated and bishops as branch managers. Anyone with initiative, imagination, emotional intelligence, or leadership ability was excluded from the episcopate.
Bishops also have lost the sense that they too sit in the cathedra Petri, the chair of Peter as the third century church father Cyprian of Carthage called it. They are the rocks and leaders of the local community and they are called, like the pope, to extend collegiality to their priests and people. For this to happen the local church will have to have a decisive say in their election. The recent practice (it only goes back to the late-nineteenth century) of Rome appointing all bishops has to be jettisoned and power devolved to the local church.
There are two issues the Synod should have tackled, but didn’t: women and contraception. Pope Francis says he wants women to participate at all levels in the church, but he has done little about it. If the church did promote women it would influence equality for women across faiths and in doing so would reduce violence to women and children. The evidence is overwhelming that once women have education, freedom from patriarchal and tribal structures, equality and access to reproductive health services, they make responsible decisions about fertility. This is a real area of weakness for Pope Francis, as the encyclical Laudato si reflects.
The only reason why contraception was sedulously avoided was because the bishops would have to admit that Paul VI was wrong. This is certainly what the vast majority of Catholics in developed countries think, but bishops in the developing world, particularly Africa, see this issue as linked to reproductive health which they caricature as a Western plot to control their populations. So it suits them to side-step it. The African bishops play the same silly game with homosexuality, claiming it is a foreign import and never existed in Africa before. The motive here is to outdo the Muslims.
So for me the Synod was a success and it was the first time since Vatican II that bishops had the opportunity to truly speak their minds.