The Synod on the Family - What's really happening?
The Synod on the Family has completed two of its three weeks. The final week will be critical, but already there are some positive signs of the Spirit at work. Will the College of Bishops recognise its isolation from the people of God and the need to ensure that the Church’s teachings and governance are properly informed by the sensus fidelium, the faithful’s sense of the faith, as taught by Vatican II? Such recognition is implicit in the pastoral approach sought by Pope Francis. As late as Friday 16/10/2015, the full synod was hearing many 3-minute contributions on such controversial issues as cohabitation, the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried, and the Church's approach to homosexuality,
During these first two weeks, it might seem that little has been achieved at the current assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, described as the Synod on the Family. Perhaps that’s to be expected given the public attempts by some bishops to sabotage any move to a more pastoral Church and the limited evidence of bishops having listened to the people of the Church. It’s also due, more positively, to new processes introduced by Pope Francis to ensure more discussion amongst the bishops and greater transparency. Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit inspires the bishops during the remaining week as those discussions are aggregated.
To date, and a significant week remains, the tentative optimism of our last newsletter has not been dashed. We observed then that the Synod on the Family is a very real opportunity for the Church to renew and to focus on its God-given mission in the world. We noted that the test for this synod would be whether the institutional Church is ready to listen to the people of the Church, a questionable proposition given the general inadequacy of the consultation process throughout the world.
This synod is about improving the Church’s pastoral response to issues surrounding the family and marriage, issues that need the experience of the people of the Church living in communities throughout the world. In the first week of the synod, Pope Francis used Jesus’ analogy of making the disciples ‘fishers of men’ to say that “a new kind of net is needed . . . (and) families are the most important net for the mission of Peter and the church.”
It would be presumptuous of men who govern the Church without the executive involvement of women, men who have never married nor had the responsibility of parenting children, and are mostly elderly, to attempt to reach informed views on family matters without reaching out to the people of the Church – a big ask given such limited pre-synod consultation and the presence of only 30 women at the synod out of 315 attendees, with none of them allowed a vote. There are non-ordained religious brothers with the vote but no vote for religious sisters, or for any non-ordained members of the laity. As Vatican II stated (Lumen Gentium - the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church):
“The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.”
Australia’s Cardinal Pell has been active in arguing for no change and resistance to a pastoral approach in areas such as communion for the divorced and remarried, an argument that defines many rigid Church teachings as ‘doctrine’, yet there is clearly disagreement as to what constitutes doctrine and how teachings that fail to reflect Jesus’ fundamental teaching of love can be construed as doctrine. Cardinal Pell has been identified by Cardinal Dolan of New York as the instigator of a letter to the Pope from thirteen cardinals at the start of the synod complaining of bias in favour of change in the synod process.
That letter caused an early rare intervention by the Pope, before the entire general assembly, telling the bishops to stop using the “hermeneutics of conspiracy” which he described as “sociologically weak and spiritually unhelpful” (Robert Mickens in US National Catholic Reporter 13 October 2015), a welcome indication that Pope Francis is prepared to be assertive in dealing with ill-informed resistance to change.
Francis instructed the bishops: “the sole method in the synod is to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.” He seems to be using this assembly of the Synod of Bishops as a start in fixing the Church’s dysfunctional governance with some good processes. These include making episcopal collegiality real, ensuring that the Synod of Bishops recognises its accountability for good governance of Christ’s Church and for ensuring that their decisions reflect the mind of Christ.
The divergence of views reported from the Synod has concerned a number of people. On the other hand, that divergence with some strong support for Christlike pastoral changes in the teaching of the Church is itself a promising indication that many of the bishops understand and recognise the desperate need for that sort of change; they are laying the foundation for change.
In a meaningful and decisive act immediately before this Assembly on the Family, Pope Francis exercised his authority to simplify and shorten marriage nullity processes and to empower local bishops in the process. This change to canon law, by motu proprio ("on his own impulse") without any change to doctrine, is arguably the most substantial change to the Church’s marriage laws in centuries. The changes also serve as an illustration of Francis’ commitment to more pastoral approaches and to the accountability and pastoral role of bishops, and implicitly challenged the synod to follow this lead on matters of more moment affecting families in the Church.
Whilst there has been a good deal of opposition to renewal expressed in the synod, there have also been many positive reports, including:
Disappointingly, there has been little direct acknowledgement of the worldwide scandal of clerical child sexual abuse and the institutional Church’s complicity in the protection of paedophiles and the consequent further abuse of children - the most damning evidence of the need for fundamental reform of the Church’s governance. This failure to even acknowledge the complicity of the institutional Church is itself further evidence of the dysfunctional clericalist culture.
Perhaps some positive indication of change, and of the Holy Spirit at work, might be derived from a shift in sentiment by Archbishop Coleridge (Australian delegate to the synod with Bishop Hurley) who said to Vatican journalist John Allen early in the Synod:
“What’s clear even now is that trying to make universal pronouncements about the issues concerning marriage and the family is so tough as to be almost doomed.”
Some days later (11 October), Coleridge blogged:
“The task of this Synod and the real challenge to our corporate apostolic imagination (is): neither to abandon Church teaching or to leave things untouched . . . We have to speak differently and act differently, but staying within the wide parameters of Church teaching which has its roots in Jesus. At the end of the first week, I have a stronger sense of that that’s possible than I did earlier in the week.”
The final week of the synod will clearly be the most important as the process of many dialogues is brought together. A special commission has been appointed by the Pope to draft the synod's final document in light of its deliberations. Ultimately, the pope receives the recommendations of the synod and makes decisions. It appears however that this pope recognises the need to change attitudes rather than attempt to decree radical change unilaterally. As respected Vatican watcher Massimo Faggioli has commented after observing the initial stages of the synod dialogues, it is possible that this synod will be followed by more frequent sessions of the Synod of Bishops with greater input from the people of God, and possibly more local synods as the process of renewal matures, a need espoused by Catholics for Renewal since our inception. Vatican III remains a possibility!
The test of this synod remains as the extent to which the College of Bishops recognises their isolation from the people of God and the need to ensure that the Church’s teachings and governance are properly informed by the sensus fidelium, the faithful’s sense of the faith, as taught by Vatican II. Such recognition must be reflected in the pastoral approach sought by Pope Francis.
It is still possible that the synod will achieve that outcome informed by an expedited reform of the Church’s governance with proper recognition of the role of the people of God and the removal of discrimination against women in the Church.