NEW YORK – If you told me a few years ago that a synod of bishops would make the front page of almost every newspaper, be featured prominently on almost every news website, and be the topic of heated conversation among Catholics worldwide, I would have said you were crazy.
The interest generated by the Synod of Bishops on the Family, the two-week meeting of bishops, priests and lay people that concluded two weeks ago at the Vatican surprised even veteran Vaticanologists. In recent years, synods have not garnered much enthusiasm, to put it mildly. One reason for the renewed interest this year was Pope Francis’ urging participants to be as open as possible. And they were — not only to one another but also in the daily media briefings..
The document that received the most attention was the relatio, or report, issued midway through the two-week session. (The Synod of Bishops on the Family, incidentally, is a two-year event. This session was the first. In other words, that first relatio was midway through midway.) The first relatio was characterized by a warm pastoral outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitating couples, as well as to gays and lesbians, the last of which were included under the subject line “Welcoming Homosexual Persons.”
The synod’s final relatio, however, proved a less controversial publication, reflecting the variety of viewpoints that exist among the Catholic bishops. Nevertheless, there was still a great deal of confusion over the final document, particularly regarding what it did or did not do. So let’s address what the synod did and did not do. Here is what it did:
• Foster openness.
The synod seems to have ushered in an era of openness in the Vatican. In the past, the results of synods were sometimes seen to be foregone conclusions. Why? Some bishops, for a variety of reasons, may not have felt as comfortable discussing controversial topics, or may have concluded that a pope might not want certain topics raised. That was not the case this month. Bishops were vocal, disagreeing with one another politely but vigorously, a consequence of the pope’s encouragement to be open. “Don’t tell anyone, ‘You can’t say that,'” he said at the synod’s opening.
By the way, Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit can work not only through individuals but in groups — even groups where divisions exist. It has always been that way in the church. That’s why so many of the New Testament stories about the Holy Spirit happen in groups.
• Address important topics.
When the Vatican announced that the topic of the synod would be “the family,” some people might have thought, “How quaint.” Talking about “the family” may conjure up images of bishops discussing topics not known for generating much heat: the love between a husband and a wife, the role of grandparents, the need to encourage children to study in school, and so on.
As we have seen, however, under the rubric of “the family” come some complicated topics — among them, the rising number of cohabitating couples, the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics, pastoral outreach to LGBT Catholics, as well as poverty and unemployment, and societal threats to family stability.
Ironically by choosing what may have seemed a gentle topic, Pope Francis unleashed a torrent of words over some of the most complex issues in the church. No one can say that the synod did not take up matters that were of great concern to Catholics.
• Set an agenda.
This synod was the runup to another synod of bishops, which will convene in 2015. In essence, this synod set the agenda for next year. Over the next 12 months, the entire church will reflect on the final relatio issued at the end of the first session. Between now and then, in September, comes the World Meeting of Families, when we will no doubt hear many other talks, reflections and speeches on the family. It is also quite likely that Pope Francis will come to Philadelphia for the meeting. If so, he too will surely weigh in on those topics.
What the synod did not do was:
• Change church teaching.
First of all, the essentials of the church do not change. So the synod is not going to say, for example, that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead.
Second, the church changes its pastoral practices slowly. Doctrine develops as it did during the Second Vatican Council. (If anyone tells you the church doesn’t change its practices, ask them the last time that they saw a Catholic attending a Protestant wedding. Before Vatican II that was forbidden.) Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops Conference, said bluntly, “Saying that doctrine will never change is a restrictive view of things.” But it happens slowly, not in two weeks.
Pastoral applications may change. For example, while the church will not change its teaching on same-sex marriages, there may be changes in how the church decides to welcome and minister to gays and lesbians in the future.
Any “teaching” that happens in the wake of the synod will be written by Pope Francis, in what is called an “apostolic exhortation,” a post-synodal summing up. But, again, that will not happen until next year at the earliest.
• Cause schism.
At times, apparently deep divisions led some to wonder if the church was moving to “schism.” Such talk was ridiculous. For one thing, the last people who would be tempted to schism are the bishops, men who have devoted their entire lives not only to God, but also to the institutional church. It simply isn’t in their DNA. (Yes, there have been a few recent examples of bishops who split from the church, but this is on an individual, not group basis.)
• Offend the pope.
Headlines that talked about “setbacks” or “defeats” for the pope missed the point. Pope Francis called the synod himself, and it was specifically designed to provide him with advice. From the earliest days of his papacy, he has encouraged “synodality,” stressing the importance of the consultative function of these gatherings of bishops.
Some hoped that, at various points, the pope would step in and shut down the debate. But that would have defeated the whole purpose of the synod.
The pope was, from all accounts, happy to listen to the deliberations each day and, in his final talk, praised the bishops for their openness.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America, a Catholic weekly review. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.
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