The Synod Starts to Take Shape

by Michael Sean Winters

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Working documents are not intended to be page turners. And, the Instrumentum laboris (IL) unveiled yesterday by the Vatican to guide the discussions at October’s Synod on the Family is not soon going to be on the best seller list. But, the document is important not only for what it says about the Synod, but for what it indicates about the man who will preside at the Synod and decide subsequently how the Church will deal with certain thorny issues, Pope Francis.

The first thing to note is that the document is broken into three sections and the first section is “listening to the family’s challenges.” This is the starting point. Listening is not necessarily something the Vatican has been very good at in the past. And, I am still a little nervous that the only people who will be listened to are the same people who got upset with Pope Francis when he said Catholics do not have to breed like rabbits, which certain Catholics took as a slight against large families. As the IL indicates, however, the Synod will be asked to listen to families’ social and economic struggles as well as their moral ones. Hopefully, this discussion will be one more nail in the coffin of the new Jeb Bush/Rock Santorum theology that believes economics and politics lack moral content.

The second thing to note is that, within that section, the IL is not shy about the influence of certain ideological trends that adversely affect the family. If you have been listening to the Holy Father’s Wednesday audience talks, or some of his homilies, this should not surprise. He seems to be very disturbed by “gender ideology” and he is right to be disturbed. In the hands of certain academics, gender ideology is a little kooky and, when it affects public policies, such as demands put on developing nations to adopt Western norms as their own in order to receive financial assistance, this ideology is, as the pope said in the Philippines, a kind of “ideological colonialism.”

That said, I do not think anyone, including the pope, needs to be overly concerned about “gender ideology.” It is an intellectual fad that turns a commonplace – in some sense, gender roles are culturally and socially conditioned – into a discipline which, like all academic disciplines, invites ever more novel attempts to push the envelope in order to get published. But, at the end of the day, men and women experience the differentness of their genders and do not feel the need to make an ideology out of it. As Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman pointed out here at NCR, when the pope discusses these issues, he speaks in terms of his experience and it is the ideological constructs, their ability to pull people, including pastors, away from that lived experience that is part of the danger. So when Pope Francis speaks against "gender ideology" remember that it is the ideology that bothers him. I am sure that the high profile media treatment of Caitlyn Jenner confirmed some people’s worst fears about the malleability of gender roles, but for all the media attention, most people are not dealing with such a complicated experience of gender, and the Church has no reason to decline to be compassionate to those few who are.

One of the most remarked upon qualities of Francis is reflected in the text: There is a change of tone. Some people dismiss this as unimportant, they want to see “real” change, which they equate with altered policies or even altered theologies. I would submit that the tone of our language as a Church matters greatly, and not only because we are a Church that worships Him we call “the Word made flesh.” It matters because we may see this Synod produce something more important than a streamlined annulment process or a call for better theology on homosexuality. We may see the Synod recognize that for too long, pastoral theology has been a kind of subset of moral theology, and that syllogisms have their place, but standing alone, they are an inadequate means of doing moral theology. As we watch the debate about the meaning of the Confederate flag, and whether or where it can or should be flown, we are reminded that symbols, including language, have great power. No one should dismiss a “change of tone” as a thing of no consequence.

The IL is certainly not the kind of document that will satisfy most readers of NCR. I acknowledge, and sometimes applaud, the tendency of NCR to push the envelope, but synods should not push the envelope. The doctrinal baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater of changed language. We at NCR may get a sense of exhilaration when we contemplate novel developments, but some in the Church get a sense of nausea from that same contemplation, and the Petrine ministry is a ministry of unity. It is obvious to all that the big ship that is the Barque of Peter is being given a new direction, but it is the pope’s job – and the bishops’ jobs – not to turn so fast that people start falling overboard. The post-conciliar changes, necessary though they were, produced some unwanted outcomes. Change always does. Some people did fall overboard. Especially on an issue like marriage that touches people’s lives so intimately and so obviously, those who simply advocate sweeping doctrinal change seem to me like those urban planners of the 1960s who uprooted whole neighborhoods, replacing them with sterile, eventually unlivable, streetscapes that turned many downtowns into urban wastelands.

Pope Francis steers by a different compass than the urge to “be on the right side of history,” a hoary, increasingly common phrase on the left that should never be used, not least because of its Stalinist origins. The Pope wants to be one the right side of Jesus Christ, and this pope, almost uniquely among the popes of my lifetime, encounters Jesus Christ in the poor and their lives, especially in their troubles. I have not an ounce of fear about entrusting this synod to such a man. I have no doubt the developments in the Church’s doctrine will be modest but real, the changes in our pastoral practice perhaps less modest. And the IL released yesterday shows a determination by Pope Francis to get the synod fathers talking with each other, instead of talking past each other, which apparently happened too much last year. It is not a page turner, this IL, but it is a good effort to frame the issues and stimulate fruitful dialogue.   

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