The Synod: What Does It Mean? Part I

by Michael Sean Winters

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Well, at least the whole world knew there was a Synod of Bishops happening! Getting past all the soundbites, what are the key things we learned the past two weeks and, more importantly, what are the key challenges going forward?

My colleague, Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, has an analysis that perfectly explains what Pope Francis is trying to accomplish in this synodal process: He is putting the “mater” back into “mater et magistra.” And, as Reese notes, any good parent knows there is a tension between loving one’s child and trying to protect them from things that will harm them. This is the tension the Church always faces in proclaiming its teachings. Yes, at any given time, the Church may highlight its opposition to something going on in the ambient culture but at all times the Church must teach that God is merciful and loving and welcoming and the Church must mimic God in this regard.

The synod was a great accomplishment for synodality per se. The openness displayed made some very nervous. Cardinal Raymond Burke seemed unhappy with the whole process, fearing it upset the doctrinal apple cart at a time when clarity of doctrine is necessary. Damien Thompson writes that he thought the synod was “confused.” It do not think confused is the right word. The only way to avoid “confusion” is to align oneself into a rigid ideology that banishes confusion, overlooks all the variables of human life, and prefers categories to people. This ideological override can be found on both the left and the right and will be the central focus of my post tomorrow.

Pope Francis strongly distanced himself from both ideological camps in his remarkable closing address which, I suspect, will be studied and analyzed long after the relatio has been forgotten.  The pope spoke against several temptations that were evident in the two week proceedings, and at the top of the list was this:

One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility [trans: rigidity], that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

I think this may be the first time a pontiff called attention to “what we still need to learn and to achieve.” And, Pope Francis’ focus on the fact that God surprises us is a great antidote to the temptation to impose our wills on the process of discernment the synod is intended to accomplish: None of us knows precisely how these discussions will turn out, this is not a platform fight at a political convention, the Spirit is at work in the Church, and if we do not believe that, then we have ceased to be Catholic believers.

The pope also had some choice words for the progressives:

The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

The pope is indicating that the Church should be primarily concerned to accommodate Herself to Christ, not to the world, a point he made later in chastising those who would come down of the Cross if given the chance. Again, more on these ideological tendencies and the challenge facing them tomorrow.

I hope that people will not overlook the message from the synod fathers. It was surprisingly strong on the socio-economic factors that can make it almost impossible for families to sustain themselves. Lord knows that here in the U.S. we do not do enough to try and alleviate poverty, nor even explore the effects of poverty on family life, a point which my conservative friends rightly raise but usually put the cart before the horse, blaming the poverty on the breakdown of marriage when, surely, the relationship is more complex. But, in the global south, the poverty is crushing. To them, being poor in the U.S. is almost middle class in their countries. How does one sustain a family in such circumstances? I hope at the next synod, the fathers address more fully the way modern socio-economic conditions also harm marriages by infecting the culture with a consumerist mentality.

We do not know what was said in the synod hall, but it appears the most important intervention came from the Australian couple who spoke about friends of theirs who had a gay son. Yesterday, the Washington Post had a really outstanding article by Liz Tenety that detailed just how this phenomenon plays out in one faithful Catholic family here in the U.S. Here, in brief, is the answer to those who wanted to put the words “intrinsically disordered” into the final text from the synod: You cannot teach the faith in such a way that it frustrates other Christian obligations, such as the love a parent should have for their child. That, too, is part of the patrimony of the faith.

The Post also had a fine article in Outlook by David Cloutier, a theologian at Mt. St. Mary’s and a leader in the Catholic Conversation Project I attend each summer. He focused on the theme of graduality that emerged at the synod. And, he pointed out how the change in the Church’s approach to some of these hot button issues comes from a different source than similar, political efforts at affect change. He writes:

Unlike secular political movements, the church is not staking out positions on social issues with the goal of effecting — or blocking — legal or cultural change. It does not see social change (however important) as an end in itself. Instead, the goal is to facilitate the encounter with God, in the person of Jesus and the community of the church. The deliberations of the synod make clear that Francis and many other bishops worry intensely that a focus on certain moral ideals, especially when they sound like a simple “no” to many people, constitutes a barrier to that fundamental spiritual encounter.

Indeed, I would not only second Cloutier’s article, but would say that one of the dynamics developing in this pontificate is that, against the neo-Pelagian tendency of some on the Catholic right to subsume pastoral theology under the rubric of moral theology, with Pope Francis, moral theology is being assigned its proper role as the servant of pastoral theology. The objective here – Christ’s objective that is – is the salvation of souls. Moral teachings assist that goal and when those teachings are presented in a way that they alienate people, they have failed in their primary pastoral objective. Of course, this does not mean we can just all make nice, sing a round of Kumbaya and go home. The prophets were not shy in calling their people to account for their sins. But, whenever I see someone, on the left or the right, cloak their own utterances with the mantle of prophecy, I cringe. God chooses His own prophets.

The last takeaway from the synod that warrants a great deal of attention is the question: What next? Three weeks from today, the USCCB will open their annual plenary meeting. Last year, they did not do much in the way of consultation but, in fairness, the questionnaire came out just a month or so before the meeting, and the responses were due in January. Now, there is a full year to consult with the clergy and the lay faithful. There is certainly time to ask the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) to conduct a survey. I fear that the current leadership at the USCCB may have lost CARA’s number, but they can google it and the phone still works. Will the U.S. bishops hold up, not just the relatio, but the Holy Father’s closing remarks and the message from the synod, and ask if they see themselves in anything that is there written?  Will they elect as delegates to the next synod those who stand with Cardinal Burke or those who stand with Pope Francis?

Tomorrow I will look at how the synod challenges both the left and the right.  

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