The Synod of Bishops concluded over the weekend. The full text has yet to be translated into English, and once it is I shall write about it in its entirety. But, we know enough about the synod itself to note who and what won, or at least advanced the ball, during the past three weeks.
The first winner was the synod itself. Pope Francis spoke about the importance of restoring synodality into the Church at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the creation of the synod of bishops by Pope Paul VI a week ago Saturday, and his words were powerful. But, more than his words, it was the experience of the past three weeks – and of last year’s synod, and of the intervening year – that spoke powerfully to the Church about how we can and should confront issues. Profound issues should not be left to curial officials. Even popes are ill advised to make decisions without consulting widely. Yet, since Vatican I promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility, not just the Church’s decision making, but its reflection on, and consideration of, issues have been top heavy.
The synod showed that this different approach to governance is not without challenges, and it will certainly take some getting used to by the Church’s leaders. For example, it turns out that some residential bishops, especially from countries where the Church is relatively young, are more Roman than the much-maligned curial officials. Several synod fathers commented on the need for theologians to be present, a sad commentary on the theological education of many bishops. And, the process itself showed great improvement this year over last, with more time devoted to small group discussions and less time listening to set piece interventions.
The synod achieved consensus. Despite those who claim Pope Francis has broken the Church and now Humpty-Dumpty has to be put together again, on these highly contentious issues, more than two-thirds of the synod fathers approved each and every paragraph of the final text. Consensus is forged, not promulgated, it is won through listening to one another and finding common ground, or new approaches that allow people to overcome what was perceived as an obstacle previously. Forging consensus requires each participant to recognize that he does not have all the answers, which may be news to some bishops. And, if dialogue among the bishops can lead to consensus, maybe the bishops will learn to dialogue better with people when they get back to their dioceses. Finally, as Pope Francis made clear at several points, synodality expresses, it does not vitiate, the hierarchic structure of the Church. Synods happen cum Petro et sub Petro. This displeases some on the left, who want a more democratic Church, and some on the right, who are not very pleased with the current pope. Synodality will require re-thinking the Petrine ministry, but it will never make that ministry obsolete or unneeded.
The second big winner at the synod was non-judgmentalism. In every regard, the synod texts, the comments of the bishops to the press, and most especially the Holy Father’s closing talk to the synod and his closing homily at the final Mass, all called for a Church that is tender, not wagging its finger, that reaches out to people with a mother’s love, not with a switch for the backside of those who falter and those who fail. Pope Francis said in his closing address to the synod, “[The synod] was also about laying bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.” To be clear: The abandonment of the jeremiad as a means of preaching the Gospel was not embraced because it will be more effective, although those who proclaimed the value of a “smaller, purer Church” were in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. No, the preference for a non-judgmental Church characterized by encounter, accompaniment and mercy was embraced because it is the model the Master gave us. He never attacked people on the kinds of intimate, personal issues that constitute family life. He saved his jeremiads for those who were powerful, and who abused their power, most especially those who aimed to “sit in the chair of Moses and judge.”
The third big winner, related to the first two, was Pope Francis himself. He weathered the attack launched on him by thirteen cardinals who charged he was presiding over a rigged synod, questioning the integrity of the pope and those who organized the synod. Some can claim that these attacks were aimed at Cardinal Baldiserri, but the truth is that the pope attended the meetings of the Council on the Synod too. And, there was the additional false rumor spread that the pope was suffering from a brain tumor, suggesting he might not be of right mind and, in any event, would have a short pontificate so no need to get on board. It was appalling. Can you imagine the repercussions if anyone had tried this nonsense under John Paul II? As Archbishop Blase Cupich noted in his statement at the conclusion of the synod, “Throughout these sometimes stormy days Pope Francis remained serene and centered, trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. His demeanor and poise had an enormous impact on the bishops. Jesus asked Peter to walk on water and this time he kept his eyes on the Lord and taught us all how to walk together.” +Cupich said the synod was “a decisive demonstration of the pope’s ability to govern wisely and effectively.” So much for the Humpty-Dumpty theory.
His final address to the synod showed that he fully grasped the dynamics. Last year, in his closing address, the pope balanced his criticisms, mentioning tendencies on both the left and the right that he found worrisome. This year, there was nothing the pope said that would make Cardinal Donald Wuerl squirm in his seat, but the thirteen cardinals who signed that letter, and those who think like them, surely were made at least a little uncomfortable when he said, “[The synod] was about trying to open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints, so as to defend and spread the freedom of the children of God, and to transmit the beauty of Christian Newness, at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible.” And, he got a final text that points in a direction that reflects his calls for a more merciful Church, but a document that in no way hems him in. He is free to do what he wants with the concerns raised and the issues addressed.
The drafting committee, also a target of the scandalous letter by the thirteen, was also a big winner. Last year, a couple of paragraphs did not get the desired two-thirds majority. This year, every paragraph passed that hurdle. I found it ironic that the paragraph that got the lowest vote total was virtually a direct quote from John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio. We might say that the synod gave a win to John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well, reminding the Church that they had things to say about the inviolability of conscience too, that their teachings were more complex than their putative fan clubs make them out to be, that they understood that mercy is itself a teaching of the Church and conscience is more than the ability to recite the footnotes in the catechism. The drafting committee, it turns out, was more theologically sophisticated than the nay-sayers, and rooted everything they wrote in clear scriptural, papal and conciliar teachings.
Finally, a shout out to the German-language small group. As at the Council, the Germans brought a lot of the heavy duty theology to the table, and they also brought an array of positions. Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Muller were both in that group and they have not exactly been seeing eye to eye on some of the controversial issues. Yet, the Germans proposed the internal forum as the proper avenue for dealing with issues of the divorced and remarried. It is not an ideal solution for anyone: The progressives want an external forum solution and the conservatives like the external forum solution they already have. The Germans, citing the catechism and the teachings of Pope John Paul II, and a decree from the Pontifical Council of Legislative texts, reminded the entire synod of the role of conscience in moral decision making. It was noteworthy that a few days before the German group announced their unanimous agreement on the internal forum proposal, the only American delegate who is proficient in German, Archbishop Cupich, mentioned the role of conscience in a press briefing. He, too, cited the catechism and a Benedict XVI-approved document from the International Theological Commission.
Tomorrow, I will confront some of the false narratives coming out of the synod coverage. For now, let’s just celebrate this enormous achievement by the synod fathers and Pope Francis. In his closing address, the Holy Father made reference to two parables I cited last week, the Prodigal and the laborers in the field. His comments capture the transformation that the synod shaped in he past three weeks:
The Synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy (cf. Rom 3:21-30; Ps 129; Lk 11:37-54). It does have to do with overcoming the recurring temptations of the elder brother (cf. Lk 15:25-32) and the jealous labourers (cf. Mt 20:1-16). Indeed, it means upholding all the more the laws and commandments which were made for man and not vice versa (cf. Mk 2:27).
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.