At the close of the first session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI. That Francis moved the author of Humanae Vitae closer to sainthood at a synod on marriage and family should not inspire liberal optimism. But it has.
Most media reports have emphasized Paul's record as a reformer. They have presented us with the Paul who ditched the papal tiara. The Paul who promoted ecumenical dialogue and traveled the world. The Paul who guided the Second Vatican Council, who spoke out against the Vietnam War. And they have speculated that Francis, by beatifying such a progressive figure, is telling us something about his own hopes for the synod and for the direction of the church.
Eventually, even the most optimistic articles acknowledge the elephant in the room.
"Paul stood firm on opposition to artificial birth control," the LA Times notes at the very end of its story on the beatification Mass. The New York Times article adds the diplomatic line: "He is also remembered for his 1968 encyclical 'Humanae Vitae' ('Of Human Life'), which reaffirmed the church's opposition to artificial birth control."
In each case, discussion of Humanae Vitae is pared down to a single sentence. One of the most controversial Catholic sexual ethics documents of the last century appears only as a footnote to Paul's papacy, something for which he "is also remembered." This, especially given that Paul was beatified at a synod on family, is hard to excuse.
I'm picking on these examples because they're part of a larger problem with liberal responses to the synod: a tendency to overstate its progressive implications while minimizing or ignoring its troubling discussions of women, especially women's reproductive lives.
The synod has not been shy on the subject. The Intrumentum laboris consistently condemns birth control and "gender theory." The nice, married, heterosexual couples who offered testimony consistently sang the praises of natural family planning and deplored the prevalence of contraception. And at the close of the first session of the synod on the family, Pope Francis beatified his predecessor of happy memory: Pope Paul VI, who scrapped the papal tiara, yes, but whose major contribution to the actual topic of the synod is notoriously patriarchal.
Francis' liberal admirers have downplayed or disregarded this part of the synod. They have focused, instead, on shifts in tone and a few short-lived words of welcome to "homosexual persons." By doing so, they have indicated -- and not for the first time -- that women's concerns are not a priority.
The synod, too, is telling us quite a bit about its priorities, its purpose, and its openness to change. Are we listening?