Upcoming Synod of Bishops is about more than just marriage and family

This article appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

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When the Vatican held its first synod on the family in 1980, the Polish-born John Paul II -- a man "from a far-away country" -- had been pope for only two years. Curiously, next week's gathering of bishops on the very same theme also comes quite early in a new pontificate. It is less than 19 months from the day a Jesuit from Argentina, "the end of the earth," was elected bishop of Rome and took the name Francis.

The nearly 35 years that have passed between these two international meetings of bishops span a bit more than two generations. And while there is a similarity in two non-Italian popes confronting issues related to marriage and the family early in their papal ministry, their approaches could not be more different.

John Paul II was a forceful and charismatic 60-year-old, and his 1980 synod came in the wake of a determined program to crack down on dissent, put an end to open debate on thorny pastoral and theological issues, and to ensure that the world's bishops were in lockstep with directives issued by the Holy See.

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To reform-minded Catholics, his surprisingly successful effort to get all the church's pastors singing from the same song sheet, undertaken relatively soon after the Second Vatican Council, has been devastating. Avenues for discussing and debating ways to change pastoral approaches that clearly no longer work have been tightly closed off. But this has not stemmed the widening gap that many Catholics -- both priests and people -- experience between themselves and the doctrinaire approach of many so-called John Paul II and Benedict XVI bishops. Nowhere is this disconnect more apparent than how their own convictions differ from the hierarchy's official teaching and policy on family life, marriage and human sexuality.

Francis, who will soon be 78, clearly understands this. And although he professes to be a loyal "son of the church," the Jesuit pope has decided that conversation, dialogue and, yes, even debate are healthy and necessary for the life of the community of believers. The unprecedented questionnaire on family issues that he asked the secretary general of the synod to send out at the end of last year was only the first step. Though many criticized its format and the short window of time allowed for returning responses, the exercise opened at least the possibility for all Catholics to make a contribution to the planning and agenda of a major meeting of bishops.

Not everyone was pleased with the pope's effort to take the pulse of the wider church, however. For example, only a few national bishops' conferences around the world made a real attempt to canvass the views of individual Catholics. Instead, most of them seem to have relied on parish priests or heads of deaneries to complete the surveys. Such reticence would seem to belie a discomfort so many of today's bishops have in discussing any type of change in church discipline or practice. Whether that is based on prudence or fear, it certainly stands in stark contrast to Francis' clarion call in Evangelii Gaudium for "a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are" (25).

In this apostolic exhortation, the pope says it is even necessary to "re-examine" various "rules or precepts" and "certain customs" when "considering a reform of the Church." This includes a generous, open and merciful attitude toward offering people the sacraments. Quoting St. Ambrose, he writes that the Eucharist "is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." The pope emphasizes that this belief has "pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness" (47). This is not nothing! Francis says Evangelii Gaudium is a document with "programmatic significance" -- read: the program of his pontificate. Yet why do so many ordained leaders in the church, those once so eager to quote the previous two popes, simply ignore or downplay its real importance?

The surprisingly audacious apostolic exhortation and the launching of the synod questionnaire have been attempts to shake all believers, including the bishops, out of a "tomb psychology" and "spiritual 'desertification.' " But there was yet another attempt to "make a mess" (or, as the pope has said before in Spanish, hacer lío). Francis tapped Cardinal Walter Kasper to give a major address at the beginning of February's consistory, a two-day meeting of the entire College of Cardinals. The 81-year-old theologian's talk, which he titled and later published in book form as The Gospel of the Family, proposed possible ways of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to be readmitted to the sacraments. This sparked a fierce rebuttal from several conservative cardinals the next day, which has since intensified in the run-up to next week's synod, even with the publication of several contra-Kasper books.

In an interview with an Italian newspaper shortly after Kasper's talk, the pope was asked what he made of the disagreements. "I would have been worried if there had not been intense discussions in the consistory, it would have been useless," he said. "The cardinals knew they could say whatever they wanted," he continued. "Fraternal and open discussion help develop theological and pastoral thinking," the Pope said, before he concluded by saying, "I'm not afraid of this. On the contrary, I seek it."

Francis is obviously intent on reintroducing lively conversation in the church, especially among the pastors, those who share pastoral and doctrinal responsibility with him. Many held out hopes that when Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops at the end of Vatican II, this permanent body would further enhance discussion and help develop the council's all-but-stillborn doctrine of epsicopal collegiality. Since becoming bishop of Rome, Francis has spoken much about synodality, the need to decentralize power and restore the responsibility for governing the universal church that all bishops share in some way with him.

The Synod of Bishops is one of several institutions with ancient theological foundations that can help recover this. The pope, contrary to his predecessors, believes episcopal conferences are another. He easily could have decided to have the synod focus on collegiality or synodality, since these are clearly principles he is eager to develop. But this hardly would have created much interest or excitement in the vast majority of Catholics. Instead, Francis has chosen a theme that pertains especially to 99.9 percent of the church -- those who are not ordained. While membership to the Synod of Bishops is, by nature, limited to church's hierarchs, the theme and the way the pope is forcing the high priests to engage it will necessarily cause them to listen more carefully to the views of the baptized faithful.

Some commentators have stated that the "honeymoon with Francis" or the success of his pontificate will rest on what happens over the next couple of weeks. But a cautionary word is due. This is only the first gathering of a two-part synod experience. The "extraordinary assembly," beginning next week, is meant only to facilitate an honest discussion about how effectively the church promotes, serves and helps marriage and family life flourish; to acknowledge where and why its teachings are rejected or ignored; and, basically, to take the temperature of the current situation. In October 2015 at the "ordinary assembly" of the synod, the bishops will be back to hammer out a pastoral plan after carefully reflecting on the deliberations of the earlier gathering.

In the 12 months between these two assemblies, it will be essential for the Catholic faithful, their pastors and theologians (especially those married and non-ordained) to continue the discussions, the conversations and debates. This could replicate, in a somewhat different but no less fruitful way, a dynamic that was essential to the blossoming of Vatican II. Most of the work and developments at that great event were forged outside the aula of St. Peter's Basilica and in between the four sessions.

Pope Francis, in the way he has mapped out these synod assemblies over the next two years, has offered the entire church an opportunity to rekindle the excitement that the council generated. This is still very much a work in progress, an attempt to reform the Synod of Bishops in a way that the entire pilgrim People of God might journey together (syno-dos) with their pastors. It will not be easy. And there certainly will be tensions and even strong disagreements.

But if you want to know which way Pope Francis is leaning, read Envangelii Gaudium.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

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