Francis' synod process is messy and fraught with fights, but it's necessary

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

Well, the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family lived up to its name. It was indeed extraordinary.

It was extraordinary not because of the synod's developing content, which seems disappointingly same-o, same-o so far. No, what is noteworthy is the process through which the bishops are now engaging one another. Pope Francis' synod is modeling an open process. He invited input from grassroots Catholics around the world, insisted that that participants voice their opinions boldly, no matter how controversial, and clearly expected the heated disagreements that inevitably ensued.

News flash: For the first time in about 35 years, the pope is saying it is OK for church leaders to publicly disagree and discuss diverse points of view about pastoral issues.

I was in Rome for two previous synods, the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in 2005 and the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in 2008. Both were conducted with little opportunity for advance feedback from the People of God. Both featured stilted speeches that influenced hardly anybody and were quickly forgotten. And, God forbid, there was never a hint of internal disagreement that aired publicly.

Still, each of those synods had some positive outcomes. For example, two final propositions of the synod on the Word of God praised women in the ministry of the Word and asked to open study of the lectionary with a view to updating lectionary texts. As nearly as I can tell, nothing ever happened with those two propositions or any of the others. They seemed to have disappeared down some curial rabbit hole, never to be seen again.

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This could also occur with the final outcomes of next year's synod on the family, of course, though that would be surprising in light of Pope Francis' commitment to serving and fostering the sensus fidei among the bishops.

Pope Francis wants bishops to struggle together in addressing serious pastoral challenges rather than wait passively for a ruling from some Vatican functionary. He wants church teaching and pastoral practice to come from pastors, not pencil-pushers.

It is refreshing and hopeful that church leaders such as Canadian Archbishop Paul-André Durocher are speaking publicly about the need to start from "the true situation of the people," even naming it as a "theological source" in shaping pastoral practice.

To have prelates such as Cardinal Reinhard Marx publicly argue that church teaching can change is something we have not seen in a very long time -- except from those dratted church reform types, of course. Marx's actual words are worth repeating: "Saying that the doctrine will never change is a restrictive view of things. ... The core of the Catholic church remains the Gospel, but have we discovered everything? This is what I doubt."

If church leaders are serious about theologizing from the lived experience of believers -- like, say, the divorced and remarried and those in committed gay relationships -- pastoral practice and church teaching will eventually reflect what those believers have known all along: God is doing something new in the church.

While this new understanding is still a ways off, church leadership seems at last to be getting the theological and spiritual premises right.

I chalk this up to Pope Francis' Jesuit spirituality. He knows well that God can only be present to us through the mysterious and sometimes confusing gift of our humanity. The only way anyone can come to know God is through his or her experience. Theologizing starts from our experience. It follows that church teaching necessarily emerges from believers sharing their experiences of faith and of doubt about concrete situations in their lives.

Francis' open process of synod sharing, while messy, lengthy, and fraught with family fights, is absolutely necessary if we are to discover God's action in the lived experiences of people different from us.

It was extraordinary that the final vote tally of all 62 items in the synod's new working document were made public, especially the two about welcoming gay and divorced Catholics that failed to reach consensus. Traditionalist Catholics criticized this decision, perhaps because both items attracted a healthy majority of positive votes, though it failed to reach the two-thirds required for consensus. Yet this is a work in process. Commitment to transparency, something traditionalists earlier complained was lacking, means the whole body of bishops (and everyone else) deserve to know where things stand for future deliberations.

Many problems remain with the new working document, presuming early English-language media are accurate about the yet-to-be-translated final version. It is insulting to expect a woman who divorced her husband because of physical or verbal abuse to enter into a "penitential phase" before receiving Communion. Such a scenario is abusive in itself. One happy outcome of the broader discussion about readmitting the divorced and remarried to Communion is that it affirms the pastoral practice of priests who have quietly been encouraging those who long for the Eucharist to freely receive it. I know priests who have been doing this for years.

The new working document is now being sent back to the local level for consideration and feedback from bishops' conferences, dioceses and parishes. It is my sincere hope that church leaders will actively seek out the lived experiences of divorced and remarried and gay and lesbian Catholics before making any decisions about pastoral practice. They should also listen carefully to Catholic parents using unapproved methods of family planning.

While the outcomes of part one of the synod on the family are disappointing, the synod itself modeled a healthy new process of wide-ranging discussion, including public debate and disagreement.

Following Pope Francis' closing address, synod bishops gave him a five-minute standing ovation, perhaps sending a message to prelates like Cardinal Raymond Burke, who had publicly accused him of doing harm to the church.

Blind obedience is no longer in vogue at the Vatican. That alone is cause for rejoicing.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years.]

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