Editorial: The church needs the commotion the family synod caused

by NCR Editorial Staff

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It is difficult to imagine why any pope would want to engage in the synodal process if it were not to discuss compelling issues of the day. It is equally difficult to imagine a gathering of bishops called to discuss important issues of the day with the expectation that they would not pose difficult questions or generate disagreement among themselves.

Perhaps it is because the Catholic world has come to presume the unreasonable -- that discussions can occur with no "dissenting" positions permitted and no forbidden questions allowed -- that the most recent phase of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family would cause such strong reactions across the spectrum of expectations.

For more than 30 years and two papacies, Catholics have been conditioned to accept, many grudgingly, that it had become an unalterable fact of life that discussion of certain topics, certain pastoral approaches, certain questions related to contemporary life and, especially, to sexuality were forever forbidden in the community and would surely never occur among church leaders.

And then along came Pope Francis. He said those rules and presumptions no longer apply, that discussion was not to be censored, that no topics or questions were to be off the table. He wanted full, robust debate. The bishops of the world apparently delivered. The debate was worth the effort, if only so that Catholics can understand their leaders actually do disagree on important matters. However, it is essential to keep in mind that it is still a discussion among a tiny sampling of humanity, removed from the ordinary circumstances of life, and exclusively male and celibate.

What lies ahead, of course, is a year until the final meeting of this two-part synod. That assembly, we are told, will be larger in number and more diverse than the first. It will also occur with the understanding that no one will face inquisition should he (could there possibly be a she?) raise troubling questions or issue a stinging critique of the synod process, fellow bishops, or even the pope. We wait with hope to hear from the U.S. bishops how they plan to continue the conversation of the synod, how widely they intend to consult and incorporate lay thinking on matters of marriage and family, and whom they will be sending as representatives to the 2015 session.

The initial takeaway from the surprising interim document was that the progressive wing of the church had benefited most from this gathering. That document, now famously, welcomed homosexuals and suggested the church might find goodness in gay relationships, as well as in those living together without being married and among the divorced and remarried.

However, those on the right who find themselves in the unusual position of dissenting from papal language and direction -- and some rather fiercely -- also benefit from Francis' openness to debate and his apparent reluctance to rein in those who dissent. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput compared what has occurred at the synod so far to something "of the devil." Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., declared the synod "rather Protestant." And Cardinal Raymond Burke, the voluble archconservative, at least obliquely blamed Francis' lack of clarity for doing harm to the church.

One New York Times columnist went so far as to urge "conservatives" to acts of open resistance should Francis continue to lead toward what the writer determined is a "precipice." One can imagine, in an earlier disposition, a cardinal or two crying foul at such an anti-Catholic and anti-papal suggestion and demanding an apology from the paper. It appears, however, that hierarchical indignation is remarkably elastic, its application dependent upon one's ideology -- and the pope.

Perhaps by the end of this synod's process, some Catholics will become less frightened of the word "change" and more realistic about how much the church and its teachings have changed over centuries. (Shall we revert to old teachings about slavery; women as malformed males; Jews as perpetrators of deicide; the evils of usury; or, God help us, the nature of the universe itself?)

On the other side of the divide in the community, progressives of differing degrees were heartened -- with qualifications -- about what is indisputably a new direction for the church. Some in this segment of the community would like the ecclesiastical equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Enough, they say, of incrementalism and of the need for endless reading of Vatican tea leaves to discern the slightest hint of new patterns.

No such correspondence will be forthcoming, and if it is, it will have nowhere to go. One of the parallel realities to change in the church is that, paradoxically, no mechanism exists for implementing change. It is always disguised, tortuously at times, as being in continuity with all that went before.

The French geologist Xavier Le Pichon writes that systems that become too rigid evolve through "a commotion"; the earth's plates collide and shatter and new formations occur. So it is with human systems, he writes. Thus, we strain, using the analogy of earthquakes for instance, in trying to explain what is happening in this synod and, by extension, in the Francis papacy.

The messy commotion now occurring is a small price to pay to correct the course of a church riddled with horrible scandals over sex and money, ossified by a destructive clericalism and shockingly corrupt at its highest levels.

Francis, we now know, underwent a personal conversion that is not unlike the changes occurring at the moment in the larger church. The authoritarian was greatly modified when he met the reality of life in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where few perfect families exist and where the satisfying theological constructions of the academy are nowhere to be found. The prince who abandons himself to such circumstances is humbled. He learns in ways no seminary can teach.

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 7-20, 2014 print issue under the headline: The church needs this commotion.

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