Though called an "ordinary general assembly," the just-ended Synod of Bishops, with its surprising conclusion that opened a wide path of mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics, was extraordinary in ways probably not anticipated or wished for by many of those who planned and attended the gatherings held over two years.
By any measure the most transparent and raucous of synods held over the past half century, the meetings bared one long and widely known truth that church leaders have desperately tried to hide from those outside the hierarchical culture: The men who inhabit the highest levels of church governance often disagree deeply over important matters.
That such a simple and understandable reality is no longer a secret is, in the final analysis, a healthy development. That the dissent in this case came from conservatives should put to rest forever the silly notion that one's "orthodoxy" depends on an unthinking, uncritical agreement with everything uttered by the pope or the magisterium.
The gathering was also extraordinary because in the final analysis -- and in the undisguised final emphasis of the pope -- the synod was as much about the attitudes of the hierarchy and how they view the church and their role in it as it was about any complex theological issue they might be considering.
This synod adds a significant segment to the arc of change that has marked church history in the contemporary era, beginning with the Second Vatican Council. An ongoing tension inherent in church life exists between the view of tradition as frozen, as if in holy amber, and the one that sees tradition as constantly renewing itself, expanding with new insights to meet new challenges.
Synods were constituted to accommodate the latter impulse, but the need to control the trajectory of change, to eliminate not only the possibility of change but even any discussion of it, overwhelmed the process. Francis has cast aside the fear of change and profoundly altered the faithful's expectations.
He speaks of synodality in a big-picture way. Consonant with his language from the moment he arrived on the balcony as the newly elected pope, Francis' final address to last year's session was loaded with images of movement and change.
His definition of synod is "a path of solidarity, a 'journey together.' " In this journey, he said, "there were moments of running fast, as if wanting to conquer time and reach the goal as soon as possible; other moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say 'enough'; other moments of enthusiasm and ardor."
It is essential to note here that the sense of "together" is yet missing a significant component. Women, more than half the church and certainly its most active participants in most places, had no voice or vote in any of the discussion. Married people were little more than minimal adornments to the proceedings.
And while there may have been a more respectful tone when speaking about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, there was no attempt to actually consult members of that portion of the Catholic community.
Synods, as extraordinary as this one may have been, are still seriously deficient instruments. Acceptance of final statements and documents -- no matter how positive, welcoming or well-intentioned -- will be questioned until these deficiencies are corrected.
The pope's comments following this year's synod targeted more the conduct and attitudes of participants than they did the broad community discussed during the sessions. Francis has recognized from the start the fundamental and urgent need to disassemble the elements of the clerical culture that have left it ossified and disconnected from reality.
He has injected a dose of realism into the clerical culture's analysis that previously located the church's problems in the wider world, in cultures that had become overly secular, relativistic and hostile to religion.
The tactic of placing the blame for the church's failures everywhere else but on the church itself was drained of credibility when people became aware of the deceit and the breach of trust exposed in the global clerical sex abuse crisis and the financial scandals that reached to the church's highest levels.
The elevated notions of ordination that seemed to peak during Pope John Paul II's reign began to tumble when his prime example of heroic priesthood, Legionaries of Christ founder Marcial Maciel Degollado, turned out to be a fraud who had easily played to the vanity of the papal court, despite loud and repeated warnings from some of his victims. The corruption was systemic and not easily cleansed.
Francis switched the lens -- from one of judgment to one of mercy -- through which he viewed the vast people of God. He switched the lens -- from one of complicity to one of judgment -- on those in the clerical culture who had caused so much scandal and compromised the mission of the church.
From the moment Francis stepped onto the balcony above St. Peter's Square in 2013, the people could feel the switch. They were no longer the objects of hierarchical suspicion for what they might be doing wrong. They were suddenly companions on a journey, encouraged in the pursuit of holiness, not perfection. The heart of a pastor replaced the Code of Canon Law as the lead instrument in a bishop's approach to his flock.
So it was with Francis' approach to the family in all of its global complexity.
"The synod experience," he said on the gathering's final day, "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."
This is the modern version of Jesus exposing the hypocrisy of the temple culture, a calling out of religious leaders who place unnecessary burdens on the people.
In language rich in generosity and invitation, courageous in its lack of threat or need to control, Francis demonstrates the centrality of mercy. "The church's first duty," he said, "is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God's mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord."
It is fairly established that Francis was elected, at least in part, on the strength of a brief but stinging critique he had delivered in the days before the conclave of a corrupt church that had become so turned in on itself that it had become ill. The synod is the latest indication that he intends to deal with more than symptoms of the illness.
The metaphor for the community has changed: from border police patrolling the boundaries and making sure no undeserving pass through, to a journey that wanders, pulling in the disenfranchised and those who may feel unworthy so that they may experience, in Francis' words, "the light of the Gospel, the embrace of the church and the support of God's mercy!"
All of us will engage, in our own ways, in parsing the winners and losers of this synod. It is both human nature and a sign of the stakes involved.
The fact that the synod was able to reach two-thirds agreement on a path to Communion for the divorced and remarried, a path that relies on a radically decentralized understanding of church authority, is an indication of the kind of change possible.
As important is the precedent establishing the model and method for the discussion and discernment that allowed the synod fathers to arrive at such a consensus. That involved an equally momentous change in how some of them perceive themselves and their ministry.
Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.
We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.