A modest proposal as the synod winds down

A modest proposal as the synod winds down

The Synod of Bishops has entered the crucial, final 48 hours of its assembly, a time to produce results and deliver them to the pope and to the world.

From the outside, this synod is looking more and more like an amazingly candid exchange of ideas, with two different pastoral perspectives locked in a line-by-line, word-by-word debate over the final text.

The perspective emphasizing mercy, welcome and accompaniment was expressed in Monday’s remarkable midterm relatio, which proposed, among other things, that modern evangelization should begin by finding “positive elements” in unions and relationships that the church had always considered sinful or “irregular.” This is Pope Francis’ line, and I’m sure he would like to see it endorsed by this synod.

The critical reaction has been unusually blunt, by Vatican standards. The small-group reports released yesterday went beyond fine-tuning – some groups proposed what would amount to a recasting of the entire document in a more doctrinal mold. (We need to remember, however, that these reports deal only with proposed changes, so there may well be a greater-than-apparent level of consensus on much of the relatio.)

I would love to hear what Pope Francis thinks of the proceedings so far. It may be an exaggeration to say that his pastoral agenda is at stake, but it’s hard not to see this synod as an evaluation of his first 18 months in office. At one point in the synod, one bishop told the pope that not even he had the right to change divine law. That’s a measure of the resistance that has surfaced here.

I’m sure Francis knew he was taking a risk with this synod. This is a pope who has chosen to practice real collegiality and “synodality” with a world episcopate largely appointed by two quite conservative predecessors.

The rumblings about the pope’s “who am I to judge” approach have come into the open here – not in direct criticism of the pontiff, of course, but in criticism of a text that very much reflected his ideas about evangelization. I think many bishops see this as a chance to reclaim the narrative that has dominated in the Catholic Church over the last 40 years, a narrative built around Catholic identity, doctrinal clarity and countercultural witness.

I’m not sure that’s possible, no matter what the final document says. With the midterm relatio, the genie was let out of the bottle. The critics are now trying to put it back in, but we have a pope who seems quite determined.

In the past, synods of bishops have tended to “blanderize” innovative proposals, and final documents have broken little new ground. This time around, I think, such an approach would be seen as running away from the questions. I’m not sure the synod can really express a consensus on all the controversial issues – but I’m not sure it has to.

My modest proposal is that if the synod cannot substantially agree on all these matters – on the proposed shift in language, evangelizing methods and sacramental rules – it can simply say so. Despite the tradition of voting on a result, this synod doesn’t need to deliver conclusions. In view of the fact that there’s supposed to be a year-long reflection on these themes in the wider church, followed by another synodal assembly in Rome, maybe this synod can simply say, “These are tough questions. We don’t have all the answers yet. And we’re willing to listen to the faithful.”

9 comments (Add your own)

1. Ruta wrote:
John, referring to the headlin e of your Facebook post, sharing this piece, I would agree that sometimes a question does seem a way more eloquent than an answer, especially in the case like this.

Fri, October 17, 2014 @ 4:41 AM

2. Suzie wrote:
Great reporting on the synod. Have been following the daily posts & feel like I have a true sense of what is happening.

Fri, October 17, 2014 @ 7:57 AM

3. Tom Mulrooney wrote:
If they can say, "We don't have all the answers", the synod will have been a triumph. That motto could be embroidered on their cassocks!

Fri, October 17, 2014 @ 9:23 AM

4. Trish Johnston wrote:
Thanks for your reports. I have learend so much. Your modest proposal would be groundbreaking if it were to happen, as I pray it does.

Fri, October 17, 2014 @ 11:18 AM

5. John Horst wrote:
It may not seem related, but the controversy sparked hundreds of years ago by Father Matteo Ricci's (1552-1610) mission to China can help us understand this present Synod and its controversy. At the heart of this difficulty is the difference between the language of orthodoxy, orthodoxy itself, and evangelism.

In that controversy, Ricci chose indigenous Chinese words for "God" and other things when translating the New Testament into Chinese. He also did not see any idolatry in Chinese rituals honoring deceased relatives. The first of these two issues is very much on point here. Ricci sought to incarnate the Gospel among the Confucian intellectual elite of China by adopting their language, interpreting the Gospel in their terms, so as to give birth to a gradual recognition of what being "in Christ' entailed.

Pope Francis is doing the same, and getting exactly the same push back that Ricci got from the Franciscans and Dominicans initially and Rome more formally by Pope Clement XI. Only today the mission field is not China, but the secular West.

Firstly, orthodoxy cannot be properly separated from orthopraxis - or right living. Conservatives take this to mean the draft of the Synod's current work should be rejected. Conservatives seem to have forgotten, though, that orthodoxy does not come naturally; it has to be learned in Christian community. So in order to bring the secular West back to the Gospel, they must first be reintroduced to Christian community.

To reject the Pope's pastoral direction, then, it to set up the language of orthodoxy and evangelism as competing interests - in which case both will lose and orthodoxy itself will be dissipated. We should have already learned this lesson. A Scottish Protestant scholar named John Ross picked up on Ricci's translation approach and translated the New Testament into Korean. He was able to get the text into Korea before missionaries themselves were allowed. And Korean Confucian scholars had already encountered Ricci in Peking, bringing back with them the implements and rudiments of the Mass. When Catholic missionaries first entered Korea they were shocked to see the Mass already being said! When Protestant missionaries arrived, they were shocked to see the beginning of churches already reading the New Testament!

And all you have to do today is travel to Japan, where the Franciscan and Dominicans of Ricci's time were coining Latinized terms for God, and then to South Korea, where the seeds sown by Ricci have grown, to see a contrast of results when the language of orthodoxy is allowed to become a competing interest with evangelism.

Both lose.

Fri, October 17, 2014 @ 7:00 PM

6. Johannes de Silentio wrote:
How on earth does appointing six prelates who obviously all espouse the Pope's view on the issues presented in the Synod, without regard for the by now transparently clear Synod majority who adhere to opposing views, in any way reflect a genuine commitment to collegiality?

Fri, October 17, 2014 @ 11:14 PM

7. Father Joseph LeBlanc, SJ wrote:
Ah, sanity for a change in reporting on the synod.

Sat, October 18, 2014 @ 9:23 AM

8. Bill wrote:
We are soon due for a shocker. The Pope meant far more with his "who am I to judge" statement than anyone interpreted. That hypothesis explains so much.

Sat, October 18, 2014 @ 9:23 AM

9. Martha E Lujan wrote:
I have seen Fr. Ricci's evangelism style in the work of the Jesuits in the Lakota territory and in the Navajo and Hopi areas. So much of the native American's spirituality speaks of one God (who is behind the Sun - in other words, far away) and our Lady, our blessed Mother who brought them their sacred pipe and feather and their ceremonies which, by the way, are seven and parallel closely to our Seven Catholic Sacraments. Fr. Ricci was right in so many ways, especially in meeting the people 'where they are.' Thank you for your wonderful reporting.

Sat, October 18, 2014 @ 5:35 PM

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