Updated: Feb 19, 2020
There’s an awful lot of hand-wringing going on about the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which is only a few days into its second and final session.
We’ve heard warnings that Pope Francis and his “mercy” agenda may be leading the church down the road to schism (over the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics), or confusion (over more welcoming language regarding gay people, cohabitating couples and others), or a “first-world vs. third-world” split, or some type of dangerous pastoral shift that was worked out before the bishops even arrived in Rome and which non-Italian speakers might not even understand when it comes time to approve or disapprove.
We heard these concerns during last year’s synod session, too, and they have evidently persisted. I think that’s why Pope Francis has taken the floor and tried to reduce some of the hyperventilating that’s going on inside and outside the synod hall.
He began by encouraging bishops to be open to the Holy Spirit, and not to view their meeting as some kind of Parliament. That the pope felt he had to say this speaks volumes about the kind of political posturing that’s been going on in recent months. One participant said the pope also asked the bishops not to give in to a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” apparently responding to the murmured fears about this synod’s new methodology.
The pope emphasized that the “deposit of faith” is not a “museum” but a living fountain that must have a connection to people’s lives. He said apostolic courage includes the courage to look critically at the “hardening of hearts” in the church that simply sends people further away from God.
While insisting that the synod had never contemplated changing basic doctrine about the permanence of marriage, the pope said bishops need to show “evangelical humility.” That means “not pointing fingers at others in order to judge them, but extending them a hand in order to help them up, without ever feeling superior to them.” I think this plays into the pope’s exploration of how the church can restore full sacramental participation for divorced Catholics, among other things.
Meanwhile, predictions that the synod would be muzzled (allegedly part of the “conspiracy” to shove through a prefabricated outcome) are proving untrue. Bishops are free to talk to reporters, and the Vatican is providing a daily “meet the press” with several bishops each day.
The fact that these bishops sometimes disagree about important issues has already emerged in the press hall. That has prompted an “oh my God” reaction among some reporters, who apparently believe the church cannot survive an open discussion on these questions.
I think that’s the kind of melodrama that Pope Francis is trying to move beyond. The tension between mercy and truth is not something this pope created, as readers of the Gospel will recognize.
Francis believes, correctly I think, that unless the church changes its language and pastoral approach, it will continue to alienate many of the people it is trying to save. He knows this involves a difficult debate, among a hierarchy that was largely put in place by two popes who emphasized doctrinal identity.
It’s far too early for predictions, but I’ll make some anyway: The synod will not derail, bishops will not pick up their briefcases and march out of the hall, the faithful will not be stunned and disoriented by the outcome. At the end of the month, I think we’ll see a final document that is largely positive about the many contributions given and sacrifices made by families today, recognizing that in the modern age the church needs to also work with “untraditional” families in ways that are more welcoming than judgmental.
The pope has wisely structured this synod in a way that avoids up-and-down votes on specific final proposals. I think he probably realizes that reaching a consensus on issues like divorced and remarried Catholics, or replacing the “living in sin” language the church has used to define some relationships, will take more time. I expect some of these questions will be handed to commissions for quiet advancement in the months to come.