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  • John Thavis

A modest proposal as the synod winds down

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

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.”

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