Yesterday, very early in the morning here in California, my cell phone alerted me to a new message. My first reaction was to ignore it and go back to sleep, but curiosity won out. This was when I found out about the just-released Relatio post disceptationem from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. As the Catholic blogosphere exploded into comments, analyses, cries of outrage, prayers of thanksgiving, “sighs, mourning and weeping” and then the inevitable calls for clarification, I thought I might blog something as well. By the time I had the time to do so, however, I felt like I was standing in front of a fire hose shooting often conflicting information at full force onto a hot fire of feelings. What could I possibly add to this maelstrom that could be helpful?
Context. Every text has a context.
1) Keep the big picture in mind! Remember that this Extraordinary Synod is only the first step in the process initiated by Pope Francis. This Synod’s purpose is to study, discuss, debate, and question issues related to contemporary family life, and then to frame the questions to be studied, discussed, debated and questioned by the whole church throughout the coming year. The results of the year-long process will then become the subject of the Ordinary Synod which is scheduled for October 2015. More about that later.
2) This relatio is a work-in-progress. It is not a final document of any standing whatsoever. It is first a status report, summarizing the conversations held thus far at the Synod. Those conversations, of course, have been remarkable. Following the Pope’s opening address in which he asked the participants to speak freely and boldly, they have done so, and it is thrilling to read the results of those conversations thus far. Second, the relatio is a draft document which is intended to be revised, corrected, amended, and re-written over the next several days. The final version of the document will be presented to Pope Francis later in the week as the Extraordinary Synod draws to a close. Third, it appears that the hope of the Synod Fathers (the bishops together with Pope Francis) is that the final document will serve as a guide to the discussions, debates, listening sessions, research and conversations that they hope will happen over the coming year throughout every Diocese. That is why the questions which are incorporated into the relatio are so important; it is easy to see that these are intended to be asked by every Catholic, lay and ordained, over the next year. Then, in October 2015, the Ordinary Synod will take up the questions again, aided and informed by the work of this year of discernment throughout the entire Church. It is, I believe, at that time that we will see certain questions and issues being addressed in more definitive form, both in terms of a final report from the Ordinary Synod and also from the papal magisterium in the form of an Apostolic Constitution or Apostolic Exhortation. In addition, should changes be desired to the current Code of Canon Law, it is possible that Pope Francis might announce those at that time as well, although he might also choose to give the results of the Ordinary Synod to the Commission he has already appointed to study the canons related to annulments, so that the Synod’s work can inform their work.
3) Be prepared for unpopular changes to the current text. Since this is a working document, synodal bishops who feel their points of view are not adequately presented will push to change that, and it may appear like a rollback of some of the ideas now being applauded by so many. This should not be seen as discouraging OR encouraging: it will be an attempt to clarify and, in the end, reflect the complexity of the issues which remain. It’s the way bishops tend to work. You can see this in the press briefing offered this morning, in which Cardinal Napier of South Africa complained that the current text did not adequately describe all the positions being taken by the bishops. He also expressed a reasonable concern that — because of the great explosion of media coverage on the relatio — bishops may now feel they are locked into the current text because any attempt to revise it will be misunderstood. He’s right, I think: any changes now are going to be looked at very warily by people on all sides of the issues. Still, the normal process of making revisions to a working document should be followed.
4) Keep an eye on the official synod bulletins and clarifications. This will add additional context to the process. John Thavis, veteran journalist on Vatican matters, reported this morning:
Today’s synod bulletin summarizes the reaction among synod participants during a two-hour debate yesterday. On one hand, it said, there was acclaim for the way the document managed to accurately reflect the speeches at the assembly and its general theme of “welcoming” as a key to evangelization. The synod should have the “watchful gaze of the pastor who devotes his life for his sheep, without a priori judgment,” was how the Vatican summarized the favorable reviews.
As for the objections, they were many – although it is hard to say how much support each criticism has among the nearly 200 bishops present.
The official Bulletin lists a number of the objections to the text. They include everything from wanting a more complete treatment of traditional families to a better treatment of societies which practice polygamy. It may be expected that the final form of the document presented to Pope Francis at the end of the week will certainly incorporate some of these items.
5) Remember the distinction between doctrine and dogma. Doctrines are the teachings of the Church; dogmas are doctrines that we believe to be part of God’s revealed truth. Doctrines can and do develop over time; dogmas do not, although the way we attempt to express them can change as our human understanding of them deepens. The church can have a doctrine regarding, for example, the lending of money at interest. At one time, the Church taught that it was immoral to do this under any circumstances, fighting against the practice of usury (This is why, for example, the Christians in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” had to go to Shylock for a loan: it was illegal to do so from another Christian). Clearly this is a teaching which has changed over time, as the context changed. A dogma, on the other hand, would include our teaching on the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit. General talk that we often read now concerning the Synod involves “changing church doctrine”. Some are saying, “We can’t do that because they come from God!” That would be correct if we’re talking about dogma, and even then the words we use can still be developed, even while the dogma itself remains unchanged. Plus, are we talking about dogmas in every case here?
6) The Synodal Process in Light of the Second Vatican Council. Many people have noted that the synodal process (by which I mean the entire process of preparation for this Extraordinary Synod, the Synod itself, with its working documents, then the “intersession” between the Extraordinary Synod and the Ordinary Synod next year, and its documentary results) has a tone reminiscent of the Second Vatican Council. I would agree that there are certainly many similarities. A popular pope who calls together bishops of the Church to discuss areas of concern, a group of bishops and others who express horror and concern that “timeless truths” risk being discarded and that the ecclesial sky is falling, other groups who predict wholesale changes to teaching as well as pastoral practice, the world’s media pouncing on every press release, statement and bulleting: ALL of these things were present during the Council. One of the photographs I often use in teaching about the Council shows the bishops in Council in St. Peter’s Basilica, with a television camera right in the middle of it. The entire world, still reeling from world wars, economic collapse, living under a nuclear threat and a not-so-Cold War, wanted desperately to hear Good News from the Catholic bishops of the world.
The Council proceeded in stages, too, just like this synodal process. There was an “antepreparatory phase” in which input was solicitied from bishops and others around the world. There was a “preparatory phase” in which the nearly 9,000 items received were considered and placed in some kind of order, and seventy draft documents were prepared — all before the Council opened. Then came the Council, held in the Fall months over four years, from 1962-1965. Not only were these four sessions important: so too were the intersessions — the time between the sessions — in which much of the work continued, bishops discussed matters at home with their pastors and people, research was conducted, and preparations were made for the coming Fall Session.
While synods have been a long standing tradition in the 2000 years of church history, the Council Fathers envisioned a renewed kind of synodal process. The nearly 3000 bishops at the Council found that the collegial work they were doing in Council was of great value, as they learned about the pastoral needs and responses of their brother bishops around the world. How could this collegial process be extended in the future, without having to go through the expense and time to call ALL of the world’s bishops together? Might there be a way to gather a smaller, but representative group of bishops together with the Pope to discuss specific issues of concern. And the contemporary synodal process was born. This was understood as a way to extend the work of the Council into the future. There have been many synods since the Council, but none has captured the imagination of the world like the current event. Many bishops have complained over the years that synods have not been the source of creative pastoral responses that the Council Fathers had intended; perhaps the biggest change with THIS Synod is that there is a renewed appreciation that these bishops, representing their brothers, and in full communion with the Holy Father, will be able to recommend and even to effect changes in pastoral practice in a way not done before.
There is also a “conciliar feel” to the process itself: the preparation process for this Extraordinary Synod (including the questions sent out from the Synod office, requesting wide dissemination as a way to prepare for the Synod), the fact that there are two synodal events (I do not want to refer to them as “Sessions” such as we use for General Councils of the Church): the Extraordinary Synod this year and the Ordinary Synod next year, with the period in between the Synods to be used for further research, study and development, much like the conciliar “intersessions.”
Nonetheless, while many of us get a kind of “conciliar feel” from the current synodal process, it would be wrong to treat this like a Council. It is NOT a General (sometimes called an “Ecumencial” (world wide)) Council of the Church. Some have suggested that perhaps the time is right to hold another General Council, that issues such as those related to the family are too important to be left to a synodal process. Perhaps this is true, and perhaps this could actually be a recommendation of the Ordinary Synod next year: that the Holy Father consider doing just that — although I doubt that will happen. My own opinion is that what we are witnessing now is the synodal process as it was originally envisioned and intended by the Council Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Let’s see how this works out.
This is an exciting time for the Church: not only because vitally important questions related to marriage and family life are being debated and addressed at long last by church leaders, but also because we are witnessing a renewal in the leadership structures of the church herself. As Pope Francis has repeated so often since his election, everything — including the structures we use to serve others — must be evaluated in very concrete terms: how well are we able to care for ALL of God’s people? That is the standard to be applied. We exist to serve others in need and, as the saying goes, “justice delayed is justice denied.” The tradition and the history of the Church reveal that we have always had great flexibility in how we attempt to serve, while agreeing on the core truths of faith.
Keep watching! And, as the Holy Father himself reminded the assembly at Mass yesterday morning before the relatio was released, “be open to God’s surprises”!