It’s been rather fascinating mulling reports and commentary from the recent synod in Rome regarding matters revolving around family life. Media reports focused upon those meeting topics that some would say are the most incendiary, which is just a more critical way of describing those things that garner people’s attention.
Let’s be honest, would you read a story in a newspaper or a blog with the headline: “Synod urges wives and husbands to love each other.” There was probably some element of that in the two weeks of discussion among bishops and other clergy, lay people, women religious and, of course Pope Francis, that could have prompted such a headline, but conversations about annulments, those who’ve divorced and re-married, birth control, and how we welcome and acknowledge gay men and women, understandably, attracted more notice.
Of even greater note, curiously, has been the reaction to the synod and its conversations from some in the Church. I’m not referring to remarks of lowly pastors or reactionary extremists among the lay faithful, but rather bishops and even some with loftier titles and status. Their observations have gotten some attention in church publications and on-line news outlets, but not so much in the day-to-day news programs and newspapers that most of us consume.
What’s rankled some of these bishops is not so much what the synod concluded, since in reality it didn’t really conclude anything, yet. Nor can they be upset that the synod participants urged dramatic reversals of long-standing church teaching or custom, much less that any of that was approved by Pope Francis for implementation. They can’t be upset about such things because none of that occurred either. The most dramatic statement, issued in a tentative synod draft, was that we should welcome gay Catholics into the lives of our communities and recognize that they have talents to share. But even that relatively minor intervention was modified in a later English translation of the synod’s statement.
What irks some within the upper echelons of the hierarchy is that the Church is having open, frank discussions about controversial and complicated issues. On one hand, they may fear such conversation leads to traumatic and, possibly in their estimation, dangerous change. What some bishops have observed publicly is that open dialogue about annulments, birth control, the place of gay people in the church, and other issues creates confusion and uncertainty among the People of God. It’s unfortunate these bishops don’t have a higher regard for us and our ability to understand and discern.
The conversation that occurred during the recent synod was rather unprecedented, not because of any decisions or changes that were endorsed, but because, at the urging of Pope Francis, there was a relatively free exchange of information, experiences and observations among those gathered from the vastly divergent regions of the world where Christian families attempt to be faithful to one another and the gospel. These kinds of conversations simply don’t occur at that level of the Church, or at least they haven’t – until now.
Previous synods, which were a byproduct of the Second Vatican Council, were basically recitations of pre-ordained interventions and reports, with no give or take, no allowance for dissension or a change of course. Curia officials in Rome set the agenda and determined the result, with of course the endorsement of whoever was Holy Father at the time, but with little, if any, influence from anyone else. It’s not what the Council had intended and reversing that heavy-handed approach was something Pope Francis identified early on as something he wanted to change.
This approach is encouraging. It’s been my experience that more information and an open, diverse discourse are far more helpful than detrimental. Rather than censoring people and publications appearing to challenge the status quo and prompting us to struggle with our priorities and beliefs, the Church is strengthened, ultimately, by steadfast, intelligent, coherent and loving voices. Beyond interesting news, such openness can produce more determined and faithful disciples.
It’s been noted that this isn’t the first time the Church has aired its differences in a public manner — see the Acts of the Apostles. In addition maybe the People of God can offer a valuable witness to our divided government: How to resolve complicated issues honestly and respectfully. TL