To gain a better appreciation for what has transpired and what is currently unfolding with regard to the 2014 Synod on the Family, it is worth considering the very interesting and detailed take of Vatican insider Sandro Magister in the piece hosted on the Italian newspaper website La Repubblica : “The True Story of This Synod: Director, Performers, Assistants.”
“…Because no matter what may be the outcome of this synod, intentionally devoid of any conclusion, the effect desired by its directors has to a large extent been reached.
On homosexuality as on divorce and remarriage, in fact, the new talk of reform inserted into the global media circuit is worth much more than the favor actually gained among the synod fathers by the proposals of Kasper or Spadaro.
The match could go on for a long time. But Pope Francis is patient. In “Evangelii Gaudium” he has written that “time is greater than space.”
This report alludes to something that I’ve been thinking about since last week’s melee about the Relatio and the seeming “retraction” that accompanied the revised English translation (again, it is important to note that the overwhelmingly ‘welcoming’ — closer to ’embracing’ or ‘hugging’ — language of the official Italian text was never revised). Namely, that this Synod is one of the most insightful and clever exercises of magisterial teaching authority that we’ve seen since the close of the Second Vatican Council. In other words, this is exactly what the Council and Paul VI had in mind when mandating the periodic Synods, hearkening to a time of more authentic ecclesial teaching authority and synodality.
What do I mean by this? Well, “the Church” (here I use quotations to indicate the colloquial reference to the ecclesiastical leadership of the church, rather than the truest meaning of church, which is the Body of Christ) does not change overnight. It does in fact change (usury, slavery, religious liberty, two ends of marital sexuality…need I continue?), but does so in the best way when those tasked with leading the universal flock remain in communion with one another and the bishop of Rome.
Communion, however, does not mean the utopia vision of the Acts of the Apostles’s “they were of one heart and one mind” performed in recent decades by a “synodality of bella figura.” This is certainly not what the Second Vatican Council had in mind, nor is it reflective of authentic doctrinal and disciplinary development of the church. It is in the Acts of the Apostles, lest we forget, that the so-called “Council of Jerusalem” wherein St. Peter and St. Paul — the predecessors to Cardinal Müeller and Cardinal Kasper, perhaps — were engaged in a very public debate about the intention of Christ and precisely who should be admitted into communion with the early Christian community. One can work toward consensus, but its authenticity depends on a commitment to maintaining koinonia.
Back to the Synods.
Like the many sessions of the Second Vatican Council, the matters preliminarily considered and debated in the 2014 Synod have not been definitely addressed in the first round. Pope Francis and his advisors (especially his worldwide Cardinal Committee of 8) knew exactly what they were doing. As Sandro Magister points out in his piece, at each stage of the Synod’s development, including back to the early days of 2013 long before the world knew anything of this, things were being set in motion to allow for the most honest and open engagement with the urgent pastoral questions of the day. The major success here is that what has begun cannot be stopped, just like what followed after the rejection of the preliminary conciliar texts prepared by the curial bureaucrats at the opening of Vatican II, just like what followed Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles in the First Century.
Put another way: Those who are pleased with how things are or may be going would say that the John XXIII “window of the church” has been thrown open to let fresh air in and will not be closed or, conversely, those who are displeased may say that Pandora’s Box has been opened and cannot be shut. Either way, the train is moving forward.
This doesn’t mean everything will unfold as everybody would like, but it does mean that things are changing — driven by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:12) — and that is, I believe, a good thing.
The members of the Synod have listened to the lived experiences of women and men, they’ve debated matters of urgent importance, they’ve shown that there is a major group of bishops who are sensitive to the needs of the church today, and those who dissent have also been given free voice. Now these bishops must return home and will, undoubtedly, hear more from their “sheep” and “ponder all these things in their heart” before returning back to Rome next year to continue their work. it is only after this second round, Synod Part II, that an official exhortation (or maybe even encyclical?) will be promulgated.
The last word has not yet been said. And that is a very good thing.