By Michael Bayer
It’s been called an “earthquake,” a “bombshell,” and “a stunning change,” for the Catholic Church. Serious Vatican observers, unaccustomed to dalliance in hyperbole and unencumbered by social media’s obsession with instantaneous analysis, were nonetheless breathlessly racing to communicate the significance of Monday’s statement from the Synod. So what is it, exactly? And what, precisely did it say? (For those of us who do not possess a PhD in ecclesiology or receive journalist credentials at Vatican press conferences.)
What is going on in Rome right now?
The Extraordinary Synod on the Family, a two-week gathering of nearly 200 leading bishops from around the world, joined by a handful of theologians and a number of married couples, has reached its mid-way point. Pope Francis convened the Synod, only the third of its kind in the last 50 years, in order to address urgent issues facing families around the world. In anticipation of the Synod, the Vatican had released a 39-question survey through the various national Bishops’ Conferences, in the hopes that the laity might be invited to offer their input as part of the reflection process.
Why is this a big deal?
Well, for starters, everything that has happened during the tenure of Pope Francis has seemed to be significant not merely for site traffic, but for substantive theological, political, or ecclesial purposes. Whether it’s his now (in)famous comment to a reporter, “Who am I to judge?” that arguably landed him on the cover not only of Time and Rolling Stone, but even of the largest LGBT publication in the United States, The Advocate; his decision to bring in international firms McKinsey and KPMG to audit and modernize the Vatican’s troubled communications and financial outfits; or his recent appointment of a new Archbishop of Chicago that would seem to eschew the culture wars in favor of a pastoral approach, every single thing Pope Francis touches seems to have a ripple effect that cascades outward, affecting those working in both chanceries and food pantries with equal measure. To take one specific example, Cardinal Dolan recently announced that LGBT persons would be allowed to participate in this coming year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a decision that elicited immediate and untempered condemnation from many self-identified faithful Catholics. This development would have been deemed unimaginable just five or ten years ago, and it is impossible to conceive that Pope Francis’ new pastoral tone did not play a part in Cardinal Dolan’s decision.
But returning to the particular matter of the Synod, as long-time Vatican observer (and must-read analyst for all things pertaining to the Catholic Church) John Allen remarks, this seems to be the first Synod in recent memory that, well… matters. Why is that?
A quick history lesson
Both Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, later to be known as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, respectively, grew up under the suffocating ideology of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism, only to serve as young priests living in the shadow the equally oppressive asphyxiation of Stalin’s Soviet Bloc. Both John Paul II and Benedict witnessed, firsthand, the insidious effects of a perverted ideology, the very real and very toxic consequences of leaders who were infected by misguided doctrines. Simply put, truth–authentic truth–proclaimed confidently and articulated without ambiguity, mattered.
And this understanding of truth, i.e. its all-important role in effective leadership of those entrusted with the care of persons, imbued and formed the manner in which bishops of the Roman Catholic Church were selected. For over thirty years, an individual’s suitability for elevation to the level of shepherd in succession to the apostles was viewed primarily vis-a-vis one’s fidelity to the received deposit of truths, as contained in the Magisterium of the Church. Without ever explicitly acknowledging as much, the Congregation for Bishops enforced a litmus test, of sorts, to ensure that those responsible for the care of souls would not lead their flock astray by way of ambiguity, misstatement, or obfuscation of these core truths. Nowhere was this more apparent to professional observers than with respect to the most hotly contested social issues of the day, many of them pertaining to the Church’s teaching on natural law, gender roles, and human sexuality. The practical effect of this de facto policy on the selection of bishops is a generation and a half of hierarchs who see themselves first and foremost as “Guardians of Orthodoxy,” and “Defenders of the Faith,” rather than, as Pope Francis has exhorted, “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”
Emotionally charged and academically contested topics such as artificial contraception, homosexual relationships, and the ordination of women were viewed not as opportunities for pastoral conversation or open-hearted dialogue, but as moments demanding a clear and unwavering restatement of the Church’s Magisterial formulations about marriage, gender, and vocation. While theologically sophisticated, these catechetical elucidations often struck real individual persons, undergoing real, messy life circumstances, as abstract, impenetrable, impersonal, and inaccessible. Just months before Pope Francis’ historic election, articles such as this were appearing in US newspapers, deriding the bishops as “tone-deaf” on matters related to human sexuality.
The bottom line is that the bishops appointed over the course of the past three decades, by and large, have viewed the secular world with increasing skepticism and even antagonism. John Paul II famously described a “Culture of Life” as being in opposition to the “Culture of Death,” and nearly every conflict, whether it is over a Catholic high school enforcing a morality clause by firing a teacher who becomes pregnant out of wedlock, or a nationwide volley of lawsuits from Catholic Dioceses, colleges and hospitals, in opposition to a provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act mandating that employers provide access to birth control as part of their healthcare coverage, has been infused with this sense of a cosmic conflict between all-that-is-good and all-that-is-evil.
Fast Forward to Francis
As noted above, nearly everything Francis does makes news. Whether it’s ditching the Popemobile in favor of an ’84 Renault, or washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday, no gesture seems so insignificant as to evade mass scrutiny. But more than media fascination, these subtle shifts appear to portend much larger, more lasting changes in how the Church operates in the modern world. And so, when Pope Francis calls together a formal gathering of bishops, then begins by lambasting “bad shepherds” who “lay intolerable burdens on the shoulders of others,” well… you can be sure big things are about to happen.
It’s worth mentioning that the bishops who are participating in this year’s Synod were all elevated to the episcopacy during the pontificate of either John Paul II or Benedict, so the emphasis on orthodoxy described above very much factors in to the conversations taking place this week. But far from a uniformity of thought or approach, the dominant theme of the Synod thus far has been division and disagreement, at times bordering on the nasty and personal. Just prior to the commencement of the Synod proper, a handful of prominent prelates engaged in an unusually candid and public back and forth over the vexing question of communion for divorced and (non-sacramentally) re-married Catholics. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine two senior Cardinals carrying out such a frank and borderline adversarial doctrinal repartee, in full view of the media no less, under John Paul II or Benedict.
Suffice it to say, a new day for dialogue has dawned due to the “Francis Effect,” and the Synod was bound to reflect this evolving reality.
So what exactly is the document that came out?
The document that was released on Monday is known as a Relatio Post Disceptationem (“Report after the Discussion”), and it is an official summary of the progress of the Synod participants up to this point. The Relatio was prepared and presented by Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo and nine of his peers in the College of Cardinals, all hand-picked for this role by Pope Francis and tasked with condensing the various presentations and conversations that have taken place during the Synod sessions into a unified, digestible statement.
In contrast to previous Synods, the remarks of the presenters at the Synod have not been made public, so the relatio bears more import than usual. It’s the only way outsiders get to hear what’s being discussed within the walls of St. Peter’s.
What the document is: a working document that purports to summarize the conversation that has taken place up until this point among Synod participants.
What the document is not: a Magisterial document that elucidates, in any theologically new or doctrinally meaningful way, evolution of official Catholic teaching on a particular topic, such as divorce, cohabitation, or homosexual unions, three of the issues mentioned in the relatio.
What the document will be used for: moving forward, the participants in the Synod will continue to consider and reflect upon the issues that have been raised. This week, smaller working groups are studying the document and discussing its language, implications, and pastoral implementation. Think of the presentations offered at the Synod as keynote speeches at a conference, or lectures during a college course. The working groups are now using the document as a starting point for further conversation, in the same way that breakout groups at the conference or upperclass seminars on campus might meet to discuss an article or summary of the presentation.
What happens next: over the course of the next 12 months, these same episcopal participants will return to their respective dioceses, consult with theologians, clergy, and laypersons (one hopes!) using these Synod documents as a starting point for still further reflection and deliberation. Then, next October, they will reconvene in Rome for the Ordinary Synod on the Family. It is this later gathering that could produce, potentially, official, Vatican-approved documents that contribute to an evolution in Church teaching with respect to marriage and the family.
But I thought Church teaching couldn’t change?
It has, and it will. In 1864, for example, Pope Pius IX explicitly condemned, in his encyclical Quanta Cura, the “insanity” that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right.” This position–that individual citizens did not have the right to choose their own religion nor form their own conscience–was the official, on-the-books teaching of the Roman Catholic Church until 100 years later, when the Second Vatican Council document Dignitatis Humanae articulated precisely this natural, inviolable right.
Perhaps more pointedly, the Successors of Peter issued numerous Papal documents that helped carve the “New World” up in favor of colonial powers during the Age of Discovery, lending official approbation as European nations enslaved indigenous peoples and built a thriving market for the subjugation and sale of human persons. Damningly, the Jesuits here in the United States of America even owned slaves.
The core Magisterial truth–the inviolable dignity of every human person as created in the image and likeness of God–has not changed. But the more specific doctrinal deduction (and pursuant pastoral application) of such teachings can, and does, necessarily evolve over time.
With respect to the current conversation on marriage and the family, the fundamental, unchangeable teaching of the Catholic Church is that marriage is an indissoluble, sacramental bond between two fully consenting adult persons who give themselves freely, in the sight of God and community, to one another in a permanent covenant that is, by its nature, open to children, raised in the faith of Jesus Christ. In contrast, the downstream, practical application of this truth with respect to so-called irregular marriages or non-traditional unions, can and may evolve. Polygamy, to take one example, was practiced by many Biblical figures, but the Church in the 21st Century condemns it as “not in keeping with the moral law.”
In my next post, I will look at what the document itself says.
Michael Bayer is a graduate of Georgetown University and The Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. He has served as Campus Minister at the University of San Francisco and the University of Michigan, and he currently lives in Iowa City, where he is the Director of Outreach and Education at The University of Iowa Newman Catholic Student Center.
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