A huge amount of discussion has been generated by the synod on the family, and one feels a little guilty about adding to it. But this synod is rather different to all those which have gone before, which is why I turn to it again. It touches on a key point of doctrine (the indissolubility of marriage) which is a hot button issue for most of us, but it goes further than that.
This is the first synod of the internet age.
Once upon a time, decisions about faith and doctrine were made by a very restricted group of people. The Council of Trent at most of its sessions comprised a few dozen bishops. Between Trent and Vatican I, one has the impression that the pope and his cardinals ruled the Church, an Italian pope and a small number of Italian cardinals, none of whom ever or hardly ever left Rome. Vatican I was international, but the first truly global gathering of the Church was Vatican II, which had huge input from America, France, Belgium and Germany.
There was a lot of infighting at Vatican II, and a lot of stage management at Vatican I, but the overall impression of both Councils was of a strongly united Church. The whole point of stagecraft is that art hides art, ars est celare artem. Last year’s extraordinary synod, however, presented the spectacle of stage management gone wrong: the publication of the relatio half way through, and the seeming reverse ferret that followed it, made it impossible to suspend our disbelief too much. For a horrid moment we caught sight of the inner workings of the synod process, and they were not pretty.
But not just in the synod aula, but outside it, the process has seemed to spin out of control. It is no secret that cardinal has faced off against cardinal, and bishops’ conference against bishops’ conference, and some prelates against their clergy. Moreover, people who have hitherto had no role in any synod before this have now spoken. The internet has given then a platform.
This may strike some as a disaster, but it also has its positive aspects.
The show of disunity, if that is what it is, may remind one of the Anglican Communion in the years leading up to the 1994 decision to ordain women. Or it may even remind one of those disastrous Labour Party conferences of the 1980s, which were plagued by Militant, and led to the secession of the SDP.
Neither of the above are comforting parallels But consider this. More people are interested in this synod than any other previous synod, of which there have been many. (I cannot even remember what the last one was about.) This means that the synodical process will never again be something that goes on behind closed doors. Those who think that theology is best discussed in private at invitation only meetings have had their day. Elsewhere I have written about “shade tree theology”, the African aspiration for theological discussion at community level in all communities. This, to be fruitful depends on having an educated and informed laity, of the sort which Cardinal Newman dreamed and Vatican II hoped for.
In the end, it is Vatican II that we come back to again and again, for we all live in its aftermath. The Council clearly wanted an involved laity, and, an involved clergy too. Well, with this Synod, that is what we have finally got, though not quite in the way many envisaged it. And here too we can pinpoint, it seems to me, the essential shortcoming of the post-Conciliar Church. It spoke about consultation of the laity (and the clergy) but then failed to provide workable mechanisms for this consultation. It spoke of the way that all should have access to their pastors and make their views known. But, if people are to make their views known, then the hierarchy have to show they welcome hearing these views.
This synod reveals a process of consultation that is not quite there yet, and the challenges that consultation brings with it. If we believe in listening to the people of God, then you must beware of selectivity. We have to listen to all of them, not just the ones we think will give us the answers we want.
The fruits of this synod, which may well be good ones, will be with us long after the Kasper proposal is forgotten. We may be on the cusp of a new way, as some love to say, of “being Church”, though not quite in the way some have imagined it. The people are speaking, the people who, as Chesterton might have put it, have never spoken yet.