When Pope Francis touches down in Rome after his 10-day visit to Cuba and the United States, he will have little time to rest before he faces perhaps the biggest test of his papacy so far. Next Sunday he will preside at the opening of the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops – better known as the family synod.
The three-week event is the most hyped meeting of the world’s bishops since Vatican II. Media reports suggest it will lead to a dramatic change in Catholic doctrine on marriage. But that is highly unlikely. As Fr Thomas Rosica writes on page 23, “these international gatherings have never produced new dogma or overturned Church teachings”.
What, then, is all the fuss about? Many observers see the synod as the climactic battle between those Vatican reporter Andrea Gagliarducci calls the “adapters of doctrine” and the “defenders of doctrine”.
The adapters do not believe that their proposals, such as Communion for some remarried Catholics, actually overturn Church teaching. Rather, they say, the changes are simply intended to allow bishops more discretion in responding to local problems. They see this shift as a necessary adaptation to 21st-century realities that will make the Catholic faith considerably more attractive to millions of people.
The defenders, meanwhile, argue that the Church already takes account of pastoral realities – and has done for two millennia. They believe that any “adaptation” of doctrine is, in the end, harmful towards those the Church is trying to help.
But as Cardinal Wilfrid Napier points out on page 20, the contrast between the “adapters” and the “defenders” is simplistic. “No human being can possibly be fitted fully into the ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ box,” he writes. “Therefore, it is not only unfair but also untruthful to label people in this way.”
Given the prevailing confusion about next month’s synod, it’s worth recalling why Pope Francis wanted the gathering in the first place.
It will be very easy to become disillusioned
by the politicking at the synod
He summoned the bishops to the first family synod last October in order to define the status quaestionis (current situation) of the family. The purpose of the second family synod is “to formulate appropriate pastoral guidelines” to heal the wounds within families.
That is a clear and noble purpose. But the synod’s procedural quirks are distracting many – and not just in the media. Last year’s gathering was marred by claims of manipulation (as Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith explains on page 35). The procedure for next month’s synod, meanwhile, remains unclear. According to Gagliarducci, this time there will be no contentious mid-term report, no final message and, in a break with custom, no post-synodal apostolic exhortation from the Pope. Gagliarducci suggests that the synod’s conclusions will be summed up, on the spot, by Pope Francis in his closing address – and that will be that.
If that’s the case, then the debates unleashed by the synod are unlikely to end on October 28, when the gathering officially concludes with Mass in St Peter’s Basilica. That would be a disappointing outcome.
The official synod prayer, addressed to the Holy Family, expresses hope that the gathering will “re-awaken in all an awareness of the sacred character and inviolability of the family, its beauty in the project of God”. That is an ambitious goal, certainly, but it is a worthy one.
It will be very easy, over the next month, to be disillusioned by the politicking around the synod. But we must see beyond the human drama and try to discern God’s hand at work. After all, Pope Francis entrusted the family synod to the Holy Spirit. In the end we must trust that the Spirit will make this gathering fruitful, no matter how confusing it may appear at times.
The pilgrim’s rest
Many people will have been sad to hear of the passing of Brian Sewell, the art critic, broadcaster and wit.
Sewell was brought up in the Catholic faith, but by the time he reached adulthood, finding it hard to reconcile faith with his homosexuality, he had drifted into agnosticism. But devoted as he was to art, and because so many works of the Baroque age were of religious subjects, he had a lifelong connection with, and appreciation of, Catholicism. In 2003 Sewell made The Naked Pilgrim for Channel 5, a travelogue about the path to Compostela. This lovely programme marked Sewell out as a man who, despite a patrician exterior, had a natural ability to connect with ordinary people. On the way to the shrine of St James he stopped off at Lourdes, where he met two Catholic ladies who, on hearing of his loss of faith, assured him of their prayers. This ordinary encounter was intensely moving, and reduced Sewell to tears.
Sewell is reported to have told a nurse in hospital: “I am an agnostic. But if something goes wrong, you must call a Roman Catholic priest.” One hopes that this did indeed happen, and that the prayers of the two ladies at Lourdes, along with those of the Blessed Virgin and St James, were answered.
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