Five reasons the synod is doomed to fail

Five reasons the synod is doomed to fail

  • Pope Francis speaks with a cardinal as he arrives for a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 15. At right is Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Faith and Justice
The synod on the family has created a lot of interest in the church and spilled a lot of ink (or electrons) in the media, but there are five reasons that it was doomed to fail before the bishops even gathered in Rome Oct. 4. Perhaps Pope Francis can perform a miracle and save it, but the odds are against him.First, the topic of the synod, “the family,” is too broad.

The family touches everything and is touched by everything. Anything bad in the world affects families, and any problems in families affect the societies in which they live.

Social and economic factors impact families: unemployment, housing, war, terrorism, climate change, interreligious differences, consumerism, social media, education, and on and on. Every problem in the world has an impact on families, from addictions to political corruption.

Scores of moral issues surround the family, everything from the sexual act itself to fidelity, abortion, contraception, surrogate mothers, homosexuality, divorce, gender equality, child abuse, spousal violence, and so on.

Families are the place where one learns or does not learn the Christian faith, to say nothing of simple moral habits and virtues.

And we have not even gotten to the theological and canonical issues surrounding families: marriage as a sacrament, annulments, liturgical ceremonies, the family in the church, etc.

It is simply too much to deal with in a three-week meeting.

Second, the membership of the synod makes dealing with the topic of the family difficult.

The 270 synodal fathers come from many different cultures and as a result have very different priorities and concerns, not to mention different cultural conceptions about family life.

Bishops in the Middle East and Africa see their families facing the constant threat of violence and death that forces them to become refugees fleeing their homes. How can you have a family under these circumstances?

Many bishops in the developed world are concerned about how to respond to high divorce rates. But outside the wealthy, industrialized nations, the issues may be human trafficking, arranged marriages, interreligious marriages, child brides, polygamy, female genital mutilation, and cultural customs where marriage is seen as taking place over time, not in the instant when the couple says their vows.

Can so many people from such varied backgrounds have any common understanding of the problems facing families and how to deal with them?

The third problem facing the synod is the synodal process itself.

Synods are paper factories. They produce lots of speeches, recommendations and sometimes even a final document, but do they make a difference? In 1980, I covered an earlier synod on the family that faced almost every issue that this synod faces. Did it make any difference? If it did, I don’t see it.

The 1980 synod made many of the same recommendations that this synod will make: better marriage preparation, better formation of clergy so they can help families, better education programs, greater support from governments for families, less violence, more love.

New programs and ideas are not generated at synods. Bishops can only share what they bring. New programs are created by entrepreneurs who have an idea, experiment with it, and improve it through trial and error.

The fourth reason the synod is doomed to failure is that it is seriously divided on the question of what can and cannot change.

This clash is most obvious over the question of readmitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion.

One side sees only the law — the marriage contract is permanent and can be terminated only by death. The other side sees millions of people suffering from broken marriages that cannot be put back together.

One solution to this crisis is the annulment process, whereby the church declares that, even though there is a signed contract, the contract is not valid because of some failure at the time the wedding took place. There was much support at the 2014 synod for making the annulment process easier and faster, and Francis acted on this between synods.

The attitude of the bishops toward annulments is the greatest change since the 1980 synod on the family, when the American bishops were fiercely attacked by curial cardinals for making annulments too easy.

Francis has gone way beyond the American procedures by allowing bishops to declare a marriage annulled through an administrative process rather than a judicial process. Even canon lawyers are scratching their heads wondering how this will work.

But the fundamental problem faced by the synod is the same one faced by the Second Vatican Council: What can and cannot change in the church?

The pope and the bishops are constantly saying that the synod will not change church doctrine, but only pastoral practice. Bishops appear to even be afraid to talk about the development of doctrine, lest they be seen as wishy-washy on doctrine.

The conservatives see the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion as violating a doctrine of the church — the indissolubility of marriage. To them, it would be an admission that the church was somehow wrong in its teaching in the past.

Any student of the Second Vatican Council recognizes that this was the same complaint of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani and his conservative colleagues who fought changes in church teaching on ecumenism, religious liberty and other matters.

So for the bishops to allow divorced and remarried Catholics — who don’t have an annulment but are civilly married — to receive Communion, they must somehow explain it as only a change in pastoral practice and not a change in doctrine.

The fifth reason the synod is doomed is the absence of theologians at the synod.

One conservative curial cardinal complained of the “schoolboy theology” being presented in episcopal speeches. There is some truth in that complaint. There is little evidence in their talks that bishops consulted theologians in order to understand contemporary thinking in Scripture, ethics or doctrine.

The bishops would have been better off spending the first week listening to theologians do an exegesis of scriptural passages on marriage, explain the concept of the development of doctrine, recount the history of the church’s treatment of marriage, and propose resolutions to controversial questions.

The reason that Vatican II was successful was because an alliance was forged between the theological periti and the council fathers that was capable of defeating the Roman Curia’s intransigence. Tragically, this alliance was broken after Humanae Vitae, when theologians were cast into the outer darkness as dissidents whom the bishops were to avoid at all costs.

The result has been disastrous for the church. It is as if the management of a major corporation is not on speaking terms with its research and development division. Would you invest in such a company?

Is there hope for the synod? Yes. Francis has begun a process; he has opened the windows closed after Vatican II. It will take more than three weeks to move the church forward, but he is moving it in the right direction.

Perhaps the synod is not doomed to fail but simply to be unfinished.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

Archbishop orders priests to deny Communion to dissenters

Archbishop orders priests to deny Communion to dissenters.
Is Francis’ message lost?

October 14, 2015

(Photo: AP/Riccardo De Luca)

Only weeks after Pope Francis spent his visit to the United States calling for a culture of dialogue on contentious issues, some American prelates are back to business as usual.

In a memo sent to priests in his archdiocese this week, Archbishop John Myers of Newark issued strict guidelines for denying Communion to Catholics whose marriages are not recognized as valid by the church, and prohibiting the sacrament to those who support same-sex civil marriage. Parishes and other Catholic institutions, the archbishop decreed, should never host individuals or organizations that disagree with church teachings.

This is precisely the kind of fortress Catholicism — a church hunkered down behind imposing walls — that Pope Francis vigorously rejects.

Instead, the pope wants a church that acts like a “field hospital after battle.“ He insists that Communion is not “a prize for the perfect but powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” While the New Jersey archbishop sends a message that he is putting Catholic institutions on lockdown, Pope Francis recently welcomed Democratic U.S. mayors, including Bill de Blasio of New York City, and the pro-choice secular feminist Naomi Klein, to the Vatican for climate change talks. No one was carded at the door.

Before addressing Congress, Pope Francis warmly greeted Secretary of State John Kerry. The pro-choice Catholic became a lightening rod during the 2004 presidential campaign when a handful of conservative bishops publicly argued he should not receive Communion. In the wake of the pope’s visit, Vatican officials squashed efforts from Kim Davis and her lawyers to use the pope as a pawn in the culture wars. And when news broke that Pope Francis had held one private meeting in Washington, D.C., it turned out to be with a longtime friend from Argentina who has been in a same-sex relationship for nearly two decades.

A ‘Francis Effect’ in the U.S.?

Pope Francis left U.S. Catholics with plenty to think about and act on after his first whirlwind visit to this country. This refreshing and complicated papacy presents unique challenges and opportunities for the American church. The pope’s desire to find a “new balance” that recalibrates the Catholic conversation beyond the flash points of a few hot-button issues — along with his muscular focus on the root causes of structural injustice — should shake up the politics of the church and our values debates in American politics.

But any real “Francis effect” will depend on whether religious leaders, elected officials and those of us in the pews wake up to the pope’s bracing call for radical change.

A pope who describes economic inequality as the “root of social evil,” insists on the moral urgency to address climate change and wants a “poor church for the poor” is clear and consistent in his messages. Don’t underestimate this smiling reformer exuding gentleness and joy. The captain of this ancient and sometimes leaky ship known as the Catholic Church is charting a definitive course.

At the White House welcome ceremony on his first full day in town, Pope Francis smiled at the pageantry in his honor but wasted little time before challenging complacency.

“Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution,” he said. “Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our ‘common home,’ we are living at a critical moment of history.” Powerful American politicians, knee deep in oil- industry contributions, were not called out by name, of course, but plenty of conservative Catholics on Capitol Hill and Republican Catholics campaigning for the presidency don’t share the pope’s sense of urgency or even believe that human behavior contributes to the problem. The status quo is comfortable. It rewards the privileged. Francis knows the poor and most vulnerable already suffering from the impact of environmental degradation don’t have the luxury of indifference.

Pope Francis also offered a timely antidote to the resurgent nativism and xenophobia on the American right. Donald Trump rose in the polls by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” He stokes fear and resentment, the demagogue’s weapons of choice for centuries. In contrast, Francis introduced himself as “the son of immigrants” and reminded us of our American experience. “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he said during the first papal address to Congress in history.  (source)