The Synod about the family was concluded just seven days ago. As is to be expected from an event of this magnitude, a tsunami of blogs, commentaries, statements by Church dignitaries etc are now giving contrasting and, sometimes, contradictory interpretations. We lived through similar actions during Vatican II. The Pope gave his take on the Synod in the masterly address delivered at the last session and during the homily delivered on Sunday.
Before the interpretations we had the predictions. Chaos, mayhem, confusion and a possible schism were on the cards of the conservative lobby. Some wrote about the Synod as if it was going to be a foretaste of Armageddon where the sons of light led by Cardinal Pell battle it out with the sons of darkness led by Cardinal Kasper.
Proponents of change, including the Pope, were dubbed as bordering on heresy. Towards the final stages of the Synod some more liberal commentators were saying that the Synod was destined to fail.
Antagonisms there surely were together with the demonisation of those holding different opinions. Accusations of machinations were thrown around in abundance. Bruising, albeit not physical, was a result. But the Synod managed to produce a final document approved by two-thirds of its members. That in itself was no mean achievement.
Not all problems were thoroughly addressed and not all questions were definitively answered. The bishops managed to do what was possible at this stage of the debate. The document is not perfect but it shows a compassionate Church and a pastorally sensitive one within the context of sound doctrine. All this is welcome news.
The final document is a good work- in-progress for a Church on the move and one which is ready for more changes in its pastoral strategies and theological outlook on marriage and the family. The Church under the direction of Peter’s successor emerged as a winner even if a slightly injured one. Change is always accompanied by pain but this is a pain similar to childbirth. It is a fertile and life giving. Families, particularly those in vulnerable positions are the beneficiaries of this process of change.
The only losers are those who inside and outside the synod hall said that “the Church can never change”. This is a mistaken attitude that stifles growth and reduces the Church to a fringe fortress/sect that excludes instead of being a people on the move reaching out for and embracing all the sons and daughters of God. The losers are those the Pope said “sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families”.
I readily admit that they most probably have good intentions, love the Church in their own way, and have a place in it. Unfortunately, however, their blinkered viewpoints undermine their genuine intention to defend doctrine. The Pope rightly said that “the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness”.
The only losers are those who inside and outside the synod hall said that the ‘Church can never change’
The Synod celebrated a Church that recognises pluralism as part of its DNA and discerning change as the core of its pastoral strategy. This is a Church that is conscious that its theologies are not dictated by celestial beings, as purported in the case of the Koran. This Church accepts the fact that its reflection on the Word of God is influenced by the culture that surrounds it and has to be incarnated in that same culture.
Different cultures help us discover different nuances of this Word which is larger than any theological system. The different theologies that emerged throughout the history of the Church and which concurrently exist today enrich our understanding of this same Word.
Pope Francis touched on this important aspect during his final address to the Synod bishops.
“What seems normal for a bishop on one continent is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.”
It is important to realise that this diversity brings with it a richness when it is experienced in faithfulness to the Word, love of the other and love for the Church. In such an atmosphere bridges are constructed, novel answers discovered and communities nourished. This diversity and pluralism is a plus not an anathema.
There was at least one dramatic piece of evidence of how this positive attitude really brings good solutions. At face value the German working group should have been the Synod’s Armageddon where Cardinal Muller battles it out with Cardinals Kasper and Marx. Instead it was the group which came out with a unanimous decision and concrete proposal: the internal forum guided by conscience and pastoral practice as a solution, in some limited cases, allowing the divorced and remarried to return to communion.
This was not an original proposal. The German moral theologian Bernard Häring suggested it in 1970. But it was shot down by others, particularly people in authority. They said that it suffered from an inherent contradiction of resolving something in the internal forum which by nature also pertains to and has such important consequences for the external forum. The ethos of the proposal supported by Muller and Kasper, among others, is today reflected in the final document.
Last Sunday’s concluding Mass was not the end. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane Australia is right to note that:
“The Synod journey is far from over; in some ways an important new phase is only beginning. But we are much better equipped... this doesn’t mean we have a detailed road-map; but Abrahamic journeys never do.”
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