Before the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome began Oct. 5, I wrote that my first hope for the fortnight would be that “it does no harm to those efforts in parishes around the world to propose the blessed and demanding vocation of Christian marriage.”
The danger of even low expectations is that they can be dashed.
The synod was not primarily concerned with offering encouragement to young couples eager to embrace the great adventure of Catholic marriage. The couples who are living with quiet heroism the blessings and burdens of that adventure appeared in the background of the synod’s focus.
On the contrary, the synod stirred up giddy excitement among those — both within and without the family of faith — desirous that the Church would finally make its peace with the “sexual revolution.” The beatification of Pope Paul VI at the conclusion of the synod should have signified that rank capitulation on moral teaching was never in the cards, but it was destabilizing to hear some prelates speak rather loosely about the Christian tradition on marriage, chastity and family life.
Yet what left me astonished was that, after 18 months of Pope Francis dominating world headlines, the synod seemed strangely out of sorts with his priorities. This synod badly failed Pope Francis’ bold vision for the Church in 11 distinct ways.
First, the methodology of the synod did not allow sufficient space for the heart of the Church’s missionary proclamation, namely the joy of the Gospel.
While several fathers spoke of the moving testimonies of married couples that began each day’s proceedings, they were an exception to the synod’s work. From the initial worldwide survey to the daily press conferences, the topics that were consistently placed at the forefront were the problems and difficulties of marriage and family life. The supposed topic of the synod was the care of the family in the context of evangelization, and evangelization begins with a conviction that there is a Gospel — the Good News — to share. The synod focused on the problems and not the proclamation. There was too much hand-wringing and not enough joy.
Second, the agenda for the synod was decidedly worldly.
On his return flight from the Holy Land, the Holy Father said that his agenda was to address the “global” situation of the family, and he “did not like” the dominance of the issue of civilly remarried divorcees. The Church’s principal worry is not that too many people are getting divorced and remarried, but that too few are getting married in the first place. The world’s agenda is divorce, cohabitation and same-sex “marriage.” The synod succumbed to the worldliness Francis inveighs against constantly. The practical agenda for this synod was too much New York Times and not enough New Testament.
Third, the manipulation of the synod’s proceedings and messages was unworthy of a Roman Curia that the Holy Father has almost daily urged to avoid gossip, intrigues and ambition.
Senior bishops from all five continents publicly denounced the behind-the-scenes decisions that only selectively reported on the content of synod interventions, culminating with the midterm report that captured world headlines but did not capture honestly what had actually been said by the participants. Francis famously denounced the power games of the royal court as the “leprosy” of the papacy, yet the synod was infected by just that. If it is not corrected soon, we have to look forward to an entire year of not listening to the Holy Spirit, but, instead, continued backroom machinations, mendacity and maneuvering.
Fourth, the synod turned inside out the Holy Father’s preference for the peripheries rather than the center.
The world’s most bureaucratic, wealthy, institutionally heavy and intellectually credentialed national Church — Germany — was granted an influence completely disproportionate to the diminishing vitality of its life of worship and witness. Meanwhile, the young local Churches on the periphery were sidelined and even disrespected. It must have been gravely insulting, though he bore it in patient silence, for the first pope from the global south to listen to lectures from the privileged, professorial, clerical caste of the European episcopate as if it was 1869 again, when at the First Vatican Council fully half of all the bishops were either Italian or French. The witness of ordinary Catholics in the young Churches of Africa and Asia took a backseat to the preoccupations of the clerical establishment in Europe. In Francis’ Church, the rich should not get a bigger say than the poor. At the synod they did.
Fifth, the synod was not about the Church going out of herself, but looking inward.
When which cardinal gets appointed to which drafting commission is a dominant story, the Church is in danger of becoming exactly what Francis does not want — self-referential and closed in on itself.
Sixth, the synod did not highlight the encouraging accompaniment of Pope Francis.
At his Valentine’s Day encounter with engaged couples, Francis spoke to them simply and directly about what makes for a happy marriage — spouses who say “thank you,” “excuse me” and “I am sorry.” This wholesome and homey engagement with married life was missing at the synod, replaced instead by more controversial questions.
Seventh, the synod was not a collegial exercise in its major pronouncements.
An elite group of managers did not pay heed to what the majority of the synod participants said. It is not always the case that they have to do so, but Francis speaks of the synod as “journeying together.” On this journey, there were certainly some fathers who seized the direction and expected the others to follow.
Eighth, as was noted after the midterm report was released, the synod seemed to forget about sin.
It was hardly mentioned. Very strange for a synod convened by Pope Francis, who, when asked to describe himself last year, said simply, “I am a sinner.” It is key to Francis’ thinking that the “privileged” place of encounter with the Lord is experiencing Divine Mercy upon our sins. Francis talks about sin and mercy together; the synod seemed to forget the former, which makes the latter less urgent.
Ninth, at the canonization of Pope St. John Paul II in April, the Holy Father proposed him to the Church as the “Pope of the Family.”
At the synod, he was almost entirely forgotten. A pope who wrote the very rich Familiaris Consortio after the 1980 synod on the family and devoted four years to the theology of the body should have been the starting point for the synod. As for mercy, St. John Paul II devoted an entire encyclical to Divine Mercy. Yet his teaching and the scholars from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family were overlooked in the synod’s work.
Tenth, the synod ignored Francis’ repeated exhortation that all generations need each other — the young need the elderly, and the elderly need the young.
Even in his affectionate references to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as a “grandfather,” Francis has a deep sense of the extended family as a bridge between generations. In the focus on the divorced, cohabiting and same-sex couples, the younger and older generations were neglected, even though they are a critical part of the family.
Eleventh, if the Church is to be the “field hospital” for a modern world full of wounded people, it is necessary to know the nature of the diseases and wounds that the modern world suffers from.
The hearts of contemporary men and women have been hurt grievously by the “throwaway” culture bequeathed by the sexual revolution. Doctors who do not diagnose properly are of little help in offering effective treatment. In his closing address, Francis identified this as a lack in the synod, which was tempted to bind up wounds without curing their causes.
The Church now waits for another synod next October. Will it be more recognizably what Pope Francis proposes to a Church of missionary disciples? Or will it remain a worldly exercise?
The experience of synod 2014 is not promising.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.
He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.