The Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that will begin on Oct. 4 at the Vatican is, in one way, of very high importance, and in another, not so very much.

It’s important, in that some questions about marriage and the family will be discussed, which could fundamentally alter the more-than-2,000-year-old Catholic understanding of the indissolubility of marriage and the even longer teaching (going all the way back to the Hebrews and the law of Moses) about same-sex relationships.

But it’s worth remembering that, whatever is discussed and concluded at the synod (and it will not be easy to tell, since, this time, it appears, there will be neither a midterm nor a final report), it will ultimately be up to Pope Francis to issue post-synodal directives.

In all the controversy that swirled around last year’s synod, this basic truth has often been forgotten. In modern times, the classic case of a pope making the final decision was Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he chose to discount the advice of a commission he himself had appointed to make recommendations about birth control. The commission recommended changing Church teaching and allowing contraception; the Pope decided not to accept its conclusions and reaffirmed traditional moral principles — and paid a heavy price for that fidelity. He was lambasted by the secular world and even by many people in the Church.

In liberal Catholic circles, dissent on contraception has become a touchstone for a whole theology about papal authority vs. primacy of individual conscience that continues to this day. 

So beyond the hoopla, the daily media frenzy over this or that leak or counter-leak (a highly developed and copious art in Rome), we should remain clear that all papal advisory bodies are only that, advisory, and that the Holy Father is still the final and infallible authority on matters of faith and morals — though Francis, like Paul VI, will have only started a process when he issues his summary of the consultation.

What will Francis have received from the synod? And what will he be likely to do with it? I’m tempted to just leave things at: “It’s complicated.” (A synod on the family can’t help but be that these days.) The Pope had a hand in creating some of the controversy by inviting Cardinal Walter Kasper to address the bishops in February 2014; Kasper reintroduced an old obsession of his, Communion for the divorced and remarried. But if there’s anything we can predict about this Pope, it’s that, whenever he decides to take on big questions, he’s unpredictable. We may find ourselves with some results that none of us now can fully foresee.

That said, there are a few probable lines worth noting. It’s an open secret that two heavily armed camps have emerged in the year since the 2014 synod. We’ve got the bishops’ conferences of Germany, Switzerland and France — along with individual foot soldiers from Belgium and the Netherlands — who are strongly pushing not only for Communion for the divorced/remarrieds, but for an opening to homosexual unions as well. One doesn’t naturally lead to the other, but once the natural-law basis of marriage has been shaken in our culture, it’s a short trip to wholesale acceptance of all “genders and expressions.”

Further, the Germans have said openly that they don’t have to wait for Rome to do what they want; they claim they have the right to make their own decisions.

The other camp emerged at last year’s synod, led by Cardinals Raymond Burke and Wilfrid Napier, with assists from Cardinals George Pell, Gerhard Mueller and several African bishops. This fall, Ignatius Press has five books out on topics of marriage and sexuality (see related story on page 7), and even held a conference in Rome just prior to the synod. Lots of hope is being placed on “the Africans,” such as Cardinal Robert Sarah, to save us from ourselves in Europe and America — itself a sign of just how bad things may be.

Though the traditional teaching has had and will have strong defenders, it’s undeniable that a certain shift has already occurred in the Church. I went to the synod in Rome last year with the expectation that I’d see, firsthand, the pressure being put from outside on the assembled participants by homosexual activists, abuse victims, etc. The shock was that the radical steps were proposed from inside the synod’s own administration. They didn’t ultimately receive two-third of the votes needed to include them in the final document (though they did receive the majority of votes and were included as a kind of appendix at the Pope’s request).

The Italian vaticanisti I most trust say that this is a typical tactic of the Italian radicals in secular politics. They put out quite strong positions that have no chance of passage and then retreat to less radical points, so that they can appear to be “reasonable,” willing to dialogue and not at all opposed to “compromise.”

The fundamental problem, however, is that such proposals are now part of the regular discussion, and, given the current culture in Europe and America, it means that there’s a foothold in the thinking of the Church itself that will be used to push things still further.

It’s difficult to determine whether the committee running the synod is capable of — or even wants to do — battle with the challengers. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who was seen by many as manipulating procedures last year, has made his role as president of the synod more difficult by stating publicly that he supports the Cardinal Kasper proposal. The instrumentum laboris (the tentative work plan) that the committee issued is vague and weak and shows serious deficiencies, particularly in the way it speaks of the relationship between conscience and objective truths.

Before it even wades into such deep waters, part one (there are three main parts, one to be treated in each of the three weeks of the synod) focuses on the current sociological state of married Catholics. There’s nothing wrong with using sociology to help understand things — if it’s good sociology. What the document displays is very vague, cliché-ridden, often off-point ruminations — not something, I think, that any serious sociology department would take seriously.

Even worse, it gives the impression that somehow this ill-conceptualized state of the question should somehow influence doctrinal matters, not merely immediate pastoral concerns. It’s confused and confusing and can’t much help families, because it seems quite overwhelmed by the current situation, without the adequate scriptural, spiritual and doctrinal substance to reply to it, other than in the terms of the crisis itself.

But it’s the final week that will most matter. That seems to be the time when the most troubling issues raised in the previous synod will be debated.

There is some talk from various quarters that certain cardinals and archbishops may try in the earlier weeks to block such things before they even get started. That’s probably impossible, but these are strange times in the Church and the world.

The Holy Spirit, too, will be involved in all this and will, no doubt, get in a word or two. But we may have to wait a while to be able to figure out precisely what that word is.

Robert Royal, Ph.D., is the

founder and president of the

Faith & Reason Institute in Washington and

editor in chief of The Catholic Thing website.