Context and Clashes, How the Synod and Council Compare?

Second Vatican Council
Second Vatican Council (photo: Lothar Wolleh/Wikipedia Commons)

A major difference between the atmosphere of Synod on the Family meeting now at the Vatican and the atmosphere surrounding the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s is the unavoidable pessimism generated by the decline of religious belief and practice in the West over the past half century.

As with Vatican II, much of the hierarchical leadership leading up to the Synod has come from Western Europe, where — also as at the Council — the primary response has been to seek accommodations with the secular culture through “dialogue,” a strategy that seems clearly to have failed in the 50 years since the Council.

While few bishops of the Third World played a significant role at the Council, they are likely to be far more prominent at the Synod and may force significant modifications of the agenda of Western prelates.

Echoing the environment of the Council, there are internal tensions at the Synod that have become public, despite efforts to keep them confidential. Some bishops seem to be working to achieve diverse goals, often in opposition to one another.

Pope St. John XXIII decreed that Vatican II would be primarily a “pastoral” council and, likewise, the Synod now seeks to ameliorate the situation of divorced-and-remarried Catholics without affecting dogma. But the post-conciliar experience shows the difficulty of that, as every “pastoral” change turned out to implicate doctrinal questions.

Similar to Vatican II, the Synod on the Family meets amid a glare of publicity, complicated by an inevitably futile effort to control the reporting by official daily summaries. Again, as with the Council, there is a working alliance between certain journalists and certain participants in the Synod, with the media instructing the Synod Fathers as to what the world expects of them.

But the reporting of the Synod differs in two very important respects from the reporting of Vatican II — the preponderance of the electronic media over the print media and the immense variety of the electronic media. There are no longer any organs of communication that can be considered normative in the way The New York Times once was, and there are hundreds of online news sites and blogs where people can seek enlightenment.

Once again, many Catholics who recall the confusing and chaotic aftermath of Vatican II fear that the Church could be in store for an exact relay of that scenario, whereby the public’s understanding of the Council was very different from what actually took place. Judging from the media’s account, the Church was admitting its errors and coming to terms with modern culture and the Fathers were divided into heroes and villains.

Misled not only by journalists, with their own agenda, but even by some of their own spiritual leaders, most people understood little of the theological issues at Vatican II and came to believe that the Council’s purpose was simply that of repealing burdensome rules.

So now, in public discussions of the Synod, the rich theology of marriage is largely ignored in favor of what could be called “bottom-line theology” — will the Church relax its discipline still further? The public debates about divorce today parallel those over birth control during the Council.

In retrospect, it is clear that, had the Church somehow accepted birth control, this would merely have whetted the appetite for more. Based on the experience of liberal Protestantism, church attendance would have fallen even more precipitously.

The very fact that divorce is the focus of so much attention is further evidence of the prevalence of this bottom-line theology. Vatican II largely ignored a half-century of religious persecution, and it might be thought that the increasing ferocity of such persecution ought now to be the Church’s major concern. Instead it is once again called upon to adjust itself to the sexual revolution.

Synods are the major way in which the idea of episcopal collegiality is implemented, and they have sometimes been opportunities for bishops to challenge papal authority, as Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco did on one occasion.

But the Council was careful to protect papal authority, and Pope Francis’s relationship to the Synod is a matter of major interest. Although it is often claimed that Vatican II democratized the Church, deference to papal authority was a major factor in determining the outcome of the Council and it may do so at the Synod as well.

Since in the end, despite vigorous debate, none of the Council’s decrees received more than a small number of dissenting votes, it might be thought that it managed to transcend differences. It is an achievement that, hopefully, the Synod can replicate.