What Happened at the Synod and Why It Matters

Inside the Synod Hall during the meeting of bishops and cardinals on October 14, 2015.
Inside the Synod Hall during the meeting of bishops and cardinals on October 14, 2015. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

“After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations.”
Oscar Wilde

Thanksgiving is upon us, and you know what that means: family squabbles. Ever have any? Ever overhear any? Say at the airport or the mall? Or how about the hospital? I teach nursing, and sometimes I overhear heated arguments between family members and patients, or just family members (or maybe sometimes the staff nurses and their families via cell phone). “Yikes,” I think, “I’m glad I’m not in on that,” although I know I could be.

“In families, there is commonly discord,” Samuel Johnson wrote. “If a kingdom be a great family, a family likewise is a little kingdom, torn with factions and exposed to revolutions.” Few would argue with Johnson on that point, but how do we respond – especially as Christians? I think Rick Riordan’s insight regarding the Greek pantheon applies just as well to us: “Sometimes the best we can do is to remind each other that we're related for better or for worse, and try to keep the maiming and killing to a minimum.”

So, what does all that have to do with the big Synod in Rome last month? Plenty, which you know if you kept up with it at all. The Church is a family, and, like any family, we fight – and the Synod on the Family was an event fittingly permeated by family-like disputes and bickering

And that’s not all bad, for it’s good to fight about important things – about life and death things, about good versus evil, sin and salvation – and we’ve been doing it since Church’s earliest days. Indeed, the first ecclesial family gatherings – those landmark councils in which Church leaders debated heresies and voted on fundamental doctrines – were rife with actual physical conflict, including fisticuffs and bloodletting. For example, tradition tells us that St. Nicholas marched right up to the arch-heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea and bopped him in the nose. (Kinda’ puts a new spin on visions of sugarplums and ‘ho-ho-ho,’ doesn’t it?)

It’s a tradition that inspired Hilaire Belloc to write his Song of the Pelagian Heresy, which depicts a clash between the heretic Pelagius and a bishop from Gaul named Germanus – an apocryphal scene it seems, but one that gets at the spirit of a more pugnacious period of Church history:

Oh, he thwacked them hard and he thwacked them long
On each and all occasions,
Till they bellowed in chorus loud and strong
Their orthodox persuasions.

Funny, yes, but also sobering, for it’s a fact that lives were lost over fine details of theology in the Church’s first centuries. Yet, we shouldn’t be surprised at that: It might be easy to foreswear such practices today, but back then, it made sense to Church leaders to defend truth and goodness by not only putting up verbal arguments, but also their dukes.

Nowadays, our battles over crucial matters of faith and morals usually take place at conference tables instead of in hand-to-hand combat, but they’re still pretty intense. That was true even at the Second Vatican Council, which took place just fifty years ago. Vatican II was an Ecumenical Council, in which all the world’s bishops have a say, and so it had tremendous authority – pretty much right up there with papal pronouncements. It’s striking, then, that Vatican II’s day to day business and bickering were broadcast to the world – just like the recently concluded Synod.

Of course, the reporting wasn’t instantaneous fifty years ago – WiFi and iPhones hadn’t been invented yet. Nevertheless, there were plenty of reporters around, sending back dispatches from Rome, and people were finding out about all the doings at the Council – all the apparent tumult and intrigue and, well, squabbling.

Nonetheless, what really mattered in the long run – and certainly, the only thing that matters to us today (unless you’re a scholar) – are the sixteen documents that the Council fathers prayed over, actually voted on, and approved: Lumen Gentium, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and Dei Verbum, and the rest. It’s particularly noteworthy that the Vatican II documents were addressed to specific audiences – the world’s bishops in some cases, to all Catholics in others, and even, in the case of Gaudium et Spes, everyone in the world.

Anyway, let’s get back to the Synod on the Family – another big Church meeting like Vatican II, complete with publicly accessible bickering and snark. However, it can’t be emphasized enough that, despite the breathless reporting, the Synod wasn’t Vatican Council III. Rather, it was a much more limited expression of the Church’s collegiality that Pope Paul VI established as a permanent institution in 1965. The Holy Father had witnessed the success of Vatican II and he wanted to keep the conciliar mojo going – the habit, as it were, of consulting together as a body of apostles and Church leaders, just like they did in the first century.

The Synod is made up of bishops representing different parts of the Church around the world, and it meets only when the Holy Father requests it. As a matter of fact, the Synod of Bishops on the Family that we’d been hearing so much about was actually two synods in one: An Extraordinary General Assembly that met just over a year ago – which was like a preparatory meeting to frame the issues and gather input – and then the more structured and formal Ordinary General Assembly just concluded last month. The Extraordinary Synod had surveyed the tumultuous state of marriage and family life in our world, consulted the world’s bishops, and then produced a summary report which was to guide preparations for the Ordinary General Assembly.

Then, the Ordinary Synod got together last October significantly, just after the Holy Father’s participation in the Philadelphia World Meeting of Families – and spent weeks plowing through a variety of concerns: Big cultural shifts, like ideologies of gender, commitment aversion, and rampant individualism; social realities impacting the family, like adoption, immigration, high unemployment, and perpetual poverty; threats to human life and love, like abortion, contraception, and reproductive technology; and other issues, including ecology and inter-generational cohesion.

Oh. And they also talked a bit about the pastoral care of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, as well as families that include homosexual members – maybe you heard about those agenda items.

Really, because of Twitter, blogs, and social media, the whole world got to listen in on our ecclesial family squabble as it happened – and not only listen in, but also comment on, pick apart, and declare winners and losers, even as events unfolded. In the end, though, the Synod, like Vatican II, came down to voting on and approving a document: the Relatio Synodi, an official summary of the Synod’s proceedings that included a series of recommendations to the Holy Father.

Here’s the thing though: That document, like the Synod itself, has no magisterial authority whatsoever. Zip – zero. Surprised? Based on the news reporting, you’d think there was a doctrinal tsunami coming in the wake of the Synod’s conclusion last month – a wholesale transformation of Church teaching on marriage and the family. In truth, the whole thing was solely about consultation – serious, weighty, discerning consultation, but consultation alone. The Synod’s Relatio document is certainly of interest to us – because we’re part of this family that had the big family meeting – but it doesn’t affect us directly. In fact, the Relatio isn’t even available in an authorized English translation yet, and there’s no rush to put one out because…(wait for it)…it’s meant for the Pope alone, and he reads Italian just fine, thank you very much.

Again, this is not the impression we got from the Media, but why would we expect otherwise? News outlets and the mainstream media only make money when they grab more ears and eyeballs than their competitors, and so they have a vested interest in the sensational. That’s especially true for religious news (which tends to be pretty dry, let’s face it), and consequently the Synod’s inner contentiousness got a lot more airplay than the substance of the Synod’s work.

The bottom line for serious Catholics is that the Synod, while not an exercise of Magisterium, was still a very important collegial event. The bishops deliberated, discussed, and prayed over crucial matters concerning contemporary Catholic life. And while it’s true that the Synod’s Relatio is meant for the Holy Father and not us, it could very well be – in fact, it’s extremely likely – that Pope Francis will elect to take it and all the work of the Synod, mull it over, and compose an Apostolic Exhortation on marriage and the family – which would be a document with real magisterial authority, and something to get worked up over. In the meantime, however, we really don’t have to worry. We can just wait on the Pope to find out what the Holy Spirit was – and is – up to.

And that’s the next point: We really do need to trust the Pope. The Catechism reads that “Peter will remain the unshakable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it” (552). That authority and “unshakability” Jesus gave to Peter is passed down through history via the office of the papacy – which is to say that we Catholics believe that Peter is still with us, and that Christ will continue to empower whoever holds his office to safely guide the Church through whatever comes our way. Yes, each Pope has his own approach and style, and, yes, it’s really OK to have our favorites, but every pope – every heir to that unique petrine mantle of divinely-protected leadership – deserves our respect.

I’ve chosen to describe the recent Synod in terms of squabble – of good things that can come amidst contentious interactions – but Vatican Radio’s Philippa Hitchens provides us with an alternative perspective on the whole episode that’s also helpful. Instead of the family squabble, Hitchens sees the Synod’s work as labor pains leading to a fresh beginning.

While the joys and sorrows of family life have been the main focus of discussions, the bishops have really been learning a new way of relating to each other in the family of the Church. Half a century on from establishment of the Synod of bishops, these Church leaders are moving towards a new way of collaborating more closely with each other and with the pope.

Regardless of what you might’ve heard, nothing has changed in fundamental Church teaching. Period. Nonetheless, there does seem to be change at hand with regards to how the Church implements that teaching as well as how the bishops, in union with Peter’s successor, make decisions regarding that implementation. More on all that to follow – stay tuned for the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation!

Until then, be patient, cling to the Church, and stay the course. We’re still called to be saints – to be heroic in whatever state of life God calls us to, married or otherwise. That hasn’t changed either. Not in the slightest.