Family Synod Aftermath — Expanding the Agenda

COMMENTARY: The two-year synodal process has initiated a continuing discussion of four crucial questions for the Church.

Pope Francis walks outside of the Synod hall after meetings on the Synod on the Family in Vatican City on Oct. 21.
Pope Francis walks outside of the Synod hall after meetings on the Synod on the Family in Vatican City on Oct. 21. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Even before the synod on the family began, Pope Francis expressed a concern that its focus might be too narrow. In particular, before both the synod in 2014 and this year, the Holy Father explicitly said that it was not to be a synod exclusively about holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.

In point of fact, that question has been at the forefront of both media attention and in the discussions of the synod fathers themselves. Yet precisely because that question touches so many others, over the course of three weeks, the synod on the family became about so much more than just that. Indeed, not a few synod fathers expressed frustration that the ordinary pastoral care of Catholic families attempting to live Catholic family life in the ordinary way became sidelined by an ever-expanding list of topics that the synod engaged.

To a certain extent, that was inevitable, as the question of Communion for divorced-and-civilly-remarried persons touches upon the doctrines of marital indissolubility, the necessary disposition for reception of Communion, the requirements for sacramental absolution in confession, the nature of communion in the Church and the nuptial mystery of Christ and the Church. So even the “too narrow” question about the civilly remarried has within it a dynamic that opens up very broad questions.

As the two-year synod process concluded, an expanded agenda of questions opened up:

The doctrine of the Eucharist: Ten years ago this month, there was a synod on the Eucharist in Rome, presided over by Pope Benedict XVI, but called by St. John Paul II. The latter devoted his final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, to the topic and died during the special Year of the Eucharist, of which the synod was a high point. Nevertheless, despite the teaching of Benedict in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, several of the questions apparently settled there now are being discussed again. John Paul called for a new “Eucharistic amazement.” Instead, there appears to be something of a “Eucharistic amnesia” spreading, as even recent teaching was being forgotten in the various emanations from the synod. Bishops returning home will find a need to renew Eucharistic catechesis.

The Catholic understanding of conscience: The documents of Vatican II, drawing upon the luminous teaching of Blessed John Henry Newman, gave a very exalted treatment of conscience as man’s own interior witness to the truth about God, about the world and about man himself. In the controversies that followed Humanae Vitae in 1968, the Catholic understanding of conscience as a witness to the truth was practically replaced in the culture with the concept of conscience as a subjective determination of the will, unrelated to objective truth. Two decades of confusion ensued in the life of the Church, prompting John Paul to publish, after six years of intense preparation, Veritatis Splendor in 1993. Various synod fathers proposed ideas about conscience that are at variance with that encyclical on the moral life and in fact are at odds with the Catholic vision of the moral life altogether. John Paul concluded Veritatis Splendor with words that many synod fathers would disagree with today: “At times, in the discussions about new and complex moral problems, it can seem that Christian morality is in itself too demanding, difficult to understand and almost impossible to practice. This is untrue, since Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church” (119). Whether John Paul was right or wrong about that will be a discussion that will return the Church to the intense and enervating debates of the 1970s.

Unity and diversity in the Church: To be Catholic means to be both local, for everyone lives within a particular place and people, and universal, as the whole Church exists in communion with each other and the bishop of Rome. Catholic culture differs from place to place; Catholic doctrine does not. Where does one end and the other begin? Different cultures require different pastoral priorities and practices. Yet it cannot be that what is sacrilegious in one place or for one person can be a source of grace in another place or for another person. Discussions at the synod about “local options” for conferences of bishops, or regions within countries, or even individual parishes will continue and are not likely to be limited only to the pastoral care of divorced peoples. Pope Francis encouraged exploration of these matters in his mid-synod address calling for a “synodal Church.” Often, these discussions will be focused on very practical matters, though they will touch upon the very nature of the Church.

The mission to the world or a self-referential Church? When St. John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council in 1962, he expected a great missionary movement to be launched, a Church confidently preaching the Gospel in new ways, adapted to the needs of the contemporary world. Instead, many in the Church turned inward, and decades of energy were absorbed on debates on what it meant to be Catholic. St. John Paul II pronounced, instead, that the Church is always in mission and proposed the urgency of the New Evangelization. Pope Francis has repeatedly called for the Church to get out of the sacristy, to be missionary in every dimension of her life. Synod 2015 brought into question the nature of that mission. Is it to convert the world to Christ, accompanying people from where they are to the fullness of the Gospel? Or does the Church first have to clarify whether the fullness of the Gospel is for everyone? An influential minority of synod fathers seemed to have lost confidence that the Gospel is always good news for contemporary man. Before there can be any effective missionary renewal, that confidence has to be restored. Whether it can be will require considerable attention — attention that will strike some as self-referential or even self-absorbed.

Touching on these questions related to sacramental theology, moral theology, ecclesiology and missiology, the agenda resembled that of an ecumenical council, not a three-week synod, or even two synods in consecutive years.

After the synod fathers go home, the discussion appears only to be beginning.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998 to 2003.