Synod Surprise


(photo: Mazur/ (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0))

Those expecting big changes in Catholic teaching in the final report of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family just encountered the “God of surprises,” to use Pope Francis’ expression. No big changes.

Of course, the interim report surprised people, too. Apparently, someone “adjusted” it to fit a certain approach to issues concerning homosexual persons, civilly remarried Catholics, and Communion and cohabitation. This approach wasn’t generally shared by the synod fathers, despite everyone’s desire to be inclusive and merciful. That made the report a misrepresentation. Surprise.

Media “spun” the story, essentially saying that the Catholic Church had “caved in,” to use George Weigel’s expression. The Church is changing her teaching, they said. The story was wrong. No surprise.

What surprised many was the bishops’ pushback. Many openly criticized the interim report. They began taking more responsibility for their own “messaging.” Even some of the so-called “progressive” voices severely qualified things:

Mercy, inclusivity and respect for human dignity doesn’t mean anything goes, many bishops noted. Human dignity isn’t a blank check to do as we please. Disapproving of certain things doesn’t mean we don’t know that people do other, praiseworthy things. Even bad actions sometimes have positive elements, which don’t, of course, make the bad things good. None of this needs to compromise Catholic teaching. We should praise faithful Catholic families. And so on.

Told by synod leadership that the bishops’ small-group reports wouldn’t be available to the public, the bishops balked. The small-group reports were published.

The final report of the synod aligns with Catholic teaching.

Some observers compared the synod’s discussion to Vatican II. Good comparison. The Roman Curial leadership at the Second Vatican Council wanted the bishops to “rubber stamp” the prepackaged documents. The bishops said, “No.” Similarly, some synod fathers tried to get a “rubber stamp” on a misrepresentative interim report. The bishops said, “No.”


The African bishops, who a few European participants seemed to want to marginalize, spoke out. Why shouldn’t their contributions to the universal Church be considered? The Pope added South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, one of the most outspoken critics of the interim report, to the final report’s writing team.


The synod upheld Catholic teaching but was eager to find new ways to present it. Call that groundbreaking if you want — it seems more like “Let’s do better.” The hot-button issues were there — holy Communion for civilly remarried Catholics, cohabitation and how to reach out to same-sex attracted people — but the final report addressed them in a more coherently Catholic way.


The evangelical thrust of Pope Francis (and his predecessors) permeated the final report. The Church should reach out to struggling families, not wait for them to come to her. What’s more, the Church is to cure wounds, not just bandage them and pretend they aren’t there. The Church must “meet people where they are” — going to the highways and byways. Yet we mustn’t “leave them where they are.”

Sounds like the New Evangelization.

One “surprise” never came: a call for collective repentance. Pope St. John Paul II renewed Catholic teaching on marriage and family life through his theology of the body, yet his teaching was often ignored, even resisted, by some Church leaders. Consequently, God raised up other people to spread it. Many of them are “JP2 Generation” people. Yet they have often faced resistance at the diocesan and parish levels. Is it any surprise most Catholics haven’t heard the case for Catholic teaching, much less been transformed by it?

Some mea culpas seem in order.

Some synod fathers called for a new “language of love” with which to present the gospel of the family. Surprise!  We have “new language” in the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II. Much, though certainly not all, of the necessary work of adapting it for popular audiences has begun. Maybe it’s time to get more of the institutional Church behind it. Fortunately, the God of surprises is also the God of second chances.

The final report from this year’s synod will be the basis for the discussion at next year’s ordinary synod. It’s no surprise that, in the coming year, other input will likely be added. Things may become contentious, as problematic proposals get repackaged and promoted for next year’s synod. The Holy Father called for open and frank (but charitable) discussion at the extraordinary synod. As we go forward, let’s hope and pray for a discussion without rancor, misrepresentation and the false choice either of standing for truth or standing for mercy.

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton compares his rediscovery of Christianity to a man who sails from England only to return after many days to the place from which he started. He thinks he has found a new land. The journey has transformed his vision of the familiar. He sees with new eyes. Surprise!

Pope Francis described the synod as a kind of “journeying together.” As it turns out, the place from which we started is the place to which we’ve returned. Even so, the journey should have given us new eyes to see what has been before us: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever. The Church, ever ancient and ever new, and people needing the Gospel.

In the coming year, let’s explore a renewed vision of Jesus, the Church and people in need. What does the New Evangelization mean for the family?

In answering the question, let’s avoid the temptations of “hostile inflexibility” and “deceptive mercy,” of which Pope Francis spoke in his closing synodal address. We need new methods, new ardor and new expressions to address today’s situations, as St. John Paul II insisted. We need a new openness to reach out to others. But it is still the same Jesus, the same Church and the same life-transforming gospel of the family we bring to people.

Wouldn’t it be a surprise, both pleasant and challenging, if the “new message” some seek turns out to be a freshly presented gospel of the family we’ve had all along?

Mark Brumley is president of Ignatius Press and author of The Seven Deadly Sins of Apologetics.