The Synod on the Family

The Synod on the Family opens today in Rome. Those who have followed some of the pre-Synod debates as reported in the media (a significant qualification) may be expecting fireworks; those who haven’t will be expecting nothing at all, or a few damp squibs at best. For what it’s worth, I offer three things I have found useful to think and pray about during the months of preparation.

First, an Extraodinary Synod such as this is a powerful reminder of the universal nature of the Church. Here in England Catholics are so accustomed to being a religious minority that we sometimes fail to register how big the Church actually is, and how varied its experience of life and family. There are more Catholic Christians in the world than any other kind. Those of us who live in the West tend to assume our view of things is the ‘only’ one, so are often jolted out of our complacency when confronted by the Church in Africa or Asia or South America. I expect something of the same to happen when the Synod discusses the family. The problems we obsess about in the West are not necessarily the same as those that preoccupy those living in fear of persecution or who daily experience the reality of hunger and poverty.

Secondly, there tends to be confusion about the difference between doctrine (which cannot change) and discipline (which can and does), even among Catholics who, in every other respect, are well-educated and thoughtful people. This can lead to both unrealistic demands for change where none is possible, and intransigence about the possibility of change where it is not only possible but also desirable. That is where the whole Church, not just the Synod participants, has a particularly important role in praying not only for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Synod’s deliberations but in the acceptance and implementation of its conclusions afterwards.

Thirdly, the composition of the Synod has highlighted something I’ve touched on in other posts: the question of who can, and who cannot, share in the decision-making processes of the Church. That is essentially a theological question, although it is often treated as though it were merely a sociological one. It is an important question, and one likely to resurface in particularly acute form as a kind of subtext to the Synod. The experts on family life are those who live it, are they not, and the rumblings of dissatisfaction voiced by many about the predominantly clerical composition of the various bodies who prepared the lineamenta for the Synod deserves to be heard. That said, to be heard does not necessarily mean to be agreed with. We ought not to lose sight of the fact that a Synod is about discerning God’s will, not about achieving our own.

Three very simple thoughts on the Synod, but I hope they will be useful to others. The most important is to recognize our duty of prayer, for without actively seeking to know the mind of God, we are wasting our time. No amount of hot air can compensate for a failure to heed the Holy Spirit! May God guide his Church as he sees fit. Amen.



5 thoughts on “The Synod on the Family”

  1. Might we just pray that the spirit of family life is spread by the Holy Spirit over the Synod;and that all listen with humility and mercy to the other viewpoints expressed.

  2. Thank you for this. I have to admit that I hadn’t paid it much attention until I saw an interview with Cardinal Nichols the other day when he was basically saying what you have here. There shouldn’t be any expectation of dramatic or swift change, despite the aspirations expressed by many through the media or on social media.

    Which doesn’t stop those who believe that change is needed to pray along with the Synod for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to be upon and among those debating and seeking God’s will during the process. Whether their hopes or expectations bear fruit, only time will tell.

    I still wonder personally about the exclusion from holy communion of divorced or re-married divorcee’s. I know that there are procedures for annulment which are difficult to go through, and can be painful for those making applications, with sometimes, considerable delay in decisions being given, it might take years. Since all Catholics value the Sacrament of Holy Communion so highly, to deny the sacrament seems to be hard and an impediment to mission, whatever the reasons justifying it.

    I’m not campaigning, just expressing my empathy for those in difficult and painful situations, who found themselves divorced through no fault of their own, and without any pastoral solution available to a Parish Priest, who might well have empathy for their parishioner, but is powerless to help apart from prayer. I wonder how many Catholics are lost to this, not just to the Catholic church, but any church as they drift away in despair?

    • Can I correct one very important point? Divorced Catholics can receive Holy Communion, provided they are not in a state of mortal sin (the same condition that applies to all of us); it is divorced and remarried Catholics who are considered to have excluded themselves from Holy Communion by their action in remarrying when their first marriage still stands. Did you read Louise Mensch’s article in the Spectator about why she, as a divorced and remarried Catholic, will not receive Holy Communion? I think it expresses very well some of the other things that have to be taken into account, and the feelings many Catholics have about them. Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith also wrote a good article in the Catholic Herald about some of the grounds that might be found for changing the present discipline.

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