A Few Thoughts on the Synod on the Family

One would have to be living on another planet not to be aware that the Synod taking place in Rome is stirring up intense debate within the Church. I call it debate, though at times it has seemed more like opposing armies taking pop shots at one another. The existence of the internet has enabled anyone who wishes to express an opinion, spread a rumour or claim to be in the know about exactly what is happening. The truth is that every synod in Rome has its politics, its leaks, its furious speculation about motives and outcomes; and somewhere in the midst of it all is the Holy Spirit and the desire to have the mind of Christ. The outcome of the Synod will not depend only on those taking an active part in its debates but also on all those throughout the world quietly praying that what God wills for the Church may come about.

To state the obvious, the Synod is about much more than arguments for/against the readmission of the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion or the recognition of same-sex unions — two subjects that have grabbed the media headlines in the West. It is about the basis of human society; the formation of the individual; growth in holiness — even about how we understand the Church and the function of authority within her. That may seem simplistic to some, but sometimes one has to state the obvious rather baldly in order to appreciate its importance.

So why do I choose today, the feast of St Callistus, to voice these thoughts? Callistus has an interesting and rather contemporary-sounding history. He was a slave banker who managed to lose his clients’ money, did a runner, was caught and was made to do time in a Sardinian mine from which he was eventually released during an amnesty for Christians. He then made his way to Rome, where he next appears in history as archdeacon and is credited with wielding undue influence over the pope of the day, the weak and vacillating Zephyrinus. It gets worse. He became pope himself and incurred the wrath of Tertullian and Hippolytus for his liberal opinions. Callistus had to tackle the problem of what to do about repentant sinners. Could they be readmitted to the fellowship of the Church if they had fornicated or committed adultery, for example? He said they could, basing his stance on the power of Peter to forgive sin. Tertullian and Hippolytus, both men of great stature in the Church, maintained that the power of binding and loosing was given to Peter personally, not to his successors. And so the battle raged in the third century, with those who asserted that there could be no way back for those who had sinned gravely but repented of their sin opposing those who said that there could, provided the sinners were truly penitent. Ultimately, the Church was to side with Callistus, which, during the Donatist controversies of the fourth century, was to prove immensely important.

Now, doesn’t that sound familiar? There is an attempt to present the current Synod in terms of an opposition between two entrenched positions, one conservative, one liberal. Yet what is at stake goes far beyond any glib polarisation. I myself do not expect any change in the existing teaching of the Church on the nature of the family or the obligations of marriage, for instance, but I do expect some reflection on the role of the family in the nurture of the individual and its implications for society. I also expect a change of tone on some subjects. If you want to know the kind of thing I mean, I suggest you look at the old Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on ‘woman’ and compare it with Mulieris dignitatem (1988). There is a sea-change in the language, although Pope St John Paul II was very far from being what the world calls a liberal.

Whatever the outcome of the Synod, it is the duty of Catholics throughout the world to pray earnestly and untiringly for the guidance of the Holy Spirit — not just for those debating the synod agenda but for all of us who will be affected by its decisions. Maybe we could ask the prayers of St Callistus, too. God doesn’t always choose as we would, and it is good to remember that.

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7 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on the Synod on the Family”

  1. The Synod on the Family is being portrayed in the media as one of warring factions, one or the other of whom will win.

    Talk of nailing colours to the Mast due to a statement issued before the start of the Synod by a Senior Cardinal that the status of divorced and remarried catholics wasn’t up for negotiation – others have described this as a document to be studied?

    In the middle of all of this is Pope Francis, being pulled in many directions, being criticised for being to liberal or to right wing. His role will be, I believe, to listen with care all that is said and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit try to make decisions, which are his alone, that will allow the Church to continue to function – not abandoning doctrines for the sake of bowing to secular values, but perhaps in the light of the merciful forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ, to use compassion and understanding to bring those Catholics who feel abandoned due to their status, whether divorced or remarried or who struggle with the conscience due to their sexual orientation.

    This is truly walking a tightrope across a dangerous chasm of divisive issues, internal church politics and power plays. I’m sure that his prayerful approach will win out, but by definition, any conclusion that he makes and decisions that are promulgated, will be in the nature of this things be subject to criticism.

    In upholding the faith and doctrine of the Church, but making compassionate provision for those who struggle or feel abandoned or unwanted by or in the Church they might be brought back into the Church family.

    This would be within the bounds of mercy and forgiveness that Jesus exhibited in his words ‘Your Sins are forgiven – go and sin no more’.

    As one who struggled myself within the Church in the past, but have found a home in becoming an Anglican, I can’t not be praying for outcomes that will mend unity and restore that sense of holiness within the Catholic Church, which a secular world view disparages and is critical off. If the Universal Church could only come together to debate these things on an inter-denominational basis – perhaps we could than all become one.

  2. Fine article. Pope Francis is proving to be an inspirational leader, and not only to Catholics.

    I also liked the reference to St Callistus, sounds like a sensible fellow. This is the second time today I’ve read about the Catholic Encyclopedia.

  3. Thank you, sister, for shedding more light than heat — to reverse the saying — on the Synod. I don’t remember where I encountered the following, but it seems particularly apt when the Church struggles with these kinds of issues: “The mills of God grind exceedingly slow, but exceedingly fine.”

  4. Jesus preached God’s message of love, peace and forgiveness for all. We are all God’s children. We are capable of great kindness and also of cruelty. If we do not harm others by our actions, but try to reach out in kindness to others, will not God accept our imperfections? Añd if so, should not the Church do likewise? Pope Francis has questioned the rigidity of doctrine and through his Papacy presents a limited time frame of opportunity for the Roman Catholic Church to become more universally tolerant and inclusive of all who are or would be Christian adherents. Marriage for priests, female and gay priests and bishops, restoration of communion to divorcees are all areas where reforms are long overdue and reasonable expectations of a loving and inclusive church.

    • What you regard as ‘overdue reforms’ others would regard as impossibilities. I think that, without being aware of it or intending it, you are doing what I was warning against in my blog post. Discerning the will of God means exactly that: it is a process in which the Church engages prayerfully and humbly. We do not decide what the will of God is and then expect everyone else to endorse our opinion. The last sentence of my post is particularly important. In short, I do not doubt your sincerity, but we have very different understandings of the Church.

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