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.