After the Synod

There seems to be general agreement that the final text of the Synod is a much better document than the Lineamenta or preliminary working document which raised such a storm in certain quarters. It is theologically more precise, richer in biblical underpinning and more eloquent in expression. It allows us to see that the scope of discussion was wider than Western media headlines sometimes suggested. Here in the monastery we shall be studying it, together with Pope Francis’s final address, in the leisurely manner characteristic of monks and nuns. It takes time to tease all the nuances out of Roman documents; and now that we no longer have a single Latin text to work from, it is useful to look at a number of translations in various languages.

As one might expect, not all the hopes or fears expressed before or during the Synod were realised. I think what I predicted at the start — no change in doctrine, but one or two shifts in language which may, or may not, prove to be significant in the long term — was broadly right; but we shall have to see what develops. In particular, we shall have to wait to see where Pope Francis takes things. It is easy to forget that the Synod of Bishops, even though augmented as this one was with other participants (not all of whom had voting rights), is essentially an advisory body to the pope. As canon 383 say, it is ‘a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and meet together at fixed times to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world.’ What, perhaps, Catholics in America and Europe were less prepared for than we should have been is that the Church in Africa now speaks even more forcefully and, if the word must be used, conservatively, than we anticipated. The Synod has demonstrated that the shape of the Church is changing. It is no longer Eurocentric; even the mighty U.S.A. has less power than it once had — or so it seems to me.

Truth does not change, but the way in which we present it may. Do we now have a Church in which we must seek to find not so much a common mind as a common form of expression? That is particularly important when one considers the role that the media played. Synod particpants seemed to have a second life, blogging, tweeting and giving numerous interviews, many of which were taken up by commentators with more energy than expertise. I am not convinced that the cacophony of voices, some of them ill-informed, some of them bad-tempered, and some of them downright divisive, really contributed much of lasting value. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t comment or question, but there was a lot of scare-mongering and finger-pointing that I found anything but helpful. Quite clearly, we need to examine how we use the media in our public discourse; and that is a larger, and more urgent question, than many seem to appreciate.

The press briefings given each day by the different language groups provided fascinating insights into the synod process and the reactions of the participants, at times leading to quite different impressions (e.g. on the role of religious women, the diaconate, etc). One expects disagreements; one expects confusion, leaks and, unless one is hopelessly naive, a good dollop of not-so-behind-the-scenes scheming and politicking. A Church that is numerically so big and geographically so widespread is always going to have to work at discussion and debate, but I think I am encouraged. The Church has reaffirmed that the family is, as she has always maintained, the most important of human institutions, one with a divine vocation no human law can change or diminish. It is the centre or source from which all evangelization proceeds because it mirrors the inner life of the Trinity. There were questions we may think the Synod failed to address adequately, but to be reminded of the immense dignity of being human, of the holiness to which we aspire, flawed and sinful though we are, is no small thing.

The Synod on the Family is over. Now the really difficult work begins, to translate words into action, and it is entrusted to each one of us. May the Holy Spirit give us the wisdom and courage we need.


Politicizing Prayer

As with the Synod, so with the Parliamentary debate about tax credits: they are both giving rise to a great deal of politicized prayer. By that I mean someone decides, quite sincerely, what they think the ‘right’ outcome should be and prays earnestly for it to come about, often solliciting the help of others. I can’t tell you how many requests for prayer have come to the monastery, urging us to pray that this view or the other may triumph (significant word) at the Synod, or that ‘the evil Tories’ may be foiled in their ‘plot against the poor’ or, alternatively, that all opposition may be wiped from the face of the earth. As you may have gathered, I have no intention of saying anything much about the Synod until it is over, and I won’t be drawn into party politics, so you may be wondering how we cope with such requests. How do we pray in response?

The answer is as simple as it is disappointing to many. We ask God to ensure that what he wills comes about. That isn’t as easy as it sounds, because we all have opinions, but it is the only honest way of praying when our knowledge is imperfect and our view of any situation partial. If someone who hasn’t done a stroke of work all term asks us to pray for good exam results, I trust an open-ended prayer of the kind I have described may lead to a realisation that some effort of one’s own has to be put in. We are asked to to pray for a specific result, but what God chooses to give may, ultimately, prove much better. So, too, with the Synod: those sure that the Church ‘needs’ such and such may be surprised to find that the Holy Spirit doesn’t necessarily agree. Similarly, the policies advocated by a political party may have good or bad points, but we don’t have to ask God to take sides.

What I think is important, though, is that we bring to our prayer a sense of reverence, not just for God but also for the people and situations we are praying about. One of the sad aspects of the media debate surrounding the Synod, for example, has been the name-calling and bitterness that goes with the polarisation of views and demonisation of those who hold different opinions. It is much the same with party politics. A prayer request that refers to someone as ‘evil’ or ‘hardline’ is not one I want to take before the Throne of Grace. That isn’t just middle-class niceness asserting itself, or a wimpish desire to avoid conflict: the fundamental disposition of prayer must always be profound humility and reverence. Anything less, whatever else it is, isn’t prayer. In fact, it is a hindrance to prayer because it fills us with our own noise and deafens us to the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit. At least, that has been my experience, born of innumerable failures to pray as I ought. On that basis, I think I can safely say, learn from my mistakes.


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.


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.