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.