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.