A chaotic synod? Not in its results

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 21, 2014

Those who read between the lines in both Phil Lawler’s and my own series of commentaries on the recent Synod could probably tell that neither of us was particularly worried in the long run. Phil strove to point out aspects of the synodal process which were counterproductive, and I tried to explain certain unavoidable conditions which made the work of the synod fathers both confusing and difficult. But neither of us expected the 2014 Synod on the Family to fundamentally change the mission of the Church when it comes to marriage and family.

We hoped, of course, that the Synod would mark another step in authentic renewal, effecting a certain intensification of the New Evangelization with the family at its center. And we were definitely curious about how the Kasper Proposal would be handled, since so much play had been given to it in advance. But we did not expect the Synod fathers to find a way to implement any pastoral proposal concerning divorced and remarried Catholics which would, in practice, tend to undermine Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage itself.

In the end, of course, the Synod issued a series of reflections and recommendations that fit snugly within the Catholic tradition. As for the Kasper Proposal, while a majority of the fathers thought it had generated enough disagreement to merit further discussion, that majority was not large enough to make even further discussion a formal recommendation of the Synod. I am prepared to be wrong, but I believe that history will prove the Kasper Proposal is now about as dead as it can be.

But many onlookers were not as sanguine as I was. There was a great deal of alarm over Cardinal Kasper’s odd proposal that, under certain conditions, divorced and remarried Catholics should be readmitted to the Eucharist without annulment of their previous marriages. There was also some lesser but still real alarm over the question of whether homosexual behavior, including gay marriage, would somehow gain a sort of sub-doctrinal practical approval through pastoral initiatives recommended by the Synod.

Quite a few Catholics seem not to realize that the line between the Church and the world, which was so blurred by the rapid secularization of the hierarchy in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s has been hardening again for a quarter century or more. I will go on record here as saying that this synod was at least very close to the last gasp of bishops advocating faulty pastoral care for those embroiled in our culture’s sexual issues. The bulk of the world’s bishops have gradually escaped the terror of secular non-comformity which so plagued their immediate predecessors. This is one danger that, speaking from the perspective of the Church’s leadership, is rapidly subsiding.

So why, the reader may well wonder, were we treated to such a spectacle on the question of divorce and remarriage in the long months leading up to the Synod on the Family? Why did this spectacle even persist in some measure throughout the Synod itself? I believe the answer lies in the clear priorities and intentions of Pope Francis.

The Papal Difference

Insofar as the terms liberal and conservative mean anything as doctrinal and pastoral positions within the Catholic Church (and I can assure you that the terms are not very useful among Catholics who accept all that the Church teaches), Pope Francis seems to conceive of himself as a “liberal”. (So did Paul VI, by the way, and he gave us Humanae Vitae.) This emerges from time to time by the Pope’s own admission, as when he responded to the following question in a recent interview:

When journalist Joaquín Morales Solá asked him whether he was concerned about the recently published books in which a number of cardinals have criticized the “Kasper proposal,” the Pope replied: “No.” He continued: “Everyone has something to contribute. I personally enjoy debating very conservative bishops, especially those who are intellectually well formed.”

So clearly Pope Francis does not regard himself as “very conservative”, and probably not “conservative” at all, but there is no question of his orthodoxy. As he said in his late 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, when asked about sensitive sexual issues: “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church.” And as he said to encourage discussion among the Synod fathers at the outset, “Do so with tranquility and peace, for the Synod always takes cum Petro et sub Petro [with Peter and under Peter] and the presence of the Pope is the guarantee for all and the safeguard of the faith.”

The question for Francis is always how best to approach those in need of Christ’s mercy. The tendency of the orthodox “liberal” Catholic, if you will, is to emphasize Christ’s love and mercy, whereas the tendency of the orthodox “conservative” Catholic is to emphasize Christ’s conceptual accuracy and spiritual discipline. Again, I hate these terms. But for sincere Catholics who possess the one Faith, the dichotomy is largely a question of personality and experience. And in approaching others, this difference gives rise to a pastoral, not a doctrinal, question.

In the West at least, the question of divorce and remarriage is a huge problem, and the Church has not over the past few generations made much if any headway. It seems clear that the Pope wished to explore whether there was a way in which the Church could minister to couples in such situations more mercifully, including greater access to the sacraments. This is hardly an ignoble question. He seems to have seized upon Cardinal Kasper as the theologian with the most highly-developed view of this possibility, and encouraged him to stir the waters to see if anything pastorally useful would emerge from the ensuing discussion.

The Outcome

It seems unquestionable that this was a studied initiative on the Pope’s part, one which he gave every opportunity to bear fruit through various appointments he made during the course of the Synod. But it also seems clear that Francis was not looking for any particular result. If my reading is correct, he wanted the question explored thoroughly, as it now has been in several books and, most recently, at the Synod itself. The upshot is that no way was found to go down this sacramental path that would not undermine the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

At the same time, some of the books stirred into being by the Kasper Proposal (as I will explain later this week in a review) and many of the comments on the Synod floor offered suggestions for a more fruitful approach which would place marriage and the family at the heart of the Church’s authentic conception of pastoral ministry.

Meanwhile, the Synod has drawn to a close, and there is no reason to assume that the Pope has not achieved his objective—which was certainly not his only objective—of finding out if there were anything along the lines of the Kasper Proposal which the Church could use effectively to draw entrapped couples more fully into the life of Christ. Another kind of pope might have proceeded in a different manner, perhaps by exploring this question largely on his own in a new encyclical. Francis preferred to rely on the diversity of bishops around the world to reveal whatever potential such ideas might have.

Most of us, by now long accustomed to great teaching popes, grow uneasy when the bishops are widely involved in critical decisions. We have been burned too often, perhaps, by individual bishops. But the bishops operating with the Pope in a major synod in Rome—“cum et sub Petro” as Francis said—are not to be feared, and there is much to be said for encouraging them in this way to take their own responsibilities seriously. Episcopal leadership is, in fact, an essential constitutional feature of the Church.

Church renewal in our day may have a long way to go. In fact, it always does. But this result, without any panic whatsoever, is what everyone ought to have expected from the 2014 Synod on the Family. Some confusion in the process, yes, but very little in the outcome. What we now have are bishops heading home, mostly a little better informed and a little stronger, and certainly more conscious of what it means to belong to the universal Church. There are no contradictions in doctrine, obviously, which is impossible; nor even in pastoral practice, which in some ways is possible. But in terms of both understanding and zeal, I am quite sure we are witnessing another small step forward for most participants.

This is what major synods in our time are supposed to do. No bishop is merely an isolated leader pressing his own cultural viewpoint in a particular time and place. All bishops need to experience that they are servants of a universal and even a transcendent Church.


Previous in series: A chaotic synod? Reason three: Marriage itself

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John3822 - Oct. 25, 2014 1:13 PM ET USA

    Thanks Jeff! But this is what I've come to expect from you - balance, perspective and good judgment! This post reinforces this expectation.

  • Posted by: mleiberton3126 - Oct. 23, 2014 4:37 PM ET USA

    This reasoned understanding of the Synod is so full of hope, of which I had little, before reading. Thank you.

  • Posted by: Flavian - Oct. 23, 2014 12:37 PM ET USA

    Your caution about using the terms liberal and conservative is very good. Nonetheless, "liberal" bishops from 60's, 70's, and 80's were not as orthodox as "conservative" bishops; moreover, they tolerated much more theological minimalism and skepticism. Let's see if Pope Francis apologizes for all the Jesuits who taught so much confusion, minimalism, and skepticism in years past. Unfortunately, I witnessed this first hand.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 22, 2014 12:01 PM ET USA

    Are you joking? How can you put "a happy face" on a car wreck? What is the condition of the Church in the first world? To fall back on the theological guarantee of the constancy of Church teaching is nothing less than an abrogation of responsibility. You yourself are a theologian & this Synod was supposed to be pastoral. There was little or no discussion on how to ease people into reasonable compliance & appreciation of Church doctrine but rather how to get around it, & even to change it!

  • Posted by: Edward I. - Oct. 22, 2014 7:03 AM ET USA

    Thank you for the balanced and sane analysis. God bless you and your work.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 21, 2014 10:21 PM ET USA

    Why take a trip to the precipice just to pull away with what we already know to be true? Why is Cardinal Burke in an unenviable place? Why is Pat Buchanan writing the following conclusion: "Pope Francis is hugely popular. But his worldly popularity has not come without cost to the church he leads and the truths he is sworn to uphold. 'Who am I to judge?' says the pope. But wasn’t that always part of the job description? And if not thee, Your Holiness, who?" Why must we no longer know?

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Oct. 21, 2014 10:11 PM ET USA

    I was in a retreat in a Trapist monastery for a week, the whole 2nd week. Thanks for the wrap; it seems that it all went very, very well! Tomorrow I'll read the final report. Praised be the Lord, Who watches for His Church and lets her not stray away from Him!!

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 21, 2014 7:07 PM ET USA

    Your take is more sanguine than mine. The pope, I think, tipped his hand at this Synod. Just as Marx and Kasper have said repeatedly, their views are the pope's; no one could miss this reading Francis' fulsome praise for Kasper's most recent book. As I see it, the pope pulled out all the stops to favor the Kasper Project, but lacking sufficient numbers, contented himself with letting the secular press carry the heavy water. As the Jesuit Superior Gen indicated, the revolution can wait till 2015.