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A chaotic synod? Reason one: The nature of synods

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 10, 2014

It is very difficult to assess what is in the minds of most bishops as they work behind the scenes at the current Synod on the Family. The reports of the proceedings are very scanty, and often couched in terms that can be interpreted in multiple ways. A perceived lack of direction may be more apparent than real, of course, but there are three very good reasons why it is likely to be more real than apparent: (1) The nature of large synods; (2) The fundamental dilemma faced by the modern Church; and (3) The intrinsically anti-modern nature of marriage itself.

Today I will take up only the first problem, which is inescapable in the deliberations of a large worldwide episcopate gathered together in a major synod. Here we have bishops drawn from every culture in the world in the hope of understanding better the problems facing the family (which are legion) and developing the best possible strategies for addressing those problems—all within a couple of very short weeks. It is only fair that each bishop who wishes to speak be given a chance to speak. The voices will be remarkably diverse, not only because of differences in temperament but because of differences in the particular spiritual and cultural manifestations of family weakness in each region. Thinking realistically, what else could we expect?

Pope John Paul II, who spent much of his pontificate attempting to teach bishops how to be good bishops, was able to use the Synod of 1985 to develop a growing resistance to the misapplication of the Second Vatican Council. In 1986, back in Trinity Communications’ print publishing days, I commissioned and published a book by Richard Cowden Guido which closed with a consideration of the work of this synod. We titled it John Paul II and the Battle for Vatican II. But John Paul II was able to use the Synod to steer the Church in a more positive direction only because he made his objectives fairly clear.

The Approach of Pope Francis

Pope Francis possesses a very different personality. It is clear that he is unafraid to push the Church in the directions he thinks necessary, but he also wants to emphasize a process of listening, to see what bubbles up from below. This in itself is an extension of the work of John Paul II in recovering the vision of the Council, which rightly foresaw that the bishops would have to come into their own again as vital leaders, indeed vicars of Christ in their own dioceses, for effective renewal to be achieved. So Francis does not want the Synod to do nothing but follow a curial script; he wants the participants fully engaged; and he hopes to hear among them some prophetic voices.

To encourage this, he has forced the bishops to confront the situations in their own dioceses through a questionnaire, and he has insisted that they are to speak absolutely freely without worrying about what they think the Pope wants to hear. Before we worry about this, we should first recall that St. Paul, who was not afraid to resist Peter to his face when he thought he was behaving contrary to the Gospel, would be the first to approve.

But this approach, in such a large group engaged in proceedings which everyone wishes to scrutinize closely, is bound to result in a greater preliminary chaos. Prophetic voices may emerge, and a great many bishops may go home with a renewed commitment to the kind of vigorous evangelization necessary to Christianize cultures from within. Francis himself may find inspiration at the synod, as he clearly hopes to do. But even if all this comes true, the synod sessions are even more likely to be fairly muddled, suffering as they do from a relative lack of preconceived direction.

In this the weakness of many individual bishops also plays a role. We have come a long way episcopally since the 1970s, but we can still benefit from insights found in Bishop Fulton Sheen’s correspondence with Msgr. Hilary Franco in 1970 (which I discussed in While his cause is stalled: Remembering Bishop Fulton Sheen). Sheen summarized serious concern about the episcopate. He worried about the weaknesses of so many bishops which undermined their apostolic authority. He saw too many of them avoiding problems, refusing to make tough decisions, delegating their authority as a means of escape, failing to teach and to discipline, listening to bad advisors, and in general serving as the poster children for apathy.

Bishop Sheen repeatedly faulted his brother bishops and their episcopal conferences for concentrating on non-essentials while the essence of the Faith was being squandered away. On one occasion he also complained that, as Msgr. Franco put it, “every bishop was waiting for every other bishop to do something, and all were waiting for the Holy Father.” Insofar as this is still generally true, as I think it is, Pope Francis’ approach to the synod will necessarily entail a good deal of preliminary chaos.

Not There Yet

Because of the nature of the beast, it is quite likely that we are witnessing a gigantic manifestation of bishops beating through the wilderness in search of a clear path. I do not mean a destination; I mean a particular path. The point of the Synod is not to reiterate the Church’s vision of marriage; the point is to figure out what the best and most important steps are to actualize that vision in the cultures and societies over which the bishops individually preside. Or it may prove that the point is to figure out the best way to inspire the bishops themselves to be tireless, fearless and creative exponents of the Gospel—teaching, ruling and sanctifying for an ever more complete conversion to the Gospel of Christ, to the immense benefit of each local church.

It ought to be clear that mere osmosis, while it will bear some fruit, is not going to be enough without the catalyzing action of Pope Francis, who said at the outset that ultimately it would be the synod’s work “cum Petro et sub Petro” (with and under Peter) which would provide protection against choosing the wrong path. Thus the Pope himself will eventually have to impart a direction, relying on the zealous to lead by example while actively prodding the confused and the tepid.

The reader might ask if I expect a miracle. I do not, but I do recognize that Pope Francis couples a genuine openness with a kind of simple decisiveness which we have not seen in the papacy for a considerable period of time. This can be upsetting. It is possible that, as the saying goes, there is no “there” there. But Francis watchers can hardly imagine he will not draw what he can from the synodal experience and then impose his own sense of direction on the Church. With two synods scheduled a year apart on the same topic, we may well be maddened for a time by episcopal aimlessness—a lack of episcopal cohesion—without despairing of the emergence of a significant sense of direction in the Pope’s own good time.

It is probably true, as my colleague Phil Lawler argued today, that the atmosphere of secrecy surrounding the synodal deliberations ultimately does more harm than good. There is too much useless speculation. In his previous commentary on the episcopal propensity for shuffling the deck chairs, Phil scored another point, echoing the same Bishop Sheen whom I cited earlier. In complaining about episcopal discussions over forty years ago, Sheen warned that “concentration on a non-essential—while priests leave and nuns secularize and catechetics declines—will not win heaven’s smile.” This has been a very real problem for a long time, and perhaps for all time.

But we must also notice something else: Though some may be disturbed by the priorities of Pope Francis, the one thing he has never done is display a fondness for the non-essential. He does not have the scholar’s patience with obfuscation. He seldom even pauses to provide long explanations. He likes to get to the point.

For my part, then, I am not an advocate of impatience. While we await clarity, as in any case we must, I propose to take the full measure of what the bishops are up against. To do this honestly, we must very seriously answer two additional questions: What is so very different about the situation of the Church today? And why is true marriage—and therefore the family as a whole—incomprehensible to the modern world?


Next in series: A chaotic synod? Reason two: The Church in our time

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: John J Plick - Oct. 12, 2014 5:27 PM ET USA

    While meditating & praying on the Synod, trying mightily to discern exactly "where" the battle-line(s) lie for me as a layman inadvertently I came to the same conclusion as Cardinal Burke. To be sure there does not seem to be much "glory" in the catechesis of Catholic children that is exactly where I feel the problem lies. Do we have the right to confront our local priest & demand to see the content with respect to what "they" are being taught in CCD. Or even demand to audit a class(es)?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 12, 2014 3:55 PM ET USA

    Like it or not, the "battle-lines" are being drawn..From the Huffington Post: "Cardinal Raymond Burke Takes Break From Vatican Synod To Say Ugly Things About Gay Relationships..." with a You Tube Video posted by LifeSite News with Cardinal Burke speaking quite politely but honestly about the issue of homosexuality within the Church. Cardinal Burke is not a young man... and I seemed to detect a certain strain in his voice as he answered the questions. He needs our prayers...

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 11, 2014 10:07 PM ET USA

    We need repentance at some level or this whole thing will become a travesty. If "father" is modeling corrupt behavior, what good will refining "house rules" do?

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 11, 2014 12:57 PM ET USA

    It's hard not to read significance into the different sort of treatment afforded Cardinals Burke and Kasper respectively these last few months. And knowing roughly how each of them sees the Church, it's equally hard not to be alarmed. Perhaps something good will eventually emerge from the Synod, but if I were a betting man, I wouldn't be putting heavy money on that outcome.