The recent Synod; the penny drops!

Watching a fascinating television documentary on the life of Seamus Mallon of the SDLP recently, it struck me that his famous comment on the Good Friday Agreement – ‘Sunningdale for slow-learners’ – has a wide application.
It isn’t just about Unionist politicians who thought they couldn’t live with having ‘Catholics about the place’ in Stormont and insisted on watching an ongoing spiral of death and destruction for three more decades before being convinced of the need for change. It applies too to all those who refuse to recognise the tide of history and insist on fighting battles that they will never win.
The GAA did it for years with the infamous ban on playing foreign games and, more recently, on opening up Croke Park to other codes. And of course the Catholic Church famously did it after the Second Vatican Council.
Eventually, the penny drops, even with the Catholic Church. And the recent synod on the family in Rome was the first lesson for slow learners who didn’t quite grasp what Vatican Two was all about.
That synod was a triumph for Pope Francis. He got what he wanted:
(i) a focus on the real problems of marriage and the family; and,
(ii) a genuine discussion.
And it’s all down to him. At the opening he spelled it out in no uncertain terms for delegates: debate, say what you think; don’t be afraid to speak your mind.
Synods of bishops for decades have been highly embarrassing gatherings.
Representatives of bishops from around the world usually gathered in Rome, dressed immaculately for the occasion and delivered set speeches – all in the knowledge that the final statement was already drafted before they had left home!
Synods were set-piece PR occasions, giving the impression of worldwide consultation yet delivering to the Catholics of the world what Rome had already decided was good for them. So, predictably and inevitably, no one really took synods very seriously. Invariably, synod documents were never ‘owned’, had no traction and disappeared in a few weeks into the ether.
Heretofore, no one was really interested in what the bishops were saying at synods – apart possible from the individuals themselves – certainly not Pope (now Saint) John Paul who wasn’t averse to taking out his breviary and saying his prayers while the bishops self-importantly kept talking.
Francis, on the other hand, encouraged real discussion, created the circumstances for it to happen and listened attentively to what was being said. Everyone knew, including those who didn’t want any discussion, that the debate mattered and that the final document would emanate from the discussion and would be voted on paragraph by paragraph.
Two groups emerged. The first comprised bishops who recognised that Francis was offering a huge opportunity to the Church to discuss the way Catholics were and how they lived as distinct from how Rome wanted (or imagined or encouraged) them to be. These bishops saw the synod as a starting point for bringing the compassion of Jesus Christ to bear on the problems and difficulties of marriage and the family. In short, bishops who had come to recognise that the reforming spirit of Vatican Two needed to be implemented.
The second group of bishops were unaccustomed to ‘ordinary’ Catholics having a say, uncomfortable with open discussion and afraid of the avenues Francis was opening up. In the main that faction was led by Cardinals in the Roman Curia who had facilitated popes over the years to block the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Some weeks ago I was taken to task for describing the emergence of a ‘civil war’ in the Church and was encouraged, so to speak, ‘not to mention the war’, in the belief that nothing as divisive as open conflict should happen.
But I have to say that the signs are fairly ominous. For Fr Vincent Twomey, a friend of Pope Benedict XVI, the synod almost ‘divided’ the Church.
Cardinal Charles Chaput, a traditional voice in the American Church, has accused the pope of bringing confusion to church teaching and, he said, ‘confusion is of the devil’. And Cardinal Raymond Burke, who seems to be losing the run of himself completely, suggested that discussing some subjects ‘could induce the faithful into error’ and that ‘there is a strong sense that the Church is like a ship without a helm’.
This, to my unpractised eye, seems suspiciously like undermining the pope, something that the individuals mentioned above were scathingly critical of when Benedict was pope. But now that the signature tune has changed they’re beginning to talk about the experience of ‘internal exile’ in their own church! Clearly the shoe is now on the other foot.
While those of us who suffered our own internal exile for the last 40 years or more would not want to do anything as unworthy as gloat, I hope it’s not sinful to enjoy the delicious irony involved. The truth is that the process of introducing real (as distinctly from imaginary) change in the Catholic Church is now in train and Cardinal Burke and his acolytes, for all their huffing and puffing, are very much in a minority position, as well as finding themselves outside the window looking in, like the little girl who once had the run of the tuck-shop.
While naturally some Catholics are impatient with the pace of change and the ‘two steps forward, one step back’ approach that Francis is adopting, it’s quite clear that his insistence on trusting the process – debate, say what you think, speak your mind – will bring the fruits it deserves, despite efforts to block it by reactionary forces. This is a genie that it will be impossible to put back in the bottle.
It’s also a template for the way the Church should go about its business. In effect Francis wasn’t just telling us how synods should operate, he was telling us how we should run the Church: at world level, at national level, at diocesan level and in parishes. Francis is, through his actions, indicating that as bishop of Rome, he needs the wisdom of his fellow bishops to moderate the tendency in recent years to regard the pope as an absolute monarch. This approach will percolate into dioceses and parishes. The bishop and the priest will now be expected to accept that their erstwhile authoritative positions need to be moderated.
So the synod was the first lesson for slow learners who didn’t quite grasp what Vatican Two was all about. And that’s really why Cardinals Burke and Chaput and their fellow-travellers are so unhappy about it.

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  1. I have often intended to write a comment on Fr. Brendan’s writings, and today, at last, I am. I just want to say how much I look forward to reading his articles on this website. For years he has represented what I and some of my committed, Catholic female friends have been feeling. We have tried to find refreshment and spiritual nourishment in our Church, and we were disappointed in the traditional, non interactive, non inclusive establishment. Thankfully we have found a Sunday morning haven. The Mass we participate in makes us feel truly nourished and prepares us to lead a hopefully better Christian life.
    Thank you Fr.Brendan for your zeal, commitment to change for the better of our Church and for never despairing, though you must be sorely tempted at times. It is people like you who encourage and help the rest of us to keep trying to know and understand God better.

  2. Cornelius Martin says:

    As the article suggests there are different, genuine views on how the extraordinary synod was run. In effect it’s all water under the bridge. The synod final report is what matters now. The question is: what is to become of the said Report?
    Theoretically, this report forms a basis for discussion in preparation for the 2015 synod. It appears that the people have no more acquaintance with this report that with those of previous synods.
    The spirit in which the discussion proceeds is important in order that it avoid being an exercise among the deaf, but not the mute. The Pope obviously intends that those who engage or participate take serious notice of the four temptations he alluded in his document. The purpose of the whole exercise is “the praise and glory if His name, our good and the good of the whole Church.
    One can listen to Archbishop Chaput’s talk on the following website,
    His reference to the Synod came in answer to a question. He did not make an attack on the Pope.

  3. Neither the interim nor the final report of the Synod comes anywhere near meeting the new questions the world and the people of God are putting to the church authorities. The only hope is that the process of synodality and the practice of open discussion encouraged by the Pope will burgeon during the year ahead and bear lasting fruit. Fr Nicolas, SJ, has spoken of a possible revolution — it is certainly needed. Pope Francis reaches back to Paul VI who wrote Evangelii nuntiandi in response to the rather divided synod of 1974. This time, to0, a papal document based on the 2014-15 double-synod might attain landmark status.

  4. Prodigal Son says:

    The notion of water under the bridge (2 above) is wise but how many more pennies have yet to drop.
    Speaking of the coming year, the conclusion of the final report of the Synod states: “Nevertheless, in the collegial journey of the bishops and with the involvement of all God’s people, the Holy Spirit will guide us in finding the road to truth and mercy for all.”
    Involvement of all Gods people in the discourse is only possible to the extent the said people have adequate understanding of the concepts necessary for discussing the final report. Based on the final report the central concepts that need most illumination and catechesis are matrimony, covenant, sacrament, and mercy. People need to be able to use these conceptual tools in order to explore the question of marriage and to communicate adequately with each other. This applies particularly to the concept of mercy which suffers a wide variety of meanings.
    There has been considerable disagreement for decades on the connectedness of doctrine with life and of doctrine with the art of pastoral practice. One side stresses the bond between both while the other perceives doctrine as abstract and irrelevant. To make things even more challenging the report underlines the obligation to find the road to “truth.”
    All this poses a challenging task for discussion as a process. Hopefully it will throw more light on the use of discussion for Church purposes.

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