What did Pope Francis achieve with the Synod?

Life begins at 50
The Synod of Bishops under Pope Francis

Massimo Faggioli

The end of the Bishops’ Synod of 2015 was no less dramatic than that of the previous year.
Yet the final document, which received the quorum of the two thirds for all its paragraphs, is more cautious than the text of 2014.
It is also silent on some important issues, namely the attitude of the Church towards gay people (except a weak passage on families with gay members).
This silence is clearly a step backwards from last year, and it is the result of the election of some bishops and cardinals in prominent positions for the debate in Synod – bishops and cardinals who are clearly hostile to the new course set by Francis.
But in this sense the final relatio of 2015 is a document that gives us a picture of the Church – more accurately, of its bishops – that is closer to reality, to the Church that we have today and not the Church we would like to have. But it is also clear where this Church is going, and not so slowly.
The most important result of the Synod was the procedure. In the history of Catholic Church in the post-Reformation period we have had nothing similar to this except what happened at the Second Vatican Council.
But what followed Vatican II, after a very short season of episcopal synodality under Paul VI, was the winter of collegial discontent. The collegiality of Vatican II started and ended in just a couple of years, between December 1965 and 1968, when Paul VI published Humanae Vitae.
The synodal process of 2014-2015 decided ​​by Francis (and it may not necessarily be closed) is what the Catholic Church expected fifty years ago at the end of the Second Vatican Council. It took the first post-Vatican II pope (Francis was ordained priest in 1969) to implement this key element of the council.
Francis has had to make up for lost time – a lot of it. And that was complicated by some of the bishops who were elected members of the Synod, almost all of them appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. His difficulty was getting them to face up to issues which had been ignored up to three years ago, or that were dealt with as if the reality did not exist or affect the Church.
Nonetheless, the image of the Catholic Church that has emerged from the Synod is one that is very diverse on the inside, with many and different ideological rifts (ideological, geocultural, generational).
But there is no doubt that the majority is in favor of Francis’ openings. This is actually quite amazing, given that almost all these bishops were appointed by Wojtyla and Ratzinger.
The geo-theology of Catholicism appeared as complicated at the Synod as it is in reality. The Latin Americans followed Francis with their model of the Catholic Church able to act effectively at the continental level.
The Italians were very divided and different from one another – ranging from Bishop Franco Brambilla, a noted theologian who did his doctoral dissertation on Dutch progressive Edward Schillebeeckx, to Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, a moral theologian who wrote much of John Paul II’s encyclical on life and marriage, to even Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, a conservative bureaucrat.
The Germans proved that their theological thinking, like fifty years ago, is still necessary to move the thinking of the Church forward. And the English-speaking bishops (especially from Africa and America) proved to be cultural warriors motivated by political concerns.
We saw different shades of the African Church where Cardinal Peter Turkson emerged as the voice of its future and Cardinal Robert Sarah its remote past. And the Eastern European bishops looked to be much more shaped by the legacy of John Paul II than by an awareness of what is in front of us.
The Synod also showed that much of the Catholic debate today is the expression of a debate between American bishops. The fact that they disagreed in public (just look at the frank interview Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington gave America magazine on October 18) is in itself surprising. It is the symptom of the extremism and sectarianism of some (that Wuerl was reacting to), but also the sign of Francis’ breakthrough in the American Catholic hierarchy (Bishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston are not alone).
The situation of the Church is developing, but it is also evident that this Church needs Francis more than ever. Issues that the 2015 text compromised on, such as sacraments for the divorced and remarried, will be addressed by the next Synod assembly or by the pope before then. And, of course, there are bishops, priests, and lay people who have already found temporary solutions that no Church law can provide.
In a situation like this, the devolution to national or continental bishops conferences is at the same time necessary and very risky. The step towards more collegiality could lead some episcopates to retrench from reality.
The Synod’s final document is important, but it says less about the future direction of the Church than Francis’ great speeches of October 17 (a new ecclesiological framework for a synodal Church) and October 24 (against the ideologues in the Church). This is why the Synod of 2015 will disappoint some liberals, but it is clearly a victory for Francis.
The arrogance of some anti-Francis traditionalists hides a clear disappointment for having to re-open issues considered closed forever (“Did not we not already win on this?”).
The challenge for Francis’ Church is twofold.
The first challenge is that Francis has set the course for a Church reform that is not personal and individual, but institutional and collective, similar to the “Gregorian reform” (of Gregory VII in the 11th century). The big difference is that there is no longer a Holy Roman Empire to serve as political counterpart (for the supremacy in European Christendom) and institutional model (the Gregorian reform made the pope an emperor in the Church).
The second challenge for Francis is to restore theological sanity in a Church where too many pastors see “doctrine” as more important than “pastoral care” – and where they cannot wait to smell and denounce heresy.
Accusations of heresy and muttering about schism are sectarian gestures and evidence of desperation. There are some who see (and join) the Catholic Church as an island of certitude and reassurance in a world that looks more and more chaotic and frightening. But that says more about them than it does either about the Church or the world.

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    The mountain laboured and gave birth to a mouse.
    The formula of aged male celibates deliberating on family, marriage, sex, women, gays, with no effective input from people with first-hand experience (remember the “questionnaire”!) has proven to be “bonkers”.
    Nothing new or helpful was said about the family. Instead we saw confused men wrestling with the ghosts of their seminary textbooks or the residues of bronze age morality.
    Francis gave two great speeches, and if he acted on them he would revolutionize the church. But as to the synod itself, the damning summation comes from Francis himself: “closed hearts.”

  2. Joe, as always, you hit the nail smack on the head. However,we must still hope and pray for Francis.

  3. ” …. the image of the Catholic Church that has emerged from the Synod is one that is very diverse on the inside, with many and different ideological rifts (ideological, geocultural, generational)”.
    If Vatican II opened the windows of the Church, Francis using this Synod has opened the blinds.

  4. One elderly priest said that when he was in the seminary pre Vatican 11 any thing to do with sex was thought so dangerous that the lectures were in Latin in a darkened room with a lit candle. He said it generally gave the impression of some kind of voodoo. Contrasted with that the members of our choir at Church have about 300 years experience of marriage. Of course no-one will ask us. I don’t think they could cope with that much reality.

  5. How did it ever come to pass that a few Cardinals in Rome thought they could rule the church worldwide in all its diversity and ignore women in the process. Did they not get it yet, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

  6. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Sara, most of us who were in the seminary pre Vatican II know that your first two sentences are total and unadulterated rubbish. Your “one elderly priest” (probably Fr Jack on day-release from the Frs Ted & Donal asylum) may have found you gullible enough to swap a few naggins of whiskey for a hairy yarn. Of course no one will want to ask you about your 300 years’ experience of marriage – on the grounds that it probably just feels like that.

    1. Michael C. says:

      A very harsh response.
      Perhaps on mature reflection you might reconsider.
      You don’t believe Adam and Eve as a literal truth; allow the old man a little poetic licence and even if not totally literally true the image he painted certainly conveys the way all matters surrounding sexuality was, and is, regarded by many in authority in Church.
      Many years after Vatican II a certain Maynooth professor of ‘moral’ (in reality canon law, not moral theology) still produced part of his notes in Latin when dealing with some sexual matters and at a time when Latin speakers in Maynooth were as rare as voting women at the synod.
      Michael C

  7. Noel Casey says:

    I studied theology in the 60s. An interesting three years’ period in the life of the Church: we studied theology in Ireland as the Fathers of the Council rewrote the textbooks in Rome. Indeed, our professor of theology was one of the periti at the Council.
    No darkened room or lighted candle, but the section on the unmentionables was in Latin in an otherwise English set of notes. The said professor defined moral theology as ‘the science of sin’; presumably, the section in Latin was the science of the big sin for classical scholars.
    Stranger still, and, in the light of the subsequent travails of the Church, more unbelievably, I was later presented for signature with a document in Latin outlining the obligation of celibacy. No one thought of providing a translation. Indeed, I cannot remember anyone sitting us down and discussing celibacy and its ramifications. We did, however have ample input on obedience, the Will of God, Papal Infallibility and other such weighty topics.

  8. Since nobody has said anything for a while, I thought I should mention that today — or maybe yesterday now– was the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate at Vat.II. Now, that was a gamechanger. When you consider the machinations we have witnessed in Rome this past few weeks, it really was a miracle what they managed to achieve during the Council 50 years ago. And, a considerable number of those bishops must have been Pacelli appointees. If you haven’t already done so, you will find an excellent piece, “Nostra Aetate, the moral heart of Vat. II.”, by Fr. Michael Barnes SJ on the ACI Facebook page. If you don’t do Facebook, it can be found on thinkingfaith.org.
    For some reason I have difficulty copying and pasting from FB so I have not included the link. One of the things that surprised and saddened me was the fact that Maximos IV Saigh threatened to leave the Council if, in Nostra Aetate, the charge of deicide against the Jews was dropped. In every other of his contributions he was brilliant, definitely one of the real stars of the Council. Just shows you, nobody is completely perfect.

  9. Brendan Butler says:

    A close examination of the final text of the assembled 270 Bishops reveals that they failed to achieve any significant progress on the outstanding issues confronting families in the Catholic Church. On the issue of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion the drafting group of that section of the report managed through the use of enough ambiguous language to scrape the necessary two thirds majority needed for its inclusion in the final report. The issue of gay marriage was a non starter from the beginning whilst the insulting language describing gay and lesbian people as having a disordered condition remains official Church language
    The possibility of women accepted as full members of the church having equal access to all leadership roles and ministries was also a non starter.
    Pope Francis must be especially disappointed that the assembled Bishops could not accept minimum pastoral changes such as the German Bishops proposal for communion for divorced and remarried .
    However ,the synod’s report is an advisory document which he can accept ,reject or modify ; what he does or not does with these recommendations will define his pontificate .

  10. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    We are at a disadvantage in that so far, five days later, only the Italian text of the final Synod Report has been made available – I checked again on the Vatican website just before writing this. No official translation is yet available in any other language; just unofficial translations of selected paragraphs.
    What puzzles me then is that so many have given assessments of the Report, unless they can deal with the Italian text. (I read & speak Italian, although a bit rusty.)
    The first point I would make about the Synod is that while the Report is clearly important, we must not overlook another vital dimension: the process of the Synod. It seems as if many participants were disoriented by such a complete change in the procedures, even though there was a taste of this in October 2014. The discussions were to have a far greater level of freedom than previous synods, much less pope-centred. Pope Francis last year and this year encouraged open discussion, with “parresia” – courage to speak one’s mind, even while aware that others would disagree strongly. It’s almost as if their comfort-blanket or water-wings were taken from them, and they had difficulty in coping with the freedom. But perhaps the most valuable result of the Synod may be the experience of real collegial discussion among the participants (perhaps like Vatican II), apart altogether from the final Report. It may be, as Joe O’Leary describes it, like a mountain going into labour and producing a mouse. And yet the very experience of a crowd of male celibates going into labour is perhaps the greatest wonder! It was not a Caesarean section under anaesthetic, resulting in a predetermined package.
    For the Report itself, with the voting records, the fact that it reveals a variety of views, often discordant, is a new experience for a Synod. It’s a normal experience on this website.
    I would certainly like to have seen more advances in the Report. For example, take paragraph 84, about those who are divorced and civilly remarried. In my rough translation it goes:
    84. The faithful who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more integrated in the Christian communities in different ways as possible, avoiding any chance of scandal. The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral accompaniment, because not only do they know that they belong to the Body of Christ which is the Church, but they can have a joyful and fruitful experience of this. They are baptized, they are brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit pours into their gifts and charisms for the good of all. Their participation can be expressed in different services in the church: it is therefore necessary to discern which of the various forms of exclusion currently practiced in the liturgy, pastoral, educational and institutional context can be overcome. They not only do not have to feel excommunicated, but can live and grow as living members of the Church, experiencing her like a mother who welcomes them always, cares for them with affection, and who and encourages them in the path of life and of the Gospel. This integration is also needed for the care and Christian education of their children, who must be considered the most important. For the Christian community, to care for these people is not a weakening of its faith and its testimony about the indissolubility of marriage: rather, in this care, the Church expresses its love.
    The language may leave us feeling somewhat uneasy, but there is much here that it positive, even if they did not draw conclusions we might have hoped. All this seems to me equally true, mutatis mutandis, of gay members of the Church. Paragraph 76 on this aspect lacks any such positive appreciation: a missed pastoral opportunity, a lack of graciousness.
    Frank Brennan SJ (Australia) comments on the Synod and on Laudato Si’ in “Why Pope Francis is Not an Anti-Capitalist Greenie” at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/10/27/4340053.htm.
    Robert Mickens writes that “The pope has smoked out his opposition” on the National Catholic Reporter website.

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