Life begins at 50
The Synod of Bishops under Pope Francis
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.