As the 2015 Synod on the Family winds down, the common thread in many stories is the rockiness of the road it has travelled. Perhaps we should not be surprised by that: the word “synod” is drawn from the Greek words “syn” (with) and “odos” (road). The general meaning is to journey together on the road. But the road of these past few weeks has not been smooth; in fact, it has had plenty of bumps.
Many commentators borrow frameworks from the world of politics. They see the disagreements, the negotiations and certainly the intrigues (real or alleged) as manifestations of a battle between “conservatives” and “liberals.” They pit staunch traditionalists who want to preserve everything against progressives who want to change everything. Is there some truth in looking at things this way? Probably. But I would say that this politicization of the synod is—in a phrase you hear on the streets of Rome—“piutosto esaggerato,” rather exaggerated.
The bumps on the synod road go back—and to his credit—to Pope Francis. He called for a different kind of synod, something that was both new to most of us and yet also deeply rooted in our tradition. And that different kind of synod would inevitably have bumpy spots.
The pope wanted the church to be aware of the particular graces and challenges of marriages and families in our time. Even more than calling us to awareness, the pope wanted to find ways for the church to walk on the road with families—in other words, to bring the theme of synodality as accompaniment into the church’s understanding of family at the most basic level.
Past synods has been about sharpening a message, whether it was about catechesis or evangelization or priests’ formation—or even family, in the 1980 meeting that first took up the topic. In various ways, the pope has said that this synod is not primarily about a message. Instead, this synod is focused on understanding those to whom the message is directed. Who are they in their experience? How do they come to know the message? How is the church present to them as they try to live it out?
This shift from the message to those who receive it marks a new direction for the synod process. In another sense, however, it is not new at all. At the opening of the Second Vatican Council, St. John XXIII said quite clearly that the deposit of faith (doctrines, teachings or the message) is one thing, but the way of presenting it is quite another. John XXIII’s hope was to bring the healing and life-giving power of the Gospel to a deeply wounded world that had experienced two world wars, multiple genocides, the development of weapons of mass destruction, an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and so many other crushingly painful struggles. John XXIII’s “aggiornamento”had very little to do with updating the church to stay in fashion with the times. It had everything to do with enabling the church to do what the Gospel demanded.
Much of what is characterized as infighting at the synod and confusion stems—in my estimation—from the difficulty that synod participants have had in grasping Pope Francis’ intent. Some have not been able to look at things differently. They seem unable to shift from focusing on the message to focusing on those who receive it. What exactly is it that blocks these synod participants? I think there are several factors.
One issue is a bias in favor of of solving problems. Most meetings find energy and direction by working to resolve problems. Bishops, with responsibility for governing dioceses and as veterans of many meetings, are often skilled problem solvers. However, although there are plenty of problems affecting marriage and family life today, the synod is not primarily about solving those problems. Rather, it is about finding the ways that the Word of Life can take root in marriages and families, in other words, how the message can be received and lived.
Related to problem solving is a common propensity to want “to figure things out.” When we stand before something whether it is a problem or simply an important human experience, we almost instinctively apply our reasoning powers to analyze, understand and come to some conclusions. Taking a more appreciative and even contemplative stance is rare indeed. And yet that is exactly what the pope seems to invite in his direction of Synod on the Family.
Because of their training and experience, church leaders are much more at home with a deductive approach to mission and ministry rather than an inductive one. They tend to move from principles and ideas to experience, rather than from experiences to look for the underlying principles. But Pope Francis has set up the synod to proceed inductively, beginning with the experiences of married life and families through a world-wide consultation with the faithful. However, this shift in thinking style is not easy to make, and does not happen quickly.
The focus on listening may also be a challenge for those who are trained as preachers, who speak to people much more than they listen to them. And yet this synod has called for intense listening from the ones who lead. That shift, too, requires some extra effort.
Another difficulty in grasping the pope’s intent for the synod is our quick readiness to engage defensive maneuvers. A culture of serial and shallow commitments that surrenders to a perpetual state of transiency can never be the matrix for loving, life-giving, faithful relationships that must be the heart of marriage and family life. In fact, the culture can easily be seen as hostile to the precious values of marriage and family. If we feel that threat strongly, we are ready to go on the attack to defend what we treasure. While defense may be necessary in some cases, making it a default posture has very real costs. Pope Francis has not so much focused on calling the church to wage war against negative cultural forces as to encourage us to examine marriage and family life from their interiority and, therefore, to appreciate their strength and their potential.
Church leaders rightly feel a sense of responsibility for preserving the tradition of faith, in order to share it with living, struggling and vulnerable people who are walking the challenging road of discipleship. These are weighty responsibilities. “To whom much is given, much is expected,” Jesus says. That is certainly true of church leadership, and they know it. This sense of responsibility, however, can work against the vitality of the larger mission. In an effort to protect and follow a safer course, leaders can easily be inclined to preserve what is—at all costs. Fear and anxiety can choke the mission. Jesus also said, “Put out into the deep…be not afraid”—words St. John Paul II cited from Luke’s Gospel at the very beginning of his pontificate. A new world and a new cultural situation cannot be approached through preservation alone. Rather, it means daring, imagination and creativity.
We ought not be surprised that many of those involved in the synod have had difficulty absorbing and implementing the vision that Pope Francis offered them, nor that the church more broadly seems confused about how to respond to the synod as it unfolds. We are all learning. Synodality—the way of being a church that walks together on the road—is, according to Pope Francis, an ongoing task and responsibility. One synod won’t do it. We must keep learning, especially from the bumps on the road.
Recommendations for Future Synods
Apart from a general recommendation to stay patiently on the path of synodality, my experience of watching the Synod on the Family prompts me to offer some recommendations. If I had a chance to talk to the Holy Father and the synod fathers, I would offer these recommendations.
1. Pray. A synod is a holy event. It needs a prayerful context, not just a Mass or a prayer service here and there. If God calls the church to conversion, he first calls those who charged with reflecting on God’s call to conversion. And that does not come easily. Prayer is of the essence. Future synods might begin with a retreat with strong preaching, plenty of silence and some faith sharing. This way, the synod participants can listen to God together, detach themselves from some of their presuppositions, and learn to watch and wait for God’s action—even when it moves in ways that unsettle the ideas and solutions they bring into the synod with them.
2. Re-locate. Rome is a wonderful city, but it is too busy, too distracting, too prone to dramatic scenes. Move the synod to another place—to a monastery, to the mountains, maybe to Assisi—wherever there can be greater peace and serenity.
3. Re-calibrate the talk about culture. The Catholic Church is catholic, universal. There is no question about this. There was much talk about cultural differences in this worldwide church. The are real, but perhaps exaggerated. In a world that has become so interconnected by the Internet, travel, economic interdependency and cultural interchange, these differences are shrinking. While still important, cultural differences ought not to be played as a trump card to avoid the hard work of learning to understand each other.
4. Bring in the theologians. As I viewed the synod, it had limited theological firepower. There was some, certainly, but not enough. Bring in theologians and have them debate before the members of the synod. The bishops are pastors, and their perspective and responsibility are irreplaceable. But their discussions could only benefit by sharing in the fruits of the work and mission theologians are already pursuing for the good of the church.
5. Consider local applications. I walk away from the synod realizing that it was never just about its own topic and discussions. It has been about a way of being church in every dimension of the church’s life, from the universal level to the local diocese to our parishes to the domestic church of our families. Continuing the process of listening, discussion and accompaniment at the local level could help bring the work of the synod to completion. After all, we all have a stake in understanding and living what has begun here in a bumpy but very real way.