The Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family that concluded in Rome on Oct. 19, has not only sparked great interest and expectations throughout the Catholic Church but also raised fears and anxieties in small but influential sectors at leadership and lay intellectual levels.
I wish to examine such fears here and ask: Why do some fear this two-stage synod process, which will conclude a year from now on Oct. 25 2015? What really underlines these fears and the incredible charges that Pope Francis, the guarantor of unity in the church, may not be safeguarding Catholic doctrine or even be much concerned about it; or the allegations by a few that he has unleashed a synod process that’s “more Protestant than Catholic,” which is creating “confusion” or “a mess” and undermining Catholic doctrine?
Reflecting on these fears, and speaking with cardinals and bishops at the synod, I began to understand that perhaps there could be deeper concerns at work here. The first relates to a possible shift from the prevailing theological understanding of the place and role of the sacraments in the life of the people of God to a somewhat different pastoral one, and the consequences of this. Second, there is perplexity about how to present mercy and inclusion in a way that does not undermine moral doctrine. Third, there is uneasiness among some about the understanding of primacy, collegiality and synodality and about the way of exercising authority in the church that Francis, inspired by the Second Vatican Council, is promoting, which is opening a new style of governance in the church.
In this context, I came to read in a different light some things Francis said in his homily at the synod’s closing Mass, during which he beatified Paul VI, who in response to Vatican II’s wishes established this organ of collegiality in 1965.
On that occasion, Francis actually spoke about fear when commenting on the Gospel text, “Render to God the things that are God’s.” He said: “This calls for acknowledging and professing—in the face of any sort of power—that God alone is master, that there is no other. This is the perennial newness to be discovered each day, and it requires mastering the fear we often feel at God’s surprises.”
“God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways,” the pope stated.
At the synod, he said, “pastors and lay people from every part of the world have come to Rome, bringing the voice of their particular churches in order to help today’s families walk the path of the Gospel with their gaze fixed on Jesus.”
That synod has been “a great experience, in which we have lived synodality and collegiality and felt the power of the Holy Spirit, who constantly renews and guides the church. For the church is called to waste no time in seeking to bind up open wounds and to kindle hopes in so many people who have lost hope,” the pope stated.
In an impressive speech the previous evening, after the synod fathers had voted on the synod’s final report, Pope Francis confirmed that the Holy Spirit had been truly at work in the synod in spite of various temptations (by the devil). He reminded the synod fathers that they were working “cum Petro et sub Petro” (“with Peter and under Peter”)—that is, the pope, who is the final guarantor of unity and orthodoxy in the church.
He made clear that there should be no reason for fear or confusion in the church after such an extraordinary synod, in which not only had the traditional doctrine on the nature and indissolubility of marriage been confirmed, but also important pastoral questions relating to the family—including those related to the church’s approach to the divorced and remarried and to homosexual persons—remain on the table for the 2015 synod.
“When the church, in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err: it is the beauty and the strength of the sensus fidei, of that supernatural sense of the faith that is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that together we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our life. And this should never be seen as a source of confusion and discord,” the pope stated.
When Pope Francis finished speaking, the synod fathers all stood in a spontaneous gesture and gave him a five-minute ovation. That said everything; it is the best answer to any fears.