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Theology and Papal Politics – The Synod on the Family and Evangelization 2014-2015
Pope Francis has just called an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the topic The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization for 5-19 October 2014, to be followed by an Ordinary General Assembly for October 2015. In keeping with his consultative style he has asked the bishops to seek the opinions of all the members of the church regarding these pastoral challenges. But to understand fully what the Pope is up to it is important to place this synod in the context of the recent history of synods and the contemporary real politik of the Vatican.
The Synod of Bishops was first set up by Pope Paul VI when on 15 September 1965 he announced on the second day of the last session of the Second Vatican Council his intention to establish a regular meeting of bishops in Rome as papal advisers. His intention was to use the synod as a way of giving expression to the role of bishops in the government of the church. The participants were to be elected by national or regional conferences of bishops and he reserved as pope the right to appoint only 15% of the total membership of the synod. There had been repeated calls throughout the Council for the establishment of some sort of advisory body of the world’s bishops working with the pope in the government of the church. This was all part of the reaction of the bishops at Vatican II against the dominant influence of the Roman curia. Pope Paul clearly intended the synod to be a concrete expression of the doctrine of collegiality as proclaimed in the Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium).
The notion of a synod was nothing new in the church. The Eastern Churches have always maintained a strong synodal tradition, and the principle of synodal government was widespread in the Western Church until at least the eleventh century. For much of the first millennium the papacy governed via the Roman Synod which was made up of the Roman clergy and the bishops from the dioceses around Rome, the Suburbicarian Sees.
There was curial opposition right from the start even to the use of the word ‘synod’ to describe the bishops’ gathering. Paul VI had purposely chosen this word, but in a press conference held after the announcement Cardinal Paolo Marella (who had been Apostolic Delegate to Australia from 1948 to 1953) tried to minimise the use of the term ‘synod’ to describe the new body, and claimed that other words such as ‘assembly’, ‘meeting’, or ‘convention’ could well have been used. Xavier Rynne reported that ‘The cardinal pooh-poohed the suggestion that there would be any conflict between the new Synod and the Roman Curia as “unthinkable” and his observation that the Curia would be only “too happy” to avail itself of the help of the roughly 160 bishops who would constitute the new Synod sounded too good to be true’ (Xavier Rynne: The Fourth Session, p 30 (1966)). Rynne was right; curial opposition to the idea of a synod has been unrelenting.
Early synods under Paul VI had some successes; the 1974 Synod on Evangelization inspired the excellent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi on Evangelization in the Modern World (8 December 1975) which is still seen as a seminal document. But from the death of Paul VI in 1978 it was all downhill, especially during the long papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005). Synods have increasingly become papal rubber stamps; they were increasingly nobbled by the Curia.
Two statements of Joseph Ratzinger tell the whole story. As a young expert at Vatican II in 1965 he described the notion of a synod as ‘a permanent council in miniature ... it guarantees that the Council [Vatican II] will continue after its official end.’ But he radically changed his tune as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1987: ‘It [the synod] advises the pope; it is not a small-scale council and it is not a collegial organ of leadership for the universal church’ (quoted in John L. Allen, Cardinal Ratzinger: the Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith, pp 61-4 (2002)). Now that’s what you call a 180-degree turn!
Under John Paul and Benedict XVI synods have essentially become episcopal talk-fests with no impact on the wider church. Synods are governed by Canon 343 of the Code of Canon Law. It says that while bishops can discuss a predetermined agenda, they are unable to resolve or determine issues unless the pope grants them deliberative power and, even then, he has to ratify their decisions. They focused on a variety of topics nominated by the pope (priesthood, justice, Christian family, penance and reconciliation, laity, religious life), or various regions (Netherlands, Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa), but have achieved little or nothing. The Lineamenta (preparatory documents including questions for discussion) are drawn up by Vatican’s Synod Secretariat under papal direction for the bishops (who are supposed to consult about the issues widely), and the conclusions of the synod are handed over to the pope to interpret as he wishes. John Paul II’s responses simply eliminated any idea that didn’t fit in with his agenda.
However, there is hope. As I said in Papal Power in 1997: ‘If the synod actually set its own agenda and freely reached and published its own conclusions, it might become a useful balance to papalism. It still exists as a recoverable entity’ (p 188). Under Pope Francis this comment could turn out to be prophetic.
Francis understands collegiality. He believes that bishops share in the government of the worldwide church as well as pasturing their own dioceses. In contrast to the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis knows he needs advice and he has made it clear that he sees his role as engaging in a ‘conversation’ with the church about how Jesus might be proclaimed in the contemporary world. He clearly intends to use the synod as a means of conversing with the church. Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit who interviewed him for La Civiltà Cattolica in August 2013 says that ‘Clearly Pope Francis is more used to conversation than to lecturing’, and Spadaro says that his meetings with the Pope were ‘more a conversation than an interview.’
But where Francis is truly revolutionary in his approach is that he wants to go beyond the bishops to the whole church in his consultative conversation. The pre-synodal document asks a series of thirty-eight questions grouped together in eight clusters and these questions are addressed to all Catholics. There are some real problems with the pre-synodal document and the questions, but what is important here is the approach Francis is taking. He has introduced a new papal style which undercuts the Vatican and papacy’s previous way of operating which was more like an absolute monarch than the servant of the servants of God.
But why the family was chosen as a topic for the coming synod. There had already been a synod on the family under John Paul II (September-October 1980). But this time Francis has related the family to the question of evangelization which is a subtle but not completely convincing shift. Is it that this synod ‘is an extraordinary sign of affection of Pope Francis for families’ as the Vatican Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia said, or is the reason for the choice of this topic more a shrewd political decision by Francis? I suspect the answer is the latter. This is a ‘safe’ topic that will be acceptable to reactionary Catholics, but one that the Pope hopes will open up discussion of much more difficult topics such as communion for divorced-remarried Catholics, pastoral care of gay people, same sex unions, and the difference between marriage as a civil institution and sacramental marriage. Because the Catholic Church is a world church discussion cannot just focus on issues that concern Western countries. Questions around polygamy, bride price, caste intermarriage and arranged marriages which involve the church in developing countries will also be considered.
The synod process is that the extraordinary general synod will take place from 5-19 October 2014, to examine the main issues arising from the responses of the people of God. Those attending will be heads of dicasteries (departments) of the Roman Curia, the patriarchs and major archbishops, as well as the presidents of bishops’ conferences worldwide. Without doubt they will joined by laypeople, experts and representatives of Catholic organizations. This gathering will produce an instrumentum laboris (a working document) which will then considered by the main synod of bishops which to be held in October 2015. This, in turn, will formulate and produce guidelines to be given to the pope.
In this way Pope Francis will be able to make hard, even radical decisions because he will have consulted widely and will have the support of the people. A shrewd move indeed!
Catholics for Ministry and other Australian Catholic reform groups are planning to set-up a way of responding to the Synod under the aegis of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR). Watch this space!