Next month’s extraordinary synod on the family in Rome is ‘dangerously homogenous’
Opinion: Not too late to invite a broader spectrum of views
‘The many Church reform associations around the world should be appreciated as resources. They are concerned critics, not enemies. Their members typically have experience of family life and have reflected on it, some prayerfully.’ Photograph: Getty Images
A synod on the family entirely composed of celibate bishops is not only “bonkers”, as former president Mary McAleese has commented, it is dangerous. It could make a bad situation even worse – and harder to fix.
Any committee can make bad decisions; but it takes a homogenous one, led by common concerns, to make really abominable ones. Good governance requires that boards, committees and councils include a proportion of independent members. The proposed synod is dangerously homogenous. Apart from celibacy, the members share several other characteristics, each directly pertinent to the agenda.
First, they have survived seminary formation conceived at the Council of Trent to address the clerical problems of the 1550s.
Second, prospective bishops in recent years have had to affirm their personal acceptance of Humanae Vitae, which bans all artificial means of contraception. The failure by the married faithful to “receive” that teaching is evident from the statistics. Catholics are entitled in conscience to rely on the report of a high- powered papal commission that recommended changes.
The curia tried and failed to keep the existence of the commission a secret. The closest advisers to Pope Paul VI, however, feared change would undermine the Catholic Church’s authority. Tragically, by disregarding the commission’s findings, Paul VI brought about the very effect they feared on publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968.
Canon lawThird, all synod members have been schooled in a moral theology grounded in canon law. Vatican II proposed a revision of moral theology, “more thoroughly nourished by scriptural teaching”. This has been blocked. To reconsider a specific area in advance of the revision of the whole is to put the cart before the horse and prejudice the rethink.
Fourth, the bishops’ oath of loyalty is not to Christ but to the papacy. This has prevented them from resisting the abuse of papal infallibility.
Infallibility was defined narrowly and with conditions, but the curia pretends that every Roman ruling is beyond question and uses power, rank and threats rather than theological argument to smother challenges.
The bishops have tolerated this pseudo-infallibility and are compromised by it. Even to discuss possible changes now may cause genuine scandal among those Catholics whose faith is based on belief that Rome is always right.
Fifth, the members are beholden to the curia for their position and preferment and the curia resists the influence of Vatican II, rather than building on it. Vatican II taught: “The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (Cf Jn. 2:20, 27) cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium).
If the synod accepts the abundant evidence of a gulf between what the people of God actually believe and what Rome says they ought to believe, it will have to consider on which side Christ’s promise is being realised. To avoid this dilemma it could decide that the issues in question do not fall within the extent of revelation and are therefore excluded from the “extent of infallibility”.
It could invoke the “hierarchy of truths” (in the ordinary meaning of the words) and decide that some issues are of minor or peripheral importance. It could stress primacy of conscience and limit itself to offering reasoned moral guidance based on Christ’s foundational teaching about “all the law and the prophets”. It might to emphasise subsidiarity or collegiality.
Vatican II opened the door to all these options. Bishops who propose or support solutions based on Vatican II, however, need not expect to earn many brownie points at curia level.
Perhaps it is not too late to invite a broader spectrum of opinion to participate.
The many church reform associations around the world should be appreciated as resources. They are concerned critics, not enemies. Their members typically have experience of family life and have reflected on it, some prayerfully.
Many are theologically literate and yearn for dialogue. Rather than repeat the mistakes of the Reformation, why not take courage, trust the Holy Spirit, invite the critics and listen critically?
It would improve the balance of the discussion and the prospect of the synod’s conclusions being “received” by the faithful subsequently.
John O’Loughlin Kennedy is an economist and entrepreneur. In 1968 he and his wife, Kay, started Concern in their home in Dublin in response to the war-induced famine in Nigeria