Synod of Bishops: a theology debate that’ll be front-page news

Tomorrow, the Synod of Bishops in Rome will begin to discuss Catholic Church policy on contraception, divorce and same-sex unions. But will any changes result from it?

Radical outlook: in the past month, among 20 couples married in St Peter’s were people who had had children out of wedlock, divorced or had previous marriages annulled. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty

Radical outlook: in the past month, among 20 couples married in St Peter’s were people who had had children out of wedlock, divorced or had previous marriages annulled. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty

 

So is the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which opens at the Vatican tomorrow, a final showdown between “conservatives” and “liberals” or just a theological talking shop?

The Synod of Bishops, set up during the Second Vatican Council, is as close as the Catholic Church has ever come to having a parliament – although it’s not close at all, in fact. Every three years or so the pope summons bishops and cardinals worldwide to Rome to join with him, the Vatican curia and some lay “auditors” to address a specific issue. This year 25 women are among the 253 synod participants.

Usually, a synod involves a lot of worthy talk followed by an “apostolic post-synodal exhortation” from the pope. It has little impact on the life of the Catholic Church and none whatsoever on fundamental church teaching.

The issues, as well, don’t always attract much secular media attention. “The new evangelisation for the teaching of the Christian faith” or “the word of God in the life and mission of the church”, to take two recent examples, were not front-page material.

That’s not the case this time. Rarely, if ever, has a synod generated the level of media and lobby-group interest aroused by this one. The issue is “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelisation”, which, in layman’s terms, means the bishops will be discussing marriage, divorce, contraception, same-sex unions and much else besides.

This is also the first synod of the pontificate of Pope Francis, elected last year with a clear “mandate” to reform the Catholic Church. Another obvious difference is that this is the first of two synods on the family. The second is next year, when the debate may have metmorphised into concrete proposals.

From the moment last autumn when a 38-item questionnaire was sent to bishops’ conferences around the world, this synod was clearly going to be different. It is not that the sending of a questionnaire was new. What was striking was the instruction to the bishops from the synod’s secretary general, Cardinal Baldisseri, to consult “local sources” – that is to say laity – “as widely as possible”.

In their instrumentum laboris (preparatory document) the synod bishops reflect immediately on the answers they received from those “local sources”, concluding: “There is a resistance, of varying degrees, to Christian doctrine with regard for example to birth control, divorce, new forms of marriage, homosexuality, cohabitation, fidelity, premarital sex, in vetro fertilisation.”

That there is a huge gap between Catholic Church doctrine and the daily practice of many Catholic faithful is hardly a discovery. What is different is that the pope has summoned his bishops to discuss it. As one religious-order head in Rome this week put it, people who refuse to acknowledge this reality “simply have their heads in the sand”.

What exactly is the reality? A survey last autumn of more than 12,000 Catholics from 12 countries in five continents by the US-based, Spanish-language TV Univision concluded that most of the 1.2 billion Catholic faithful disagree with some of the fundamental tenets of church teaching, with specific reference to sexual mores.

Seventy-eight per cent of Catholics favoured the use of condoms, 50 per cent were in favour of priests marrying, and 58 per cent disagreed with the ban on divorcees and remarried couples receiving communion. Furthermore, 57 per cent of Catholics were in favour of abortion in cases where the life of the mother or child was at risk. In contrast, 66 per cent of Catholics are opposed to gay marriage.

But that same poll underlined one of the tensions underpinning this synod: from continent to continent, Catholic opinions are very different. Although 70 per cent of Europeans were in favour of allowing priests to marry, 70 per cent of African Catholics were opposed. Sixty-four per cent of Europeans were in favour of the ordination of women; 80 per cent of Africans were opposed.

The smart money suggests that this synod will not lead to any change in Catholic teaching. Rather, it may further underline that the ministry of Francis is indeed a “field hospital” concerned with treating the “wounded”. The doctrine may not change, but, as Pope Francis said to the cardinals last February, the pastoral approach needs to be much more “intelligent, courageous and full of love”.

One area where a different pastoral approach may prompt some change is the ban on the divorced and remarried receiving communion. Twice in recent days the pope himself has made the point. In the past month, among 20 couples married in the Basilica of St Peter’s were people who had had children out of wedlock, who had divorced or who had had previous marriages annulled.

And two weeks ago Francis announced the creation of a “special commission” to speed up the church’s marriage-annulment process. Both those moves are in contrast to the hardline attitude taken by senior church figures, including the Australian cardinal George Pell and the German cardinal Gerhard Müller.

Two weeks ago Francis called on priests not to be “defensive” when “faced with the requests of men and women”, saying that “this fear leads to the temptation to be self-satisfied and to clericalism, to codify the faith in rules and instructions just as was done by the Pharisees, the scribes and the doctors of law in Jesus’ time . . . It is not the pope’s job to offer a full and detailed assessment of contemporary reality, but he invites all the church to grasp the signs of the times.”

That “grasping” is about to begin in the Synod Hall.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.