As the headlines of “failure”, “setback”, “disappointment” and “dismay” spread throughout those parts of world which view just about everything the Church does as a failure or setback, or with disappointment and dismay, it is worth reflecting on some aspects of Rome’s truly extraordinary Synod on the Family, and the political strategy of this magnificently jesuitical Pope to reform both archaic proceedings and pastoral praxis. In consideration of two principal issues – the matter of communion for the divorced and remarried, and attitudes toward same-sex unions – he audaciously cast aside centuries of secrecy, suppression and censorship, and introduced openness, unprecedented transparency and even a dose of democratic accountability. No point a bunch of celibate men theorising and pontificating about the meaning of marriage and the perfection of heterosexual union: in this Synod, the laity freely speak: they counsel and guide as they recount the reality of their experience.
How do you sustain and defend truth when the world’s conception of mercy is at variance with Church orthodoxy? How do you show love and compassion when the sternness of rebuke is apprehended as uncaring and unwelcoming? How do you talk about the imperfection or unacceptability of cohabitation, divorce or same-sex relationships when, for many millions, these family arrangements are normative? In the great mission of the Church, are these questions even relevant? In the important matter of evangelism, are they really priorities? In an age of moral relativity and scientific rationalism, should we really begin with absolute assertions of soteriological truth and unequivocal definitions of sin? Are these assertions and definitions not, in any case, somewhat mutable as faith is critiqued by culture and culture enlightened by faith?
As the Synod Fathers cast their electronic votes like an ‘Ask the Audience’ option, it became apparent that the Church of Rome is divided. “Men and women of homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and sensitivity”, said the motion. 118 Synod Fathers voted “Aye” and 68 voted “No”, and so, failing to reach the requisite two-thirds majority, the Noes have it; the Noes have it. On the matter of opening Communion to those who divorce and remarry civilly, 104 voted “Aye” and 74 “No”. And so, again, the Noes have it; the Noes have it. Of course, there is nothing new in such divisions: we have long known about the Tablet-inclined liberals and progressives versus the Herald-bent traditionalists and conservatives (with a whole spectrum of reasonable moderates in between). But it is not schism, for all are bound by and beneath the authoritative aegis of the Magisterium, we are told, and therein lies the unity of the immutable mind of Christ.
Except we are dealing here with the infinite variety of the human condition, with all its blemishes, defects and failings, and all its muddled confusion and compromise. There is no point preaching about condoms to the weary and starving, or proclaiming the virtues of heterosexual marriage to the destitute and war-ravaged who live every day yearning for the warmth of a human embrace. If there is no creativity or latitude in our responses to people’s situations and lifestyles, we cease to speak in any meaningful way. As Richard Hooker explained, we need to balance Scripture and tradition with reason, and in consideration of that reason must be the contemporary understanding and application of theology informed by experience. It is a path that is often (if not invariably) fraught with tension, but it is the Anglican way – the via media, if you will – tentatively perched between the extremes of holding fast to the letter of the word and the need or desire to be a living voice of mercy, love and compassion.
This excerpt from Pope Francis’ closing speech is profound in its implications:
…I can happily say that – with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality – we have truly lived the experience of “Synod,” a path of solidarity, a “journey together.”
And it has been “a journey” – and like every journey there were moments of running fast, as if wanting to conquer time and reach the goal as soon as possible; other moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say “enough”; other moments of enthusiasm and ardour. There were moments of profound consolation listening to the testimony of true pastors, who wisely carry in their hearts the joys and the tears of their faithful people. Moments of consolation and grace and comfort hearing the testimonies of the families who have participated in the Synod and have shared with us the beauty and the joy of their married life. A journey where the stronger feel compelled to help the less strong, where the more experienced are led to serve others, even through confrontations. And since it is a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned:
– One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
– The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness (it. buonismo), that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
– The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
– The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
– The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters (of it); or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…
…Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.
…Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.
One year to work on the “Synodal Relatio” which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as “lineamenta” (guidelines).
A further year to work on a via media between “hostile inflexibility” and being “surprised by God”? He might almost be describing the General Synod of the Church of England. This Synod on the Family seems to have a pre-ordained destination: Pope Francis has a teleological prophetic vocation which will be fulfilled at a future synod. And where previously church doctrine has developed behind closed doors, henceforth all theological discussions and ecclesial disputes will be open. Where previously there has been censorship and confidentiality, there will be honesty, vulnerability and accountability.
Pope Francis is leading the Church of Rome on a journey. It is a journey that the Church of England has been treading for five long centuries, and it is heartening to know that it is not only the General Synod that is frustrated by the need for two-thirds majorities. The journey will open cans of worms and a plethora of pandoras boxes. It will expose hornets nests and devilish knots of vipers, for in these 118-68 and 104-74 divisions the sheep are told they’re goats, though they know the goats are goats. And the goats think the sheep are goats and are certain that the goats are sheep. And the wolves in sheep’s clothing are really goats, but, boy, do they do a good impersonation of fluffy, cuddly sheep.
It is for the Shepherd to discern and divide. It might be painful, but truth hurts. And it is all intrinsic to being Church and doing Mission. There is no earthly destination beyond the better expression of the love, compassion and mercy that might lead to salvation.