A Synod that is open to dialogue and debate

The Extraordinary Synod on the Family which ends next Sunday, 19th October, 2014 is perhaps a defining moment of Pope Francis’ pontificate. He has been encouraging the Synod Fathers to dialogue and debate freely.

Oct 09, 2014

By Massimo Faggioli
The Extraordinary Synod on the Family which ends next Sunday, 19th October, 2014 is perhaps a defining moment of Pope Francis’ pontificate. He has been encouraging the Synod Fathers to dialogue and debate freely.

This Extraordinary Synod is the first leg of a long journey that will include a year of further consultation throughout the Church and then an ordinary general Synod on the Family in October 2015.

Since the first one was held in 1967, two years after the end of the Second Vatican Council, these general synods have mostly been non-events. Bishops often returned home complaining of having been frustrated by the lack of real dialogue and debate, especially during the pontificate of John Paul II. The 1999 European Synod of Bishops was shaken by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini’s call for a small council or assembly to work with the Pope to unravel difficult “doctrinal and disciplinary knots”. His ideas were dismissed. Fifteen years later, collegiality is back on the agenda, with the small advisory group of cardinals (the “C9”) already established by Pope Francis and, it seems, a more open synod in prospect.

Although the sending out of questionnaires in October 2013 to the presidents of the national bishops’ conferences reflected Francis’ desire to engage the wider Church in the preparations for the synod, the document laying down the groundwork for it, the Instrumentum laboris published in June 2014 bears very little resemblance to the tone and style of his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, issued in November 2013.

The only original proposals for addressing the new pastoral challenges of marriage in advance of the synod have come from Cardinal Walter Kasper. The opposition to Kasper was already visible at the consistory of cardinals in February, most notably from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in the past few weeks several cardinals have published books, articles and interviews arguing against Kasper’s proposals for a relaxation of the ban on admission to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The very fact that there has been so much activity suggests that some, at least, are anticipating a dramatic struggle.

Since his Election in March 2013, all the most significant changes we have seen in the Church have come from Pope Francis. In a letter sent by the Pope to the synod’s secretary general, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri in April, Francis talked about the synod in terms of a collegiality that is not only “affective” but “effective”. In recent weeks there have been further indications of how he sees the task of the synod.

Francis seems to have chosen participants in a deliberately bipartisan way: some of those he has appointed are clearly opposed to his pastoral vision of marriage. This says a lot about his desire for different voices to be heard, and his determination that there will be the genuine dialogue and debate that are essential if “synodality” is to be realised in the Church. This in itself is already a challenge to the status quo: previous synods had begun with a script already in place, and everybody knew it. This synod is different. There is no script.

We will see whether or not this synod marks a change in the way the Church is led and governed, not only from Francis’ words and actions but from his body language.

Source: The Tablet (edited).

--Massimo Faggioli is assistant professor of theology at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota.

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