What’s the Likely Outcome of the Synod? Predictions Prove Complicated
BY ROBERT ROYAL
The Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that will begin on Oct. 4 at the Vatican is, in one way, of very high importance, and in another, not so very much.
It’s important, in that some questions about marriage and the family will be discussed, which could fundamentally alter the more-than-2,000-year-old Catholic understanding of the indissolubility of marriage and the even longer teaching (going all the way back to the Hebrews and the law of Moses) about same-sex relationships.
But it’s worth remembering that, whatever is discussed and concluded at the synod (and it will not be easy to tell, since, this time, it appears, there will be neither a midterm nor a final report), it will ultimately be up to Pope Francis to issue post-synodal directives.
In all the controversy that swirled around last year’s synod, this basic truth has often been forgotten. In modern times, the classic case of a pope making the final decision was Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he chose to discount the advice of a commission he himself had appointed to make recommendations about birth control. The commission recommended changing Church teaching and allowing contraception; the Pope decided not to accept its conclusions and reaffirmed traditional moral principles — and paid a heavy price for that fidelity. He was lambasted by the secular world and even by many people in the Church.
In liberal Catholic circles, dissent on contraception has become a touchstone for a whole theology about papal authority vs. primacy of individual conscience that continues to this day.
So beyond the hoopla, the daily media frenzy over this or that leak or counter-leak (a highly developed and copious art in Rome), we should remain clear that all papal advisory bodies are only that, advisory, and that the Holy Father is still the final and infallible authority on matters of faith and morals — though Francis, like Paul VI, will have only started a process when he issues his summary of the consultation.
What will Francis have received from the synod? And what will he be likely to do with it? I’m tempted to just leave things at: “It’s complicated.” (A synod on the family can’t help but be that these days.) The Pope had a hand in creating some of the controversy by inviting Cardinal Walter Kasper to address the bishops in February 2014; Kasper reintroduced an old obsession of his, Communion for the divorced and remarried. But if there’s anything we can predict about this Pope, it’s that, whenever he decides to take on big questions, he’s unpredictable. We may find ourselves with some results that none of us now can fully foresee.
That said, there are a few probable lines worth noting. It’s an open secret that two heavily armed camps have emerged in the year since the 2014 synod. We’ve got the bishops’ conferences of Germany, Switzerland and France — along with individual foot soldiers from Belgium and the Netherlands — who are strongly pushing not only for Communion for the divorced/remarrieds, but for an opening to homosexual unions as well. One doesn’t naturally lead to the other, but once the natural-law basis of marriage has been shaken in our culture, it’s a short trip to wholesale acceptance of all “genders and expressions.”
Further, the Germans have said openly that they don’t have to wait for Rome to do what they want; they claim they have the right to make their own decisions.
The other camp emerged at last year’s synod, led by Cardinals Raymond Burke and Wilfrid Napier, with assists from Cardinals George Pell, Gerhard Mueller and several African bishops. This fall, Ignatius Press has five books out on topics of marriage and sexuality (see related story on page 7), and even held a conference in Rome just prior to the synod. Lots of hope is being placed on “the Africans,” such as Cardinal Robert Sarah, to save us from ourselves in Europe and America — itself a sign of just how bad things may be.