New light for old body – Pope Francis facing Synod test

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The Synod of Bishops must embrace reform. There is something skewed about asking male celibates to review the Church’s teaching on family life, according to TP O’Mahony

POPE Francis faces the first real test of his papacy following the opening of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops — dealing with marriage, sexuality, and the family — in Rome yesterday .

Expectations of reform are high, though some senior churchmen have warned that these expectations may not be met.

The Extraordinary Synod, which will last for two weeks, has already been criticised on the grounds that it is anomalous to have a group of male celibates deliberating on matters such as sexual ethics and family planning.

Our former president, Mary McAleese, used much blunter language and said the whole notion was “completely bonkers”. She said there was “something profoundly wrong and skewed” about asking male celibates to review the Church’s teaching on family life.

Since then, the Vatican has announced that 14 married couples from around the world will be included among the 250 participants. The Pope has also appointed 38 non-voting observers and 16 non-voting experts, some of whom will be female. It is not clear, however, if the 14 married couples have observer status only.

Meanwhile, the lay reform group in this country, We Are Church Ireland, has described as “extraordinary” the decision to send a nun to the synod as the second representative of the Irish Church. The main representative will be the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin.

The group said it was “outrageous” that no married Irish Catholic will attend the synod. The nun chosen is Sister Margaret Muldoon, a former superior general of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux.

According to John W O’Malley, professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington DC, what is really at stake at the forthcoming synod is the role and status of the institution itself. “Perhaps the real test for the synod will be whether the collegial style of governance in the Church taught by the Second Vatican Council but stifled in the years since will finally be realised.”

That’s the test that will directly confront Pope Francis. Will he encourage or allow the participants to speak and vote as their consciences dictate, or will they be required to adhere strictly to predetermined positions and policies?

The Synod of Bishops was established by Pope Paul VI in September 1965, during the final session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), in a document entitled Apostolica Sollicitudo. It met for the first time in the autumn of 1967.

“The initial response was positive,” says Prof O’Malley. “It seemed that, by creating a synod that would meet regularly, the bishops as a body would be enabled to exercise their responsibility for the governance of the Church together with the Pope. The Synod of Bishops would make collegiality a reality.

“But a closer look at the document which established the synod revealed that it was, in fact, an expression of papal primacy, not of collegiality. The word ‘collegiality’ is not even mentioned in the text.

“The Synod of Bishops was subject in every particular ‘immediately and directly’ to the Roman Pontiff and was to be a strictly advisory body, with no authority beyond what the Pope conceded to it. Rather than restoring the synod as it had been understood and had functioned since the earliest days of the Church, Apostolica Sollicitudo had radically redefined it.”

In the long history of the Church there have been many synods, including 20 Councils prior to the Second Vatican Council. And in church-speak, as Prof O’Malley has pointed out, the words “synod” and “council” are often virtually interchangeable.

After the First Vatican Council (1869-70), however, which defined papal primacy and papal infallibility, the status of synods was seriously diminished. The Second Vatican Council revived the notion of collegiality, and for a while there was the hope that this would at least create a collegial potential for any future Synod.

The first Synod of Bishops in 1967 was a tentative affair, but the hope prevailed that small steps were being taken towards a more collegial form of governance for the universal Church. In July 1968 those hopes were dashed when Pope Paul VI, ignoring the recommendations of a majority of the members of a special commission, published his anti-contraception encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

During the long pontificate of John Paul II, synods were regularly convoked but were effectively emasculated. The Polish pope effectively ignored what the Second Vatican Council had said about collegiality, and he and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, reduced the synods to talking shops, even resulting in documents that did not faithfully reflect the views of a majority of bishops.

HAVING covered six Synods of Bishops in Rome, I experienced at first hand the frustration not just of journalists because of the ban on direct access to synodal proceedings and the excessive secrecy, but also of the participants, many of whom came to view the synods as a waste of time.

Whether Pope Francis — who is the first Pope in 50 years not to have participated in the Second Vatican Council — will alter any of this remains to be seen. In early September, in a rare celebration of marriages by a pope, he presided over the vows of 20 couples from the Rome Diocese, several of whom had been cohabiting or had children from previous relationships. The Pope’s action was seen as a signal to the synod that the Church must be more open to the realities of modern matrimony.

Then Cardinal Walter Kasper, who will attend the Synod as a nominee of the Pope, called for a relaxing of the ban on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, saying that too often the Church appears to be rule-bound. Already, however, the battle lines are being drawn. Five senior Cardinals have collaborated on a book published this week in which they make clear their opposition to Cardinal Kasper’s views.

In an article in the English Catholic weekly, The Tablet, the Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, argued that the Church must be prepared to take some bold initiatives if it is to restore its credibility. He said that since becoming a priest in 1973, the gap has steadily grown between the moral teaching of the Church and the moral insights of the faithful. “A succession of documents on family planning, sexuality, marriage and family life have been met with increasing incomprehension and indifference by ordinary Catholics.”

He stressed that the forthcoming synod on the family offered “a real opportunity for the Church to start to narrow this gap, and to restore the credibility of its teaching on marriage and the family”.

Nowhere has the Catholic Church suffered such a catastrophic loss of authority as in the area of human sexuality. As far back as 1977, the renowned Catholic psychiatrist Jack Dominian was warning about “worldwide disenchantment and concern regarding the Church’s attitude to sexuality”.

Writing after the publication of two Vatican documents — Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, and the Declaration on Sexual Ethics from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 29 December 1975 — he said these had left “most Roman Catholics, particularly the young, puzzled and frustrated”.

In his 1977 book Proposals for a New Sexual Ethic, he said many people believed “that the whole basis of Christian thinking on sexual morality needs fundamental reconstruction”. The sad reality, more than three decades later, is that the need for this reconstruction is greater than ever.

Can Pope Francis — working through the collegial agency of the Synod of Bishops — initiate this fundamental reconstruction? That’s the big test facing him and his brother bishops in Rome this month.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved. 6 October 2014