A SYNOD FIT FOR PURPOSE (full version)

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“Bonkers” is how Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland, has described the misfit between the subject matter of the Synod on the Family and the life experience of the participating bishops. Her surprising and light-hearted turn of phrase should not distract us from the significant risk that the Synod may make a bad situation even worse.

The danger is not limited to the lack of marriage experience among the episcopal participants, so adroitly summed up by: “have they ever changed a nappy?”. By definition, the bishops have, at best, an indirect understanding of Christian marriage as a school of unselfishness and absolutely no experience of the changed moral implications of intimacy discovered by couples as they become mutually and completely committed to one another. The issues are, of course, theological, but one cannot do theology except in the context of human life. There are further weaknesses in the voting membership of the synod that may inhibit balanced conclusions and recommendations.

Any committee can make bad decisions; it takes a homogenous one, led by common concerns, to make really abominable ones. Recognising this, good governance in organisations demands the inclusion of independent, non-executive members on boards, committees and governing councils.

The proposed synod is dangerously homogenous. Apart from being male and celibate, the members share several other characteristics, each remarkably pertinent to the agenda:

  1. They have all survived systematic formation during years of seminary training.

This was designed by the Council of Trent to meet the clergy problems of five hundred years ago!

  1. Bishops appointed within the past thirty years have been remarkably obsequious towards Rome. Evidently, they have been required prior to appointment to affirm their personal conviction and adherence to the teaching on birth control contained in Humanae Vitae, an issue that has to be central to their deliberations.

The failure by the faithful to “receive” the teachings of Humanae Vitae on the immorality of using certain methods of birth control within marriage has not been faced up to by Rome. It would be ludicrous if it were not to be addressed by the Synod. The rejection is incontestable; it shows clearly in the demographic statistics. The faithful are entitled in conscience to rely on the report of a high powered papal commission that had the freedom to consider the issue of morality on its merits and that recommended changes in the non-infallible teaching of Pius XI contained in Casti Conubii.

The Roman Curia tried and failed famously to keep this report and the very existence of the commission secret. The disclosure of this attempt to deceive the faithful did untold damage to the credibility of Rome. The shock of deceit is greatest when the truth emerges. While Paul VI was “agonizing” over the decision, the Curia blocked access for follow-up discussion by members of the commission. Even Cardinal Suenans was excluded. An exception was made for Fr John Ford S.J. who was vehemently opposed to any change for fear it would undermine the authority of the Papacy. He has boasted how upset the Pope was by his simplistic presentation of the issue as a choice between change and loyalty. Tragically and ironically, by disregarding the findings of the commission, Paul VI and his closest advisors brought about the very effect that they feared.
Without going so far as to say that Humanae Vitae might have been a mistake, several Conferences of Bishops reminded married couples that they were bound fundamentally to follow their consciences. It would be disingenuous to blame the rejection by married couples on poor catechesis. The faithful know the teaching. They have rejected it. Catechesis is meaningless without credibility and the detection of deception destroyed credibility on the issue.

  1. All Synod members have been schooled in a Moral Theology that is grounded in Canon Law although, if anything, it ought to be the other way round.

Vatican II proposed a revision of MT, “more thoroughly nourished by scriptural teaching” (Presbyterorum Ordinis 16). Theologians who have attempted to implement this, however, have been secretly silenced, and will certainly not be numbered among the Synod bishops. This is regrettable and can only lead to confusion. To try to reconsider the teaching on the morals of family life, or indeed any specific area of morality, in advance of the rethink of the underpinning moral theology is to put the cart before the horse . . . and prejudice the rethink.

A moral theology based on the teaching of Jesus Christ in the context of the example of His life, would probably be more demanding of His followers, but might resonate better with their consciences and life experience. It could actually resolve some of the contentious issues that are currently bedevilling the church and impeding the spread of the gospel. By the same token, however, it would threaten the graded system of legal dispensations on which hierarchical power so largely depends.

  1. The bishops’ oath of loyalty is not to Christ but to the Papacy. This has prevented them from resisting the abuse of Papal Infallibility.

The definition was vehemently opposed at Vatican I by many learned and eminent bishops who gave evidence based on the belief of the faithful in some of the largest and most renowned dioceses in the world.

When it became clear that the doctrine would not command the moral unanimity customary for a definition, Pius IX, whose office stood to gain immense power from the new doctrine, simply ruled that it could be adopted by a majority vote instead! This enabled it to be approved, but even then, only after its scope had been narrowed and with limiting conditions. Many of the opposing bishops left Rome before the final votes, blaming the July heat. Oaths of permanent secrecy (imposed on participants in defiance of Christ’s specific condemnation) inhibited them from telling their flocks about their Council experiences and how the definition got through.

Since then the Roman Curia has been stealthily exaggerating the scope and ignoring the conditions in practice, posturing as if everything that issues from Rome is beyond question and using power, rank and threats rather than theological argument to silence any challenge. This resort to coercion has to be immoral in itself. Furthermore, it reveals a bankruptcy of scholarship and betrays an absence of trust in the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes referred to as “creeping infallibility”, this is in reality pseudo-infallibility. The bishops have tolerated it without public demur and are thus compromised by it. Consequently, any change in doctrine or discipline that implies a revision of thinking is apt to scandalise the more conservative Roman Catholics whose faith is based on belief that Rome is never wrong. The scandal discredits church teaching in general —and not just the shaky bits. When credibility is lost, the wheat gets pulled up with the darnel. So Catholics are faced with the unedifying evidence of bureaucratic cover-ups and promotions for prelates who have lied to protect the institution. And all this is happening at the headquarters of a church that St Paul could once describe as the “pillar and the ground of truth”!

We can therefore expect elements of the Curia to use fair means and foul (“unspeakable manoeuvres” in the words of Pope John XXIII) to ensure that the bishops at this Synod suggest no change that would unmask the pseudo-infallibilities.

  1. The members are beholden to the Curia for their position and preferment and the Curia resists the influence of Vatican II, rather than building on it.

The whole concept of infallibility springs from Christ’s promise to be with His Church forever. St Irenaeus argued that the promise, “Behold I am with you until the end of the age” would be meaningless unless it meant that He would preserve the beliefs of His Church free from significant error in regard revealed truth over time.

The Council taught: “The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (Cf Jn. 2:20, 27) cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium). If the synod accepts the abundant evidence of a gulf between what the People of God actually believe and what Rome says they ought to believe, it will have to consider the embarrassing question: on which side is Christ’s promise being realised?

To avoid this dilemma, the Synod could decide that the issues in question do not fall within the extent of revelation and are therefore excluded from the “extent of infallibility”. It could invoke the “hierarchy of truths” (in the ordinary meaning of the words) and decide that some issues are of minor or peripheral importance. It could stress primacy of conscience and limit itself to offering reasoned moral guidance based on Christ’s foundational teaching about “all the law and the prophets” as confirmed by St Paul (Romans 13:8-10). It might emphasise subsidiarity or collegiality. Vatican II opened the door to all these options. However, bishops who propose or support solutions based on Vatican II need not expect to earn many “brownie points” at Curia level.

It is not too late to invite a broader spectrum of opinion to participate. The many Catholic Church reform associations around the world should be appreciated as resources. They are concerned critics, not enemies. They are more like frustrated supporters who see their team management throwing away the cup. Their members typically have experience of family life and have reflected on it, some prayerfully. Many are theologically literate and yearn for dialogue. Rather than repeat the mistakes of the Reformation, why not take courage, trust the Holy Spirit, invite the critics and listen critically? St Paul argued his case in the marketplace. For the first time in history it is now possible to engage the faithful in the dialogue by putting the proceedings online with moderated feedback.

All this offers a way to improve the balance of the discussion and the prospect of the Synod’s conclusions being “received” by the faithful subsequently.


(John O’Loughlin Kennedy is an economist and entrepreneur. In 1968 he and his wife, Kay, started Africa Concern (now Concern Worldwide) in their home in Dublin in response to the war-induced famine in Nigeria.)