Understanding Pope Francis – Method, structure and content of the synod
By Michael M. Canaris
On Oct. 13, I attended a colloquium organized by Professor Donna Orsuto of the Pontifical Gregorian University entitled “Marriage and the Family Today: Pastoral Challenges and Hopes in Light of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.” The keynote speaker and moderator was acclaimed Vatican correspondent John L. Allen, Jr., of the Boston Globe and Crux. He was joined by Professor Martin Lintner of Brixen, Professor Thomas Knieps-Port Le Roi of Leuven, Professor Philippe Bordeyne of the Institut Catholique de Paris, and Aldegonde Brenninkmeijer-Werhahn, founder and director of Brussels’ International Academy for Marital Spirituality (INTAMS).
The talks and subsequent conversation with the audience provided insights into the method, structure and content of the synod. A number of people in the room and dinner that followed (as I am coming to learn, where so much of the real action in Rome takes place — over pasta and coffee) had been in the closed door-sessions of the synod. The former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, now studying canon law here in Rome, asked some very pointed and thought-provoking questions of the presenters from the first row.
The night marked the release of the “relatio post disceptationem,” basically a half-time report on the synodal dialogues which have been marked by “a spirit of reciprocal listening.” The text, and discussions leading up to its composition, obviously dominated much of the conversation.
A recurrent theme was an appreciation of the similarities, albeit obviously in microcosm, between the frank exchanges and ecclesial self-examinations underway in the synod, and those of the Second Vatican Council. As we are now exactly 50 years since the council, many see in the discussion a real effort to live out the engagement with the world as envisioned in texts like Gaudium et Spes, as well as papal writings since. Familiaris Consortio and Evangelii Gaudium were referenced repeatedly.
Vatican II gave official sanction to the ecumenical movement, realizing that while our current separated state is not the ideal, elements of truth, goodness and holiness can be found in other ecclesial communities where the Gospel is proclaimed and Christ’s resurrection memorialized. Marking how far we have come in that realm, in fact, one of the Protestant participants in the synod joined our meal and extolled the pastoral tone of the discussions and how valued and seriously her comments have been taken.
Allen and the others asked if the synod was, will or could be exploring a similar approach to a sort of “lifestyle ecumenism” where “irregular” situations (divorced, homosexual, cohabitating, etc.) are recognized also as sites where elements of grace and goodness — as well as of brokenness, imperfection and sin — exist. Of course, such an opinion is not, and was not claimed to be, representative of every voice in the synod or the church. However, though perhaps divided on the pastoral approaches to some of these issues, I would maintain that the dignity and worth of every person regardless of his or her particular situation would be universally acclaimed by the synod participants.
This synod is really a preparatory event for a larger one that will unfold next October. Only then, after a year of further reflection, prayer, and journeying along the unending process of spiritual conversion to which every Christian is called at every moment of life, will the pope decide, in conversation with his brother bishops, what to actually do with the information he has gathered.
Perhaps he will reconfirm the current practice and teaching on issues related to family life, likely with at least some new language to present the church’s doctrine in varied global contexts. (How to speak knowledgeably and credibly, for instance, to the enormous numbers of Asian and African Christians who see the family’s role as crucial in nuptial decisions, i.e. “arranged marriages”). Perhaps he will defend and expand upon John Paul II’s interpretation of human sexuality and related theology of the body. Perhaps he will decide to implement more sweeping practical, hermeneutical and/or pastoral changes, of course in line with Christ’s unchanging teaching and the church’s commitment to it.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, it seems that Pope Francis’ call continues to drive the discussions: “Speak frankly. Listen humbly.”
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.