As I write this, 190 bishops and cardinals are stirring in their comfortable beds at the Casa Santa Marta in the Vatican. They will spend the day in St Peter’s Basilica discussing at great length something they know almost nothing about, behind closed doors, with no reporters.
Yes, folks, the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, and it started yesterday.
I have strongly mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Pope Francis seems to be a genuinely caring man, who can see that the Church’s often hard-nosed adherence to the strict letter of canon law causes great harm in the world, and wishes for that to change. On the other hand are gathered a great many men who have spent decades telling people not only when to jump, but how high, using which leg to push off and what shoes to be wearing at the time. People, like Cardinal Francis George, quoted below from Catholic New World, the newspaper for his archdiocese of Chicago:
Theoretically, it is argued that there are Catholic voices that disagree with the teaching of the church and therefore with the bishops. There have always been those whose personal faith is not adequate to the faith of the church. Perhaps this is the time for everyone to re-read the Acts of the Apostles. Bishops are the successors of the apostles; they collectively receive the authority to teach and govern that Christ bestowed upon the apostles. Bishops don’t claim to speak for every baptized Catholic. Bishops speak, rather, for the Catholic and apostolic faith. Those who hold that faith gather with them; others go their own way. They are and should be free to do so, but they deceive themselves and others in calling their organizations Catholic.
Here, he is griping that the US’s Affordable Healthcare Act will mean that many people living in the world’s richest nation, but who were previously unable to procure access to modern healthcare (I will not dignify the US’s approach to health provision with the word “system”), will now be able to see a doctor and receive some treatment. Instead of welcoming this change as a huge stride towards caring for the widow and orphan, towards caring for the sick and visiting the lonely (you know, those things that Jesus told us to do), he’s focussing on a part of the legislation that he doesn’t like very much, throwing his toys out of the pram and stamping his feet because he would have worded the law differently, and excluded certain things that he doesn’t agree with, and anyway, he’s been appointed by God to boss people about, so shut up and do what I say.
In contrast, Pope Francis himself is on the record saying that “it is not necessary to talk about these issues [abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage] all the time”.
I note with interest that the archdiocese of Chicago is being handed over to Archbishop Blase Cupich in a move that almost certainly signals the pope’s pastoral ambitions for a more inclusive church, a church that meets people where they are, with pastors who smell like the sheep; a church that isn’t content to sit on its mighty seats and shout down to people to tell them that they’re doing it wrong.
Back to Rome, now, though. Yesterday’s first session was televised, and included a bit from the pope telling the assembled bishops that they should speak freely, without regard to what they think he would like to hear (past synods have, allegedly, been little more than opportunities for bishops to tell the pope how much they think like him, and how great he is, now could I have a promotion please). Grabbing this exhortation by the throat, Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary spoke at length on the widespread hope amongst grassroots Catholics that this synod will produce some flexibility in the way the church approaches people whose marriages have failed.
Showing great pastoral sensitivity, he said “Many people today have difficulty in thinking in a logical manner and reading lengthy documents”. Nice one, Cardinal. I say, “Many cardinals today have difficulty in seeing their people as people, whose lives are very different from yours and will, therefore, reach different conclusions given the same input data”. To deride everyone who disagrees with him as “illogical” is both arrogant and naïve. He went on, stressing the depth of his disconnect from real people, “Many look upon their lives not as a life-long endeavour but a series of moments in which great value is placed on feeling good and enjoying good health. From this vantage point, any firm commitment seems insurmountable and the future appears threatening.” I am saddened by an educated man displaying such stereotyping, and I wonder if he can see the irony that his embrace of stereotype simply underlines the stereotype of the ivory-tower bishop blithely issuing diktats then wondering why nobody is listening.
To me, this synod is a pivotal moment for the church. It has the potential to position the church as a tremendous force for good in people’s lives, to prove to us all that it is willing to listen to the lived reality that is family life within the world, in the 21st century. The bishops could prove to us that they are interested in listening to us and showing us the respect that we are due as intelligent adults, as inquisitive children, as equals before God.
The great danger is that the bishops’ credibility hangs in the balance, and I really do not think that they realise this. They could open wide the doors to the church and welcome everybody into God’s loving embrace. On the other hand, they could prove, once and for all, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they have absolutely no idea what it is like to live in a real marriage, with a real human spouse, with real human children, and yet speak authoritatively on that very subject. If they get this wrong (and there is a very real danger that they will), they will end up hammering the final nail in their own coffin: nobody will ever listen to them again, on any subject.
I really hope they get it right.