The Synod: So Who Won?

After well over a year of surveying, dialogue, bomb-throwing, and speculating, the Synod  on the Family has now come and gone.  Now we sit back and wait to see if Pope Francis will issue a post-synodal report that will convey his own definitive interpretation of the collective ideas expressed in the deliberations.   Doubtless he will.

In the meantime, any analysis of the Synod has to face this fact at the outset:  that the gathering itself and its final report are of limited “official” weight.  In many respects, a synod is simply a conversation, and the recommendations are precisely that: recommendations.  Even when the Holy Father issues a written exhortation based on it, such writings often have more to do with practical applications rather than with anything doctrinal.

Therefore it is more than a little irresponsible that so many people (who should know better) are treating this as though the Church has now somehow changed course.  That said, things do shift and change and it would be a lie to say that this whole situation will have no impact on ecclesial life as we know it.

At the risk of giving in to the conventional descriptive categories of the day, maybe we can ask “who won” and “who lost?”

Winner:  Pope Francis.  He places a high value on the process of open discussion and dialogue, especially about difficult topics, so that the Holy Spirit may awaken and deepen our collective understanding through the deliberative process.  There is no question he got what he wanted, and it is his intentionally nuanced tone that opened the door for many in the Church, at all levels, to openly speak their minds in a way that likely would not have happened under his predecessors.

Winner:  the bishops.   They managed to craft, on the divisive topics of Communion for the remarried and cohabitation, a statement that is so ambiguous that no one country or camp can claim victory.  To put it another way, they did not really solve anything, except to reaffirm the current (problem?), namely that on these difficult topics, it is all decided on a priest-by-priest basis anyway.  Yes, the doctrine of the Church remains unchanged, but the bishops have essentially relieved themselves of the obligation to provide concrete interpretations of it.

Loser:  Parish priests.  Since the bishops as a whole could not agree except to disagree, and the Pope continues to be vague, it now lands on the parish priests to figure out what we are supposed to tell all of these poor people who are stuck in hard pastoral situations. For any of us who wish to appeal to portions of the Synod resolution which state that our teaching on the permanence of marriage remains unchanged, we have very little to back us up.

Instead we now have “discernment,” which is on one level theologically accurate, but for discernment to make any sense, one must be aware of what the choices are, and that requires a discipline or norm.  It will take a great deal of pastoral discipline to hold on to a norm (that marriage is permanent) that has been shrouded in this kind of nuance when dealing with married couples who will rarely ever be interested in being told what they cannot do, especially when the pastor at the next parish over will provide a completely different answer on the difficult topics and be able to cite the same document for backing.

Winner:  the media.   The popular media portrait of Pope Francis as the champion of inclusivity and change has been successfully upheld, especially now that his fiercest opponents can, in their eyes, be easily pointed out, namely, the hard-line bishops appointed by the last two popes.  It is the mainstream press that has fanned the flames of intrigue and division surrounding this entire process, which is to be expected because a great story draws viewers.  For them, this story ended as a showdown between the pope of progress and the bishops of legalism.

Loser:  the marriage bond and the annulment process.  Yes, there are several paragraphs in the synod extolling the beauty and truth of marriage as a life-long bond between a man and a woman.  But unfortunately, given the amount of attention placed on the divide over the issue of Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried, the message has now been communicated far and wide that the exception is now the norm.

Ironic that the Pope would issue, heading into the Synod, a streamlined annulment process when the end result of this document all but eliminates the need for any annulment process in the first place.  Who will want to go the through the trouble of obtaining one now?  If one pastor “discerns” that a couple’s situation is serious enough to keep them from taking Communion, all they have to do is pastor-shop until they find one who will let them receive it.

Winner: the democracy of the dead.   To paraphrase Chesterton, the Catholic Church is the worlds oldest, biggest democracy.  And by that it is meant:  all of the prior generations of Catholics get a vote in refining our teachings.  For all of the bending of doctrine that was attempted, and is still being attempted, at every level of the Church on these key questions, the fact is that, on paper anyway, the doctrine did hold and Tradition has been preserved.  It is a testament to the Holy Spirit that we did as little damage in this one tiny moment of history as we did.

Loser:  the average Catholic.   Yes, on paper the Tradition did hold which is good news for future generations with fresh eyes, and also for avid readers of theology, but for the average Catholic who relies on CNN for their news about what it means to be Catholic, there is now a serious problem of confusion.  It will be claimed by many that the average Catholic, especially those who find themselves in remarriage situations, has been handed a great victory by the “People’s Pope.”

But the sad fact is that the average person should not have to spend time sifting through pages of theological commentary to figure out what the Church actually teaches on their situation.  Like it or not, clear teachings are actually helpful things.

And one thing I did not see mentioned anywhere in this whole year-long conversation (complete with a world-wide survey process) is a troubling Western tendency that the Church is in danger of giving-in to:  widespread anti-institutionalism.  We are having these days, to put it in classical terms, an obedience problem of serious proportions. Rather than trying to help the average Catholic understand that “rules” of the “institution,” even if hard at times, are for their benefit, we have instead reinforced the popular notion that the path forward on serious moral questions is up to the individual on a case by case basis.   Like it or not, institutions (which by nature require rules) are actually helpful things.

Loser:  traditional families.   By that I mean those couples who do believe in the teachings of marriage handed on by the Tradition and who are struggling, in the face of our corrosive culture, to live them out.  Yes, yes, vast swaths of the document hold up as a model the classical definition of marriage, true, true.  But on the key question of how that classical definition is to be applied, the bishops have, to use the media headline term “opened the door.”  The fact is that for families who seek to believe in all this stuff, there is ALWAYS a temptation to just “open the door” a little, and for some it is a daily battle not to.  They have been let down in a big way.

Loser:  the divorced and remarried.   So, we have kept them in the Church, but at what cost?  Perhaps there is a victory here in that a greater degree of needed sensitivity and patience will be extended to these brothers and sisters who simply made a series of mistakes.  That change of tone is a welcome thing, to be sure, and it might be the one positive fruit that comes out of this whole episode.

But: this might be a good place to recall the great story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and the manner in which Jesus pointed out that she has had several husbands. A compassionate and merciful exchange to be sure, but not because the story ended with: “you need not alter your current lifestyle.”  The Lord clearly CALLED HER to something new and greater.

The entire Church community needs to call our broken families to something new and greater by transmitting a joyful witness of married love, wrapped around clear teaching.  Instead what is going to happen is that we are going to settle for the lowest common denominator.  Our broken families should want to drink of the life-giving water that we offer but they are not going to bother if we all do not really believe in this stuff ourselves.

As I said before, in the end, the Synod and its document is only a recommendation.  But to the average reader of the news, that message has not been given. This is the danger of Church debates in our modern era of mass communication when the whole messy (and needed) process of theological debate among our prelates gets spilled out across the phone screens and kitchen tables of the entire planet in a matter of seconds.

Therefore the real loser here is actually “discernment” itself.  The kind of slow, deliberate processing and wise internalization in the Church’s whole body that have characterized the careful crafting and development of our doctrines not in sound bites, but across centuries.  Only God knows where we go from here.

We do know that God promised that the Church would never be defeated by the forces of evil, from within or without.   So, therefore the real winner here might actually be “hope” itself because now we all have no choice but to pray for a great deal more of it.

About Father Nathan Reesman

On Twitter: @FatherReesman Father Nathan Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, ordained in 2006. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin. Father Reesman is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, obtaining his Bachelors of Arts in Political Science in the year 2000. He completed his seminary studies at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2006, obtaining a Masters of Divinity. Father Reesman completed post-graduate studies at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, obtaining a Doctor of Ministry in 2019.
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