The Relatio Finalis [final report] of Synod 2015, adopted on Saturday evening by the Synod Fathers, is a massive and encouraging improvement over the Instrumentum Laboris [working document] that was the baseline for the Synod’s work. The tremendous difference between the two documents illustrates just how fruitful a path the Synod walked over three sometimes-challenging weeks.
Laden as it was with sociology, and not-too-good sociology at that, the working document was, at more than a few points, hard to recognise as a Church document. The final report is clearly an ecclesial text, a product of the Church’s meditation on the Word of God, understood as the lens through which the Church interprets its contemporary experience.
The working document was biblically anorexic. The final report is richly biblical, even eloquently biblical, as befits a Synod meeting on the fiftieth anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council and its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum.
At times, the working document seemed almost embarrassed by the settled doctrine of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage, on the conditions necessary for the worthy reception of Holy Communion, and on the virtues of chastity and fidelity. The final report reaffirms the Church’s doctrines on marriage, Holy Communion, and the possibility of living virtuously in the post-modern world. And it does so without cavil, even as it calls the Church to a more effective proclamation of the truths it bears as a patrimony from the Lord Jesus himself, and to more solicitous pastoral care of those in difficult marital and familial circumstances.
The working document was virtually silent on the gift of children. The final report describes children as one of the greatest of blessings, praises large families, is careful to honor special-needs kids, and lifts up the witness of happily and fruitfully married couples and their children as agents of evangelisation.
The working document made something of a hash out of conscience and its role in the moral life. The final report does a much better job of explaining the Church’s understanding of conscience and its relationship to truth, rejecting the idea that conscience is a kind of free-floating faculty of the will that can function as the equivalent of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
The working document was full of ambiguities about pastoral practice and its relationship to doctrine. The final report, while not without some ambiguities, makes clear that pastoral care must begin from a bottom-line of commitment to the settled teaching of the Church, and that there really is no such thing as “local-option Catholicism,” either in terms of regional/national solutions to challenges or patish-by-parish solutions. The Church remains one Church.
The working document was also ambiguous in its description of “family.” The final report underscores that there can be no proper analogy drawn between the Catholic understanding of “marriage” and “family” and other social arrangements, no matter what their legal status.
Mercy and truth sometimes seemed in tension in the working document. The final report is far more theologically developed in relating mercy and truth in God, and thus inseparable in the doctrine and practice of the Church.
The working document was not much from a literary point of view, and was more than a little laborious to digest. The final report is quite eloquent at a number of points and will enrich the lives of those who read it, however much they may disagree with this or that formulation.
In sum, the final report, though not without flaws, goes a very long way – and light years beyond the Instrumentum Laboris – in doing what Pope Francis and many Synod fathers wanted this entire two-year process to do: lift up and celebrate the Catholic vision of marriage and the family as a luminous answer to the crisis of those institutions in the twenty-first century.
Subtexts and missed opportunities
Synod 2015 has also brought to light several serious problems that remain to be addressed as the Church moves beyond the twinned Synods of 2014 and 2015, with the Synod 2015 final report as a framework for further reflection (and for whatever post-synodal document Pope Francis eventually chooses to issue).
The first of these problems might be called one of theological and pastoral digestion. It was painfully clear from more than a few of the interventions in the Synod general assembly – and from some of the reports of the Synod’s language-based discussion groups – that large sectors of the world Church have not even begun to internalise the teaching of Familiaris Consortio (John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation completing the work of the 1980 Synod on the Family), much less John Paul’s Theology of the Body. Worse, some parts of the western European Church seem to regard any reference to such material as hopelessly old hat, even though it’s only thirty-some years old. The enthusiasm with which the Theology of the Body has been received in the more alert parts of the Church in North America was certainly part of the discussion at; but a great deal of work remains to be done to bring this uniquely Catholic perspective on embodiedness, sexuality, and human love to pastoral fruition in Latin America and Europe.
Still, it’s perhaps not surprising that it takes awhile for genuinely original teaching that stretches and develops the Catholic tradition to take hold; these things always take time. But given the rapidity with which cultural change (or cultural deconstruction) is washing over the western world, it’s certainly to be hoped that local churches which have not yet availed themselves of these resources hit the accelerator.
Synod 2015 would also have been more honest had the debate brought to the surface the hard fact that the communion issue and the conscience issue often functioned as stalking horses for episcopates, largely from the German-speaking world, that want to forget Humanae Vitae and deconstruct Veritatis Splendor. Those parts of the world Church have never forgiven Paul VI for reaffirming, in Humanae Vitae, of the classic Catholic view of the appropriate means for regulating fertility. Neither have they forgiven John Paul II for rejecting the proportionalist moral theology of such major German theological figures as Bernard Häring and Joseph Fuchs and insisting, in Veritatis Splendor, that some acts are, in and of themselves, gravely evil (malum in se). One prominent Synod father from German-speaking Catholicism even went so far as to suggest, in an interview prior to Synod 2015, that there was always some good to be found in every situation, that malum in se had no real meaning in our world. (One immediately thinks of rape, the torture of children, sex-trafficking of young girls, ISIS crucifixions and beheadings of Christians, and wonders just what was going on in this remarkable statement.)
In addition to the intellectual pride that I’ve already noted as a problem in these contestations, one can’t also help wonder about a certain blindness to history. The unraveling of the moral fabric of the West is leading, step by step, to what Benedict XVI aptly called the “dictatorship of relativism” – the use of coercive state power to impose a thoroughly relativistic moral code on all of society. Why can’t prominent German-speaking bishops see this?
Another subtext to the debates at Synod 2015 was a question as old as the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius – and probably a lot older than that: Are we sinners in need of redemption, or are we basically good people who can, by our own efforts, pull ourselves up to the nobility to which we aspire? The latter option now comes packaged as “expressive individualism” – the term used by Notre Dame law professor Carter Snead, in remarks reported earlier this week in Letters to the Synod, to sum up the post-modern notion of the human person as simply a bundle of desires, an embodied will. It’s bad enough, as Professor Snead said, when five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court believe this and then use it as the excuse to find “rights” in the Constitution that would have been unimaginable to those who wrote and adopted that text and its amendments. It’s far worse when one finds Catholic bishops who seem to be veering in a similar, misguided direction, acting under cultural pressures that seem to be creating a sense of pastoral desperation. Here, then, is another issue that needs serious examination in the post-Synod 2015 Church.
Finally, and despite all the good things in the final report, it’s a shame that a Synod intended to be about changing the world ended up being a battle over changing the Church – or remaining faithful to its constitutive doctrine and form. This is not, one expects, what Pope Francis wanted, but it’s what happened, and that in itself is a missed opportunity. It also suggests that the passion for a “Church permanently in mission” of which the Holy Father speaks has yet to be communicated to some very important sectors of the world Church.
A Church turned inward is not the Church of the New Evangelisation. So it remains for those committed to the evangelical rebirth of Catholicism in the twenty-first century to more closely link family to mission than Synod -2015 was able to do.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Center. This article has been republished with permission from Xavier Rynne II’s Letters from the Synod.