Down the decades of the post–Vatican II church, a bishops synod has meant a boring showpiece gathering in Rome, where everybody knew the script and all agreed that nothing was going to happen. But not anymore—not with Pope Francis. With the synod of October 4–25, 2015, the second leg of a new synodal journey is about to begin. Of course, a synod is not an ecumenical council, yet it does promise something not very different from what happened at Vatican II. The bishops and the church as a whole are about to take an honest look at the gap between the status ecclesiae—what the church is called to be, which cannot be changed—and the statuta ecclesiae, the laws and practices of the church, which can and sometimes ought to be changed. In this sense, Francis’s pontificate has already moved the goalposts of the Catholic debate significantly. What we have witnessed since his election, and in particular since his decision to hold two synods in twelve months on the subject of marriage and family, is a renewed climate of debate in a church unused to the ethos of ecclesial discernment.
Last fall’s synod displayed a remarkable degree of sincerity in engaging the issue of the modern family vis-à-vis Catholic doctrine and pastoral praxis. Also remarkable was how the first session unfolded in successive phases: the first week of debate, followed by the relatio post disceptationem—a kind of midterm report—containing significant openings (on homosexuality, premarital cohabitation, other kinds of marital unions); then the pushback of the second week and the narrowing of those openings in the final relatio synodi. Francis’s decision to publish the relatio, including the votes that every paragraph received, bespoke his intention to show the degree of the consensus reached at the synod. The move clearly was also intended to keep debate open during the period between synod meetings, echoing the key role played by the informal debates held between each of the four fall sessions of Vatican II. The papal motu proprio of September 2015, which reformed the annulment process, is more evidence of a very interesting dynamic between papal initiative and the bishops’ inertia in shaping the agenda of the meeting. (And no, pace Vaticanista John Allen, the reform does not mean that the question of Communion for the remarried is off the table.)
Of course, it would be a mistake to expect radical changes during this time between synod meetings. The ecclesial debate so far has not lived up to the expectations of many Catholics who saw the December questionnaires as a sign that major changes were coming soon. In very few dioceses has there been any real exchange between the laity and the clergy. But the instrumentum laboris for the 2015 synod, published by the Vatican in June, is a step forward. It shows that there is broad agreement on several issues, especially when it comes to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal: “a great number agree that a journey of reconciliation or penance, under the auspices of the local bishop, might be undertaken by those who are divorced and civilly remarried, who find themselves in irreversible situations.”
The lineamenta of December 2014 called for wide input in the preparation of the 2015 synod and asked episcopal conferences to involve all groups within the church. Yet only a few bishops’ conferences worked systematically to prepare for the synod, and even fewer mobilized lay associations and academic institutions. The state of the presynod debate across the global church says something about the relative readiness of bishops, theologians, and laypeople to engage these issues. While the Italian and U.S. bishops conferences, for instance, have not organized activities related to the synod, theologians and bishops from Germany, France, and Switzerland met on May 25 at the Gregorian University in Rome for a day of study. The papers, published on the website of the German bishops conference, present a position close to Kasper’s, advocating an honest understanding of what “marriage” now means. “Christian ethics today is about rediscovering marriage and family in their actual form as a form of life in the faith, without being discriminant of other forms of life,” the conclusion reads. “It is clear that the next synod cannot limit itself to repeat the previous teachings and what has been said already.”
THAT WAS FAR from the only initiative. A group of twenty-six theologians from France, Belgium, and Switzerland published a call for significant changes in the theological understanding and the pastoral practices on issues touching on the family. In May, a daylong conference at the Theological Faculty of Milan brought in some of the best Italian theologians, who presented a position that didn’t quite line up with Kasper’s proposal, but they did point out the inconsistencies of the traditional understanding of the indissolubility of marriage in light of the contemporary value placed on conscience. In August, a group of twenty prominent Spanish Catholic theologians took a stand, asserting that “pastoral prudence today not only permits, but also requires a change of posture.” Just last month the ecumenical monastic community of Bose near Turin—the intellectual elite of Italian Catholicism—held an international ecumenical conference on mercy and forgiveness, with the opening lecture given by Cardinal Kasper. And the forum known as Catholic Women Speak Network has produced a rich book (with articles by Tina Beattie, Elizabeth Johnson, Lisa Cahill, and Margaret Farley, among others) that will be presented publicly in Rome a few days before the synod.
Because of Francis’s style of governance, which relies on his council of nine cardinals that meets every two months, the Roman Curia has taken a back seat during this debate between synods. Not surprisingly, much of the Curia does not support the direction in which Francis is taking the church, especially when it comes to the theology of the family and marriage. The pope was rumored to have been irked by an Ignatius Press book published last fall, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, in which several bishops—including five cardinals—criticized Kasper’s position on Communion for the divorced and remarried. Ignatius is about to publish another book in the same vein, with essays by seventeen cardinals, including four who now serve in the Curia. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who contributed an essay to last year’s book, has expressed in many interviews his opposition to Kasper’s proposal. Even Benedict XVI intervened after the synod. In his recently published complete works, he edited a 1972 article on indissolubility, changing his position to make it less open to a proposal like Kasper’s.
Others in Rome are much closer to Francis. Even though the Jesuits keep some distance from this Jesuit pope (who notably has not yet visited the Jesuit-run Gregorian University), the Society of Jesus represents the theological temperament closest to Francis’s thinking. The Gregorian University hosted a conference on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, featuring intellectuals from all over the world, including Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. Even more important is the position of the semi-official voice of the Vatican, La Civiltà Cattolica, under the editorship of Antonio Spadaro, SJ, whose role under Francis is strikingly similar to that of Roberto Tucci, SJ (who died last April as a cardinal), under John XXIII during Vatican II. Over the past year, La Civiltà Cattolica published a series of articles on marriage and family that featured bold contributions to the pastoral, theological, and biblical debate. The articles have been republished as a book, in Italian, Famiglia, un ospedale da campo (“The Family, a Field Hospital”) with an introduction by Spadaro.)
FRANCIS HAS INVITED the team behind the 2014 synod to run this year’s gathering, implicitly rejecting the conspiracy theories propagated by some conservative critics, such as Edward Pentin, who has just released a book called The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? The positioning of important players has not changed significantly: there has been no prominent “synodal conversion” of church leaders, and no visible attempt to bridge the gap between advocates of the reformist and traditionalist positions. If anything, positions have solidified, with reformers calling attention to the different versions of biblical and Christian families evident in history and in Catholic doctrine, while their opponents defend a theology of marriage that they believe was conclusively defined by John Paul II. The sobering fact is that the synod is the first collegial debate in the Catholic Church on marriage since the Council of Trent, when the decree Tametsi of 1563 “created” modern marriage as a contract under the authority of the church (and later also of the state).
Francis has already written the first page of post-synodal history with his decision to inaugurate an “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy” a few weeks after the synod closes. Fifty years after Vatican II, and fifteen years after the explosion of the sexual-abuse crisis, what is at stake is not only Francis’s pontificate but the very idea of a church that can handle change without the threat of schism. The success of the synod will not be measured by any overnight revisions of official doctrine, but rather by the ability of the church to proceed on the basis of a consensus, without obsessing over unanimity. Because if reform requires unanimity, no reform will pass. In this sense the agenda of these synods is part of the unfinished business of Vatican II, and the result of a stubbornly delayed reckoning with the issues of sexuality and the “vocation” of marriage. As Stephen Schloesser, SJ, has recently noted, Vatican II declared “an armistice with modernity.” Catholic “culture warriors” declared the end of the armistice immediately after Vatican II. But Francis is no culture warrior, and he wants the armistice of Vatican II renewed.
Exactly fifty years ago, at the beginning of the final session of Vatican II, the theologian Yves Congar, OP, faulted Paul VI for not having an articulated theology for his path-breaking ecumenical gestures. The great ecumenist Fr. Pierre Duprey offered an insightful and wise reply: “The pope must be left to make gestures and send messages,” Duprey said. “If one were to formulate today the implications of these gestures and messages it is likely that Rome would retreat from such a formulation of ideas.” He concluded, “The gestures will create a familiarity and when that has been done, one day, the formulas will be able to be accepted.”
The present moment is not entirely different. Francis’s pontificate is largely an attempt to bring about ecumenism within the church, effecting mercy between Catholics of different sensibilities and philosophies. It is about formulating an approach to theological ideas keyed to the reality of modern marital and family life. The gestures of acceptance and welcome foreshadowing that eventual theological formulation come today not only from the pope, but from Catholic parents, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters—and, not infrequently, from the priests and nuns who know and live among them.
In this particular moment the pope relies on the people of God as much as on his bishops. The synod is Francis’s way to compel bishops to listen to one another—and to those who are married and have families. In this sense, it can perhaps mark the beginning of a more embracing church, one more collegial and synodal than any work of ecclesiological engineering could design. This may explain why, in undertaking a true reform of the church, the pope decided to start with the family—and set the table for the most important moment of ecclesial discernment since Vatican II.