A Reflection on the Synod of Bishops on the Family 2014

The two-week long Synod on the family, convened by Pope Francis last year, ended last Sunday (Oct 19, 2014). The Synod was convened to discuss the “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” The Preparatory Document described the purpose of the Synod “to define the current situation and to collect the bishops’ experiences and proposals in proclaiming and living the Gospel of the Family in a credible manner.” The working document also invited ordinary Catholics in the pew to send in their reflections and assured them that the Synod “will thoroughly examine and analyze the information, testimonies and recommendations received [from them] to respond to the new challenges of the family.”
As the discussion of the Synod revealed, the issues and current situation [contexts] included for discussion were varied and complex. On the one hand, the context is the place and role of traditional families. Many people surely find themselves very blessed to be in traditional families. On the other hand, as the Synod’s final message said, enfeebled faith, indifference to true values, individualism, impoverishment of relationships, stress, children with special needs, aging, poverty, migration, and violence continue to exert immense pressure on families. The context is also a large number of divorced and remarried Catholics who find themselves excluded from the internal life of the Church. The issue is further complicated by the process of annulment, which, in reality, is meant to uphold the inviolable bond of marriage. However, what is meant to uphold something positive can also become a cumbersome process. Perhaps even more complex is the issue of the definition of marriage. The very traditional definition of marriage as a monogamous life-long covenant between a man and a woman is in question.
The Synod published a final report and it will function as a working document for the 2015 Synod. Meanwhile, the midterm report that was released raised major controversy. Of course, the media focused on the hot-button issues such as communion for divorced, remarried Catholics and homosexuality. The three; the divorced, the separated and homosexual debate took centre stage. Forgotten in the dark was the aspect of Polygamy that is a challenge to Christian marriage especially in sub-Saharan Africa. However, from the big-picture perspective much more was accomplished. In this reflection, it is my intention to focus on the great accomplishments of this Synod, and also see its implications for the complex issues that confront the 21st century family.
1. Two Theologies at Work. Apart from the hotly debated topics, it was the methodology adopted for the discussion that was truly interesting. Theologically, there are two primary approaches to any issue – the first approach is ‘theology from above’ and the other, ‘theology from below.’ The starting point for ‘theology from above’ is doctrine. In this approach people begin by asking, “What does Scripture and tradition say about the family?” Once that is ascertained, the emphasis is on ensuring that families can live up to the ideal that doctrine reveals to us. In this approach, the emphasis is on preserving the doctrine and preventing the new context from diluting doctrine. Those who are faithful to the doctrine find themselves in communion with the Church and others either must find ways to comply, or find themselves excluded from communion. ‘Theology from below’ has a different starting point. Doctrines are still of primary importance, but the starting point is different. The starting point is the context within which people and families find themselves, either because of their own choices or simply because life and relationships are complex realities. In this approach, doctrines are ideals that God has set before us. We are all obliged to unflinchingly strive toward them. As we all strive toward the same ideal, different people are at different points. Some of us have traditional families and thank God for that. Thus, the final message from the Synod upheld and celebrated the value of traditional families as “a gift, a grace expressed.” But not everybody is there. Divorce, remarriage, denial of annulment, long and expensive annulment process, same-sex orientation – these are complex issues. As with the theology of Vatican II, Pope Francis clearly seems to be taking ‘theology from below’ approach in understanding the family and human life in general. He wants to see those who either struggle with sin or find it impossible to comply to be accepted, welcomed, and loved like Christ did in his compassion and mercy.( Luke 15:2) This seems a challenge to long held doctrine which presents these family issues as grave evils. That makes some folks very insecure about the stability and future of the Church. Perhaps, they are justified. Thus in his final address to the Synod, the Pope asked the “traditionalists to avoid both the temptation to “hostile inflexibility” and the liberals to avoid the temptation to “deceptive mercy.” To solve the two extremes at the synod i would propose the adoption of equiprobabiliorism moral system that St. Alpohonsus Liguori brought in theology,the theory that strikes a balance between the laxists(liberals) and the rigorists(conservatists). Despite the whole debate polygamy never appeared. People in parts of Africa still do not know what to do with their plural wives whom they have been with for many years,have children and are unable to dispose off. The traditional pastoral approach Christianity presents;chosing one wife while making others ‘sister wives’ ‘and wed her is unpractical due to the complexities that surround customary marriage.
2. The Conversation. There is fear in some quarters that Pope Francis is attempting to change the aged old doctrines on marriage. Nothing is farther from the truth because he has no powers to do so, not even the whole college of Bishops can do so, because divine law does not change. The fact remains that the medieval infallibility of the pope does not count in the present age. Petrine ministry is stronger when decisions are taken in a college, council or synod. However, Pope Francis is clearly changing the conversation. In fact, I am arguing he is changing the conversation about the conversation. The discussion at the Synod was clearly an example of this. First let me talk about the conversation. In Sept 2013, Catholics in the pew were invited to offer their reflections, hopes, aspirations and concerns about the family in preparation for the Synod. This allowed ordinary people like you and me to influence the discussion at the Synod. No wonder, then, those even contentious issues like divorce, the annulment process and others, found a place in the conversation about the family. But then, Pope Francis was not only changing the conversation but he was also changing the conversation about the conversation. He invited all sides in this conversation to speak openly and fearlessly about the issues that the family faces. He was not afraid to bring the different approaches and theologies to the floor for discussion. He asked for transparency. Moreover, even as people debated and deliberated passionately about the complex issues facing the family, he saw in the very conversation the unity of the Church. At the closing speech at the Synod, he confidently said, “Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not….” Unity does not mean uniformity, for him. Rather, unity at the Synod meant that in total openness to the Holy Spirit, the participants can frankly, fearlessly and transparently talk about the issues that need the reflection of the church. Again in his final speech it is with great pride that he confessed, “I can happily say that – with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality – we have truly lived the experience of “Synod,” a path of solidarity, a “journey together.” It is Pope Francis’ conviction that in these conversations, the Holy Spirit will reveals God’s will for today’s church in today’s world.
Let us agree that Pope Francis seems more to represent a break from the previous popes, a liberal and media friendly. Clearly, in his style, Francis’s focus and emphasis is on pastoral care other than doctrinal. To me, what we need is both a break and continuity with the previous Popes, both pastoral care and doctrinal. But in many other ways he is similar and different to the most recent Popes – Pope John XXIII a well known reformer resulted in Vatican II, Pope Paul VI a Pope who wished Africans to be their own missionaries. John Paul II a pope of the family, a pro-life advocate and Benedict XVI a scholarly pope of Christian unity and of the Latin tradition. However, both believe that “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. To me Pope Francis ‘erred’ by subjecting divine law to a vote. The meaning and ends of marriage are by natural law and by logic clearly defined in Scripture, Tradition and Social Teachings like Costi Connubi,Canon Law and Catechism.

Fr. Natukunda Robin OSM (23/11/2014)


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