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Family Synod: What will be thwarted?

“Synod assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas; or to see who is more intelligent,” Pope Francis said last Sunday at the opening mass of the Synod on the Family. This Synod is important and is being watched closely by people from all walks of life, not just Catholics. It has the potential to be a turning point for the Catholic Church.

The Pope’s homily at the mass was brief but forceful. He told the 191 Synod Fathers from all over the world that “God’s dream clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants.” He also said “Bad pastors lay intolerable burdens on the shoulders of others, which they themselves do not lift a finger to move.” It is clear that Pope Francis wants open and frank discussion about real issues affecting the family today and the teaching of the Church. On Monday, in his opening remarks at the Synod, Francis urged the bishops present to “speak boldly and listen with humility.”  There has already been rigorous public debate and disagreement between senior Cardinals about a few issues; the most debated being that of the possibly admittance to communion of divorced and remarried Catholics.

Each session of the Synod opens with a married couple giving testimony from their own experience on the topic of that session. On Monday afternoon an Australian couple spoke candidly about their sex life and said that it was “extremely hard to appreciate the beauty” of the Church’s teachings prohibiting contraception.

The first days of the Synod covered some interesting ground. Two things struck me.

The first, Fr Thomas Rosica reported, was a discussion on how to change the “harsh language” used by the Church. Often the Church labels people, the Synod Fathers heard, with words that “are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to the Church.” A few members of the Synod referred to three terms commonly used by the Church:

  • “living in sin” – referring to couples who live together before marriage
  • “intrinsically disordered” – referring to gay people
  • “contraceptive mentality” – to refer to a society that does not respect life.

Fr Rosica said that there were strong feelings in the Synod Hall that language has to change in order to meet the very difficult situations people find themselves in.

The second interesting discussion was on the theological notion of “graduality.” This means that Catholics grow towards adherence or understanding of Church teaching throughout their lives, it doesn’t just happen. The search for holiness is something we move towards, step by step, and God is with us now as we journey to holiness.

These discussions were framed but yet another point of view. Hungarian Cardinal, Péter Erdö, suggested that the Church re-propose and re-read the controversial 1968 Encyclical ‘Humane Vitae’ as a ‘positive message.’ He also pointed out that mercy, which has been a consistent theme for Pope Francis, “does not do away with truth nor relativise it, but seeks to interpret it correctly in the hierarchy of truths.” Nor does mercy, he said, “do away with the demands of justice.”

“Do not thwart God’s dream for his people!” Pope Francis said on Sunday.  There be much more discussion as the Synod unfolds. What will be thwarted will be intriguing to watch: God’s plan? The ways things have always been? Or, perhaps, the aspirations and hopes of Catholics who long for change? Watch this space.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ
B.A. (UKZN) M.Th. (UKZN)

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

r.pollitt@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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