Reflecting on the Recent Synod on the Family

There’s been a great deal of discussion and media attention to the recent Synod on the Family held at the Vatican. Western media and progressives were agog at the prospect of a welcome for LGBT people and for divorced and remarried Catholics. Then a few days later, they were outraged when it appeared the Synod reversed course. As one example, the Episcopal Cafe announced: “Catholic Bishops fail to welcome gay, divorced Christians.”

One can understand the wider culture’s inability to understand what precisely is going on in the Synod (I use the present participle because there will be a follow-up next year at which a final report will be issued). What’s more surprising is that even Catholics don’t get the dynamics at play. Witness Ross Douthat, who in his Sunday column in the New York Times seemed to be threatening schism (there’s another living pope, after all), and the absolute immutability of church doctrine over time. Douthat reasserts the importance of the latter to his own Catholicism in a blog post yesterday.

The greatest living American Catholic historian, John S. O’Malley, SJ responds to Douthat and provides background to the synod here. He writes:

Change is in the air at the synod. To that extent Mr. Douthat is right. Moreover, change is problematic for an institution whose very reason for existence is to preserve and proclaim unchanged a message received long ago. Yet, given our human condition, change is inevitable. Sometimes change is required precisely in order to remain faithful to the tradition. It has in that way been operative in the church from the beginning.

Every council in the history of the church has been an instrument of change, and the synod is in effect a mini-council. Pope Francis convoked it for an examination of conscience about a range of questions directly or indirectly affecting the Sacrament of Matrimony. What will result from this examination? We don’t know. Will it be a declaration, a decree, a simple report? We don’t know. No matter what the form, what will it say? We don’t know.

O’Malley knows councils, having written on the Council of Trent and Vatican II. His new book on the history of the Jesuits came out last week and I can’t wait to read it.

O’Malley was one of my teachers and it is to him that I owe my deep appreciation for Roman Catholicism as well as my knowledge of Early Modern Catholicism.

I’ll be interested to see what ultimately emerges from the Synod. As someone who regularly encounters Catholics who have been deeply wounded by the church’s practices around divorce and remarriage, I am hopeful that the Synod will find a way to embrace the lives, faith and journeys of divorced and remarried Catholics.


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