The struggle to control the synod

In years gone by, it was hardly unusual for periodic assemblies of the world Synod of Bishops to pass largely unnoticed by the media and just about everybody else. Not this time. The Oct. 4-25 Synod on the Family, the second to be held in barely a year, is being viewed with something approaching apprehension by some serious church observers - and with the expectation of a good story on the part of journalists.

It's no mystery why. Some synod participants and some of those who control the synod machinery apparently favor a "pastoral" softening up of the church's teaching and practice on marriage that others believe would be a betrayal of Catholic doctrine.

Something that happened even before the synod is symptomatic of how things stand.

In September, an international group of 61 Catholic moral theologians and philosophers published a statement sharply critical of a passage - paragraph 137, to be precise - in the working document (instrumentum laboris) published several weeks before by the Vatican synod office. The critics included prominent figures like John Finnis of Oxford and Notre Dame, Germain Grisez, author of The Way of the Lord Jesus, and Auxiliary Bishop Peter Elliott of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne.

Paragraph 137 begins by heaping praise on "Humanae Vitae," Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical reaffirming the condemnation of contraception, for its "rich content." But then it speaks of conscience in a way that "diminishes the spiritual dignity of the human person as one who is able to conform his actions to objective truth." In doing that, one might add, paragraph 137 also points to a path for undermining "Humanae Vitae's" condemnation of contraception.

"We have been down this road before," the scholars wrote. They called on the synod, instead, to give "strong endorsement" to the encyclical along with a clear explanation of the relationship between conscience and moral norms.

The incident recalls events at the first Synod on the Family a year ago. An interim report supposedly summarizing discussion up to then startled readers by its friendly treatment of same-sex unions. Synod fathers complained they hadn't been given a chance to review the so-called summary before its release and said nothing like its version of events had taken place. Significantly, the disputed passages were absent from the synod's final report some days later.

For someone looking at all this from the outside, the synod's policy of closed proceedings makes it hard to say just what's going on here. Pretty clearly, though, proponents of the Catholic progressives' agenda for the church have seized on the synod assemblies as opportunities to make progress toward realizing their goals.

Besides undermining the teaching on contraception, these objectives include winning approval of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages remain valid in the eyes of the church. Supporters say this would be an act of pastoral kindness; opponents say it contradicts settled church doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage.

Pope Francis wants a freewheeling discussion at the synod, and that surely is what he's gotten so far. It's important to understand, though, that a synod of bishops is an advisory body that only offers suggestions to the pope. In the end, it's the pope who decides. It appears the Holy Father would be glad if the synod could somehow find a way to square the circle by authorizing Communion for the divorced and remarried without violating church teaching. The outcome may lie weeks, even months down the road.

Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington and author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius Press).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015