In Greek synod means on the way together – (odos means a way; syn means together). The model is peripatetic– walking around. Aristotle used to walk round with his disciples discussing issues and his school got called the Peripatetic School.
The Synod of Bishops was set up after Vatican II and met in 1967, 1971 , 1974 and 1977 under Paul VI. These were meetings of a representative group of the world’s bishops looking at significant issues selected by the pope. There was genuine consultation but the pope alone wrote the final document. By the time the fifth meeting was held in 1980 John Paul II was pope. He changed the whole nature of the synod and used it as a vehicle to impose his own views. Melbourne Auxiliary Bishop Eric Perkins was shocked on arriving in Rome for the 1980 Synod on the Family only to find that there was no room for considering the findings he had collected from nation-wide discussion groups. In fact the projected conclusions had already been written
Pope Francis called an extraordinary synod last year to prepare for this year’s ordinary synod – so-called because it comes on the normal three yearly schedule. The topic was The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World.
One of Francis’s objectives has been to restore genuine consultation to the synod. He has achieved this. They did talk together. Their consolidated opinions achieved a two thirds majority on every paragraph of the final document.
A contentious issue was admitting divorced and remarried to the sacraments. Could this be softened?
In Greek epeikeia means gentleness or leniency. In church canon law it means a modified interpretation of the law when the law does not fit the circumstances of a case.
The “internal forum” stands in contrast to the external forum of a court where evidence can be proved. When this is not possible a conscientious judgement can be made in the internal forum. This has been a long held procedure in moral theology, but making use of it was authoritatively discouraged and policed under Wojtyla and Ratzinger.
Between epeikeia and internal forum people can work out a solution in their own case. This opens a way to approval of Communion for divorcees. By taking this path the synod bishops saw themselves as opening a door. The trouble is that the horse had bolted long ago. Most remarried divorcees who really want to go to Communion do so – and with their pastor’s encouragement. But restatement of the embargo has been so alienating that many no longer even want to receive. And any decent pastor knows that once they go, they go forever.
Another of Francis’s objectives was to replace the doctrinal watchdog focus with that of pastoral care. The voting shows that a third are hesitant. Still, this is not bad when most of the bishops have been appointed by JP II or Benedict XVI who made ideological support for their narrow view of orthodoxy and orthopraxis a pre-requisite for selection as a bishop.
The pope’s final address commented that the synod had “laid bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families” He also referred to conspiracy theories that hindered passing on the Church’s message. This was taken as possibly referring to a letter to the pope from 13 cardinals, led by George Pell, complaining that the synod processes were rigged to favour a liberal outcome. The complaint was a bit rich since all the synods since 1977 were just rubber stamps for the pope.
The pope certainly has an opposition and George has established himself as a leading member.
Conformists do not make good leaders as the current episcopacy shows. The pope is slowly reshaping the episcopacy by trying to select pastoral bishops. Cupich to Chicago and more recently Zuppi to Bologna and Lorefice to Palermo are examples. There is an inbuilt problem here. The pope alone makes these appointments without any real consultation of the local churches. Mind you he is not making a welter of it as is shown by his promotion of Gerhardt Muller in CDF and Robert Sarah to head the Congregation for Worship.
His future appointments will be watched with interest. In a still clerical Church the talent pool is getting very shallow. Will he bring more consultation to the appointment of bishops?
Meanwhile, back at the local franchise the Parish Priest is still king – but not for much longer. The clergy is dying out. PPs need to divest more decision making to laity. Most parishes still have enough willing and interested members. Select a good principal for the school – and one who sees the school as a work of the parish. Appoint good people to be in charge of liturgy, pastoral care, sacramental life and parish finances. Get a good secretary/manager to give them professional support and to run routine parish business. Then pick someone to be the coordinator of it all so that, when Father is gone, the show can still go on.
Finally it is Spring Carnival time. Some tips for the big race. Bergoglio is a long-distance stayer with the rail advantage. Pell has won at some country meetings but is looking tired and may have broken down (https://goo.gl/7AvunR) and Coleridge has found an opening in the pack and is heading strongly to the finishing line. Place your bets. Cross your fingers. Here’s hoping.
 The signatories include:
– Carlo Caffarra, now retired archbishop of Bologna, theologian, formerly the first president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family;
– Thomas C. Collins, archbishop of Toronto, Canada;
– Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, United States;
– Willem J. Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht, Holland;
– Peter Erdo, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest
– Gerhard L. Müller, former bishop of Regensburg, Germany, since 2012 prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith;
– Wilfrid Fox Napier, archbishop of Durban, South Africa, president delegate of the synod underway as also at the previous session of the synod of October 2014;
– George Pell, archbishop emeritus of Sydney, Australia, since 2014 prefect in the Vatican of the secretariat for the economy;
– Mauro Piacenza, head of Apostolic Penitentiary;
– Robert Sarah, former archbishop of Conakry, Guinea, since 2014 prefect of the congregation for divine worship and the discipline
– Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Italy;
– Jorge L. Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas, Venezuela.
– Armond Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris.
Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic Priest in Melbourne who ‘writes a bit’.