Paul Collins. Much ado about nothing?

Aug 6, 2014

The 2014-15 Synod on ThePastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization

 Around Christmas 2013 there was much ado in the Australian Catholic community about the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family called by Pope Francis for October 2014 and 2015. In preparation for this synod, for the first time ever, the laity as well as bishops were consulted and asked to respond to a document that covered a range of doctrinal and practical issues concerning family, personal relationships and gender. Many people put a lot of energy into responding to what was a badly formulated questionnaire within the context of a tight timeframe.

I will return to these responses and their impact in a moment. First, some historical context is essential to understand what will probably happen at the synod.

The idea of the synod of bishops arose out of the Vatican II teaching on collegiality. This is the notion that the bishops, under the headship of the bishop of Rome, govern, lead and guide the church. To make that a reality Pope Paul VI unexpectedly introduced the idea of a synod of bishops at the beginning of the last session of Vatican II (September, 1965). He did it in a motu proprio, that is in a document issued ‘by his own authority’. In other words it was a papal, not a conciliar decision.

Herein lies the rub: created by the pope, the synod has always been under papal and Roman curial control and its role is, at best, purely advisory.

Desultory attempts were made by Paul VI to make the synod work, but John Paul II turned it into an increasingly ineffective body. He set the synod agenda and issued the document that summarises its conclusions. These documents increasingly represented what Pope Wojtyla thought the bishops should have said, rather than their actual arguments. Theologian Rene Laurentin says that synods labor under ‘an unbelievable accumulation of restrictions’. The cause is ‘the ancient fear … of any organs of a democratic type which might limit papal power.’ As an instrument of collegiality the synod has become a complete dud.

Remember also that 34 years of episcopal appointments passed between the election of John Paul II (1978) and Pope Francis (2013), a whole generation of bishops. The problem is that many of these appointments were of mediocre men who lacked leadership skills or genuine pastoral sensitivity. The selection process excluded priests of independent mind, and increasingly the gene pool of talented priests from which bishops could be selected has contracted. So even if the coming synod was given its head it would be largely populated by bishops afraid of taking the initiative and lacking the intellectual and emotional ability to assume leadership.

It’s in this historical context that Pope Francis has called the synod on the family. He began by seemingly cleaning out the timeserving prelates who populated the synod secretariat and appointing the able papal diplomat, Lorenzo Baldisseri, to head the office. Even allowing for the badly designed questionnaire, at first everything seemed to go swimmingly.

But then last month came the Instrumentum Laboris (IL), the working document that forms the basis of the synod’s discussions. This document reflects nothing of the published and known responses of the laity to the 2013 questionnaire. It reflects an idealised, almost pre-Vatican II vision of family. Certainly IL recognizes that there are problems, pressures, ‘difficult pastoral situations’ (e.g. de facto unions, divorce and remarriage and even ‘unions of persons of the same sex’). But it roots all these problems in a ‘crisis of faith’ and blames ‘external pressures’ and ‘various modern ideologies’ for the difficulties that families face. Or, IL claims, the ‘catechesis’ (method of teaching) has been ‘defective’ as, for instance, in the teaching on contraception. No consideration is given to the fact that rather than defective catechesis, the teaching on contraception has not been theologically ‘received’ by the married laity and therefore lacks doctrinal validity.

IL even makes a distinction between lay feedback, which it calls ‘observations’ and official ‘detailed responses’ from episcopal conferences and the Roman Curia. I would have thought that the laity knew a little more about families and gender relations than members of an all-male and supposedly celibate ecclesiastical cadre. As an editorial in The National Catholic Reporter (30 July 2014) dryly commented ‘the disparity between those who will be doing the talking and deciding and those who will be talked about is … particularly glaring.’

The most interesting section of IL is the chapter on natural law. Nowadays most people have never heard of ‘natural law’ and those who have find it confusing and problematic. While admitting that natural law rhetoric is largely rejected today, IL still proceeds as if we lived in a non-evolutionary, static world and natural law was eternally normative. It is precisely this assumption that contemporary Catholics reject.

They know that we live in an evolving, changing, inventive universe, not a static one. People have shifted away from generalised notions like natural law when making moral decisions, especially about gender and sexuality and are guided by their consciences when deciding on ethical action. Today we are more concerned about love: do people love each other? It doesn’t matter if they are of the same gender. Instead of looking to generalised principles, the church needs to refer to the experience of the faithful. For Catholics today the experiential is much more important than the theoretical.

So the only proper thing for the bishops to do at the synod in October is to reject IL outright, as did the bishops at Vatican II with the documents prepared by the Roman Curia. But I’m not optimistic that this will happen given the bishops we have today. Australia, for example, will be represented by Melbourne’s Archbishop Denis Hart. I can’t see him doing anything too ‘radical’. But I may be wrong and time will tell.

Paul Collins is a Canberra-based historian, author and broadcaster. See his webpage at

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