Paul Collins. The Synod on the Family – Success or Failure?

Oct 28, 2015

I was talking recently about the Synod with a very experienced parish priest. He said that if the bishops thought we were all waiting with bated breath for their decision regarding the divorced remarried receiving Communion, then they really do live in cloud cuckoo-land. Nowadays divorced Catholics don’t just hang around waiting for a bevy of bishops to decide. They follow their consciences and do what they think is right, especially if they have talked to a sensible, pastoral priest. Sure, many have understandably walked away from the church, but many have stayed having made their own decisions about going to Communion – the internal forum solution.

So really it’s irrelevant what the Synod decided. Even on the gay issue sensible Catholics already understand that talk about people being ‘intrinsically disordered’ is not only utterly insensitive; it is also ‘intrinsically’ un-Christ-like and evangelically ‘disordered’!

But that doesn’t mean the Synod was a failure. It was a success because it recovered something of the church’s Catholicity. Genuine Catholicism implies a universal, multi-ethnic, non-sectarian church, a community of many parts and differing views. My major criticism of the two popes before Francis is that they were essentially ‘uncatholic’; they promoted a narrow, ‘pure’, sectarian church, the antithesis of Catholicity. That’s why they loved outfits like the Neo-Catechuminate and Opus Dei; they are sectarian in structure and intention.

But the bishop of Rome, as Francis likes to be called, encouraged the synod to be genuinely Catholic and, unlike his predecessors, called on participants to express views that differed from his own. For the first time since Paul VI revived the Synod in 1965, this gathering was actually free. Bishops could speak their minds and weren’t constantly second-guessing the pope.

Perversely, it was the conservatives at the Synod who openly disagreed with the line Francis took who did most to relativise the high papalism that has absorbed the church, lock, stock and barrel since the Counter-Reformation and that reached it apogee in John Paul II. We had the wonderful spectacle of conservatives indulging in ‘cafeteria Catholicism’, i.e. picking and choosing which doctrines and popes they were going to follow and which they weren’t. For instance many preferred John Paul II’s dogmatism to the pastoral emphasis of Francis, claiming that the presumed indissolubility of marriage was more important than Jesus’ unequivocal teaching on mercy, love and forgivness.

Another positive was that the Synod toyed with localism and the idea that one size doesn’t fit all. Being Catholic in sub-Saharan Africa is different to being Catholic in the Middle East, or Asia, or Australia. The spirituality, faith experience, liturgical expressions, moral dilemmas and religious culture of each region is different. So decisions about these issues need to be devolved and the local church needs to assume much more responsibility for its own life. This immediately relativises the Vatican and returns the bishop of Rome to his much more traditional role: that of being the guarantee and heart of the church’s communion and the touchstone of its orthodoxy.

So the great thing about the Synod was not what it decided, but that it happened and participants took the first tentative steps in the direction of realizing Vatican II’s doctrine of collegiality.

But the Synod also revealed some profound weaknesses in contemporary Catholicism. First, the church’s leadership cadre was revealed, at best, as second rate. This is the result of a bench of bishops chosen by John Paul II and Benedict XVI who saw themselves as the church incorporated and bishops as branch managers. Anyone with initiative, imagination, emotional intelligence, or leadership ability was excluded from the episcopate.

Bishops also have lost the sense that they too sit in the cathedra Petri, the chair of Peter as the third century church father Cyprian of Carthage called it. They are the rocks and leaders of the local community and they are called, like the pope, to extend collegiality to their priests and people. For this to happen the local church will have to have a decisive say in their election. The recent practice (it only goes back to the late-nineteenth century) of Rome appointing all bishops has to be jettisoned and power devolved to the local church.

There are two issues the Synod should have tackled, but didn’t: women and contraception. Pope Francis says he wants women to participate at all levels in the church, but he has done little about it. If the church did promote women it would influence equality for women across faiths and in doing so would reduce violence to women and children. The evidence is overwhelming that once women have education, freedom from patriarchal and tribal structures, equality and access to reproductive health services, they make responsible decisions about fertility. This is a real area of weakness for Pope Francis, as the encyclical Laudato si reflects.

The only reason why contraception was sedulously avoided was because the bishops would have to admit that Paul VI was wrong. This is certainly what the vast majority of Catholics in developed countries think, but bishops in the developing world, particularly Africa, see this issue as linked to reproductive health which they caricature as a Western plot to control their populations. So it suits them to side-step it. The African bishops play the same silly game with homosexuality, claiming it is a foreign import and never existed in Africa before. The motive here is to outdo the Muslims.

So for me the Synod was a success and it was the first time since Vatican II that bishops had the opportunity to truly speak their minds.

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



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