On October 5th, the synod on the family will open in Rome. It may become an important event in the life of the Catholic Church for two reasons. It can redefine the way the world’s bishops in union with the Pope give guidance to the Church on pastoral issues and, at the same time, bring greater clarity into some thorny questions concerning sexuality, marriage and family life.
We have had many synods since Vatican II. But so far they were merely consultative, i.e. suggesting ideas to the Pope which could be used or discarded at his own discretion. It seems that Pope Francis intends to make the bishops’ synod an instrument of “collegiality”, i.e. Pope and bishops exercising their authority together. For centuries, synods were the common method for deciding on important issues in the Church and they still are in the Orthodox and the Anglican churches. If the governance of the Catholic Church were exercised less through the Vatican administration, as is the case today, and more directly by the college of bishops in union with the Pope, this could have a great impact of ecumenical relationships with other churches.
In preparation for the Synod on the family, Pope Francis asked for a consultation not only of bishops’ conferences, but also of the laity, Christians who are the most concerned with family life as they are living it every day. The consultation showed very clearly one thing: the Church’s teaching and the life of most ordinary Christians are far apart in a number of important points. As those who took the trouble of answering the lengthy questionnaire are likely not to be lapsed, but practicing Catholics, their opinion has to be taken seriously. The synod will have to analyze the reasons and propose ways how the gap can be narrowed. There are in particular three areas where most Catholics no longer follow the Church’s teaching: birth control, sex before marriage, and divorce and remarriage.
The synod faces a formidable task. On the one hand, the Church cannot change what is Christ’s clear teaching. The word of God is not a matter of opinion. On the other hand, if so many serious Christians no longer see the teaching of the Church as reasonable and relevant, something is wrong somewhere. Is it merely that they have succumbed to the “Zeitgeist”, the spirit of the world? Is it that the conditions of life have changed so drastically that some rules of old do not make sense any longer in the modern world? Has the Church failed to communicate Christ’s message to a new world culture?
The synod fathers and mothers will have to make a serious spiritual discernment. For that they need our prayers. So Pope Francis has asked the whole Church to pray this week for the upcoming synod. We think back on how God’s spirit inspired the bishops at the Second Vatican Council and how the Spirit inspired time and again the college of cardinals to elect unexpected. We have good reason to believe that the same Spirit will help the synod with propositions that are both faithful to the Gospel and relevant to the life of today’s married people and Christian families.
Fr. Wolfgang Schonecke MAfr
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