The midterm report on the deliberations of the Synod on the Family has appeared and there is a fair amount of hysteria all around. John Thavis, a veteran Vatican reporter who should know better, has declared this statement “an earthquake, the big one that hit after months of smaller tremors.”
Certain commentators on the right have been wringing their hands and bewailing a deep betrayal of the church’s teaching. One even opined that this report is the “silliest document ever issued by the Catholic Church,” and some have said that the interim document flouts the teaching of St. John Paul II. Meanwhile the New York Times confidently announced that the church has moved from “condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness, and mercy.” I think everyone should take a deep breath.
What has just appeared is not even close to a definitive, formal teaching of the Catholic Church. It is a report on what has been discussed so far in a synod of some 200 bishops from around the world. It conveys, to be sure, a certain consensus around major themes, trends that have been evident in the conversations, dominant emphases in the debates, etc., but it decidedly does not represent “the teaching” of the pope or the bishops.
One of the great mysteries enshrined in the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church is that Christ speaks through the rather messy and unpredictable process of ecclesiastical argument. The Holy Spirit guides the process of course, but he doesn’t undermine or circumvent it. It is precisely in the long, laborious sifting of ideas across time and through disciplined conversation that the truth that God wants to communicate gradually emerges.
If you want evidence of this, simply look at the accounts of the deliberations of the major councils of the church, beginning with the so-called Council of Jerusalem in the first century right through to the Second Vatican Council of the 20th century. In every such gathering, argument was front and center, and consensus evolved only after lengthy and often acrimonious debate among the interested parties.
Read John Henry Newman’s colorful history of the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century and you’ll find stories of riots in the streets and the pulling of beards among the disputants. Or pick up Yves Congar’s very entertaining diary of his years at Vatican II, and you’ll learn of his own withering critiques of the interventions of prominent cardinals and rival theologians.
Or peruse John O’Malley’s history of the Council of Trent, and you’ll see that early draft statements on the key doctrines of original sin and justification were presented, debated and dismissed — long before final versions were approved.
Until Vatican II, these preliminary arguments and conversations were known only to the participants themselves and to certain specialist historians who eventually sifted through the records. The great teachings of the councils became widely known and celebrated, but the process that produced them was, happily enough, consigned to the shadows.
Newman, who had a rather unsatisfying experience of official ecclesial life in Rome, said “those who love the barque of Peter ought to stay out of the engine room!” This is a somewhat more refined version of “those who enjoy sausage ought never to watch how it is made.”
Another centuries-long controversy?
The interim report on the synod represents a very early stage of the sausage-making process and, unsurprisingly, it isn’t pretty. More discussion will follow; then a full year during which the findings of the synod will be further refined, argued about, and clarified; then the Ordinary Synod on the Family will take place (the one going on now is the Extraordinary Synod), and many more arguments and counter-arguments will be made; finally, some months, perhaps even a year or so, after that, the pope will write a post-synodal exhortation summing up the entire process and offering a definitive take on the matter. At that point, I would suggest, something resembling edible sausage will be available for our consumption; until then, we should all be patient and refrain from bloviating.
The historian and theologian Martin Marty commented that our debates today about sex and authority are analogous to the arguments in the early centuries of the church’s life concerning Christology and to the disputes about anthropology and salvation around the time of the Reformation. Those two previous dust-ups took several centuries to resolve, and Marty suggests that we might be in the midst of another centuries-long controversy.
I’m glad that Pope Francis, at the outset of this synod, urged the participating bishops to speak their minds clearly and fearlessly. He didn’t want a self-censorship that would unduly hamper the conversation and thereby prevent the truth from emerging. This does not imply for a moment that Pope Francis will agree with every point of view expressed, and indeed he can’t possibly, since many are mutually exclusive.
But it does indeed mean that he has the confidence and the patience required to allow the Holy Spirit to work in his preferred fashion.