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What's a Synod of Bishops?

10-04-2014Fr. John LettersFr John

Dear Friends,

This weekend the Synod of Bishops convenes to begin its study on how the Church can strengthen families, marriages and by extension society itself. What is a Synod of Bishops anyway? According to the United States Con-ference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB): “The Synod of Bishops is a permanent institution of the Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI established it in 1965, shortly after the close of the Second Vatican Council, to continue the spirit of collegial-ity and communion that was present at the Council. The Synod is an assembly of bishops from around the world who assist the Holy Father by providing counsel on important questions facing the Church in a manner that preserves the Church's teaching and strengthens her internal discipline.”

The Synod of Bishops is convoked by the Holy Father and can be either Ordinary or Extraordinary. The latter being called to deal with matters requiring a “speedy solution” and which demand “immediate attention” for the good of the entire Church. This is only the third time an Extraordinary Synod has been convened, the others being in 1969 and 1985 (the ‘85 Synod produced the Catechism). At the Extraordinary General Assembly, the bishops will define the current state of the family and challenges that face it. This should be completed by June 2015 and then the Ordi-nary Synod or the Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops is convened and they will formulate pastoral guidelines to respond to those challenges. So probably by late 2015 or early 2016 the Pope will issue a major document based on the work of the Synod. In Vatican time that constitutes “speedy immediate action”.

In the meantime the build up to the Synod in the media has produced all sorts of wildly unrealistic expecta-tions. This is usually how these things go: unrealistic expectations are set up, and then not met and then disappoint-ment and cynicism follows. Or as some Cardinals and Bishops are doing: push your position two steps forward to a point where you meet lots of opposition and then pull back one step so you look reasonable and when you still meet resistance it is the other side that looks unreasonable. And in the case of Pope Francis, who the media see as the “pastoral” pope, the expectations are off the charts. Here’s the problem with that: the Church cannot change its doc-trine; it can only change its discipline or how it practices its doctrine. Remember back in 1968 expectations were run-ning high that Pope Paul VI would change the teaching on artificial birth control. He didn’t but as a result of the hyped expected change, reception of the teaching of Humane Vitae was disastrous and contributed to the wholesale rejection of that teaching. We are only now, 45 years later starting to convince Catholics and others of the validity of that teach-ing.

So what are some of those expectations? Since this Synod’s topic is the Family and marriage is a big part of family life, issues surrounding marriage will be considered. For instance since divorce is way too common place, and remarriage of divorced spouses more and more the norm, will the Church change its practice and allow divorced and remarried couples to be permitted to receive Holy Communion without a declaration of nullity of their first marriage attempt? (My answer: No.) Will the Church relax its position vis-à-vis artificial contraception since way too many Catholics use artificial birth control anyway? (Again, my answer: not going to happen.) How about same-sex “marriages”? Will the Church accept them? (Do I even have to say?…).

A big issue that Pope Francis has put on the table is to take a look at the Church Marriage Annulment Process. Are there ways to streamline the process? Does the current use of Diocesan Tribunals to process annulments work or should we look for another model? (I’m all for that as the current process is fantastically, ridiculously, unacceptably SLOW.) In light of the fact that Jesus said, “ Let no man put asunder what God has joined” the annulment process has to maintain its integrity, which means the bar is high to prove a marriage was not in fact valid. Still I think much can be done to fix the process. Sadly most Dioceses don’t have adequately trained personnel to handle the huge increase in applications for annulments and most Bishops don’t have a clue as to how poorly their Tribunals are run.

The purpose of the Synod is to ask this question: based on the teachings of Christ how can the Church in its application of these teachings strengthen the family? What can the Church do to help civil governments strengthen the family, since the family is the basic unit of any society and a strong family helps make for a strong community. And given the present day challenges that families face how can the Church help them?

This is an opportunity for the Church to give the family a spiritual shot in the arm. But be careful about the expectations that are swirling about and even the hidden and not so hidden agendas some Bishops and Cardinals may have, don’t allow yourself to be set up for disappointment.

Ultimately this is the work of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit will prevail. So let us open ourselves to the work of the Spirit by keeping this Synod in our prayers. This way, whatever the Holy Father teaches from the results of this Synod we may be properly disposed to receive.

Love, Fr. John B.

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