What the Church is Doing in a Synod or Council

What the Church is Doing in a Synod or Council October 7, 2014

“Mark, have you been following the news coming out of the Synod? I’m sick with worry! Some of the ideas they are talking about aren’t at all what I learned from reliable Catholic sources!”

Yes. That’s true. And that’s *normal*. A conciliar event in the life of the Church is when, in the memorable description of Fr. Robert Barron, the Church “holds itself in suspense” as it makes up its mind. We do this too in moment of discovery and decision-making (if we are smart). We find that we face a problem, one which does not seem to yield to ways we have hitherto thought or methods we have hitherto used for navigating life. The problem becomes more and more intractable and we realize we are going to have to *do* something since the problem is not going away. So we sit down and think. Are there things we have not considered before? Are there perhaps voices we have been ignoring due to blindness, ignorance, pride, or prejudice that we need to revisit? Have we sinned in some way by sticking with foolish habits that no longer serve the good we seek? We put *everything* on the table. Doesn’t mean we will *do* anything yet. Just means we are thinking and considering everything.

So, yes: the Church in council is going to hear from a *wide* range of voices at this Synod. Because the Church is a thinking Church here and is trying to make up its mind about a wide range of very thorny theological and pastoral issues. This is a phenomenon as old as the Church. In Acts 15, the Church gave a good hearing to everybody on both sides of the question of whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised. That means that the view that was to be declared heretical was given its day in the sun. And, by the way, the view that won out was, for the arch-conservatives of the day, seen as the “liberal” view that overturned two millennia of settled tradition. Likewise, at Nicaea, the Arians saw themselves as the “Conservatives” since “homoousious” (the term adopted to describe the relationship of the Father and the Son) had been condemned by a previous synod (though, of course, due to a different definition).

The point is this: when the Church has a conciliar gathering like this, it’s not because the bishops are looking for an excuse to drink wine at Roman restaurants. They are getting together to try to decide how to navigate the water of history in the boat the apostles gave us, using the map of Tradition. They have pulled the boat on shore briefly to get their bearings, pick up supplies, argue about the best way forward and then move on. Those arguments are, by their nature, going to be wide-ranging and open to everybody at the council who has an opinion, including opinion that scare conservatives and appall progressives. And it is quite on the cards for the Council to to come to startlingly counter-intuitive conclusions, such as when the Council of Jerusalem concluded that the deepest and truest expression of the will of the God who does not change was to declare that two thousand years of traditional practice could be abandoned and Gentiles could be welcomed into the covenant people without benefit of circumcision. If Vatican II had made that call instead of Jerusalem, the Reactionaries would still be having cows about it.

So: stop panicking about the wide-ranging discussion of the synod. Settle it in your mind to attempt the feat of patience as the discussions continue and to *listen* when the Synod actually comes to some conclusions. It will not only not be the end of the world, it’s going to be good and fruitful, as the guidance of the Holy Spirit is. Be not afraid. Live in hope.

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  • “what I learned from reliable Catholic sources”

    Besides all Mark says, keep an open mind to some possibilities such as:
    1. My own judgement about the “reliabity” of my “catholic sources” is not totally reliable. The only ultimately reliable source is God.
    2. Even if my catholic sources are (relatively speaking) reliable, perhaps they are also limited by their times, cultures, tastes and problems. Perhaps catholic truth is bigger than their understandings (or my comprehension).
    3. I might have learned many true and vital things from my catholic sources. Surely I have not learnt all, not even the essential. Perhaps I (perhaps we – bishops included) have to learn quite a bit more. And perhaps that learning is not as confortable and self satisfying as rereading our old beloved catholic sources.

  • wlinden

    Of course, if a reporter spots one of those bishops in a Roman restaurant ordering spaghetti carbonara, we will read “VATICAN ENDORSES CARBONARA”.

    • margaret1910

      Heaven help us if they order spaghetti alla puttanesca! 🙂

    • Andy

      and if he orders it with white wine – end of the Catholic world as we know it I am sure

      • chezami

        These truly are the End Times.

    • petey


      well they’d just be confirming what everybody knows …

    • Steve P

      It’s the carbonara emissions that should be most vigorously debated!

  • Pete the Greek

    I can’t bring myself to care about this news in any way, to be honest. By that I don’t mean I think it’s unimportant, it’s just useless to speculate on anything.

    When the Church wraps everything up and then comes forward with “Dear Faithful, here is what was decided…” I’ll read about it.

    Until then, meh. I won’t waste my time worrying about it.

    • Dave G.

      I agree. It’s not like we can do anything. We might as well sit back and wait.

    • Joseph


  • Ken

    Thanks for this post. Speculation of what is going to happen is one thing but a lot of what I hear are personal attacks on members of the Synod which are becoming mean spirited. There are millions of people that are not living in proper Catholic marriages. The Pope is also responsible for their pastoral care. He seems to be trying to find a way to also include them more fully in the life of the church. If there is a way to do that while still remaining true to the teaching of the church we should all be in favor of that. The people who seem to be most worried about this are the “Traditional” Catholics who don’t want anyone, most likely including me, in their elite club.

  • WesleyD

    The media reporting of the Synod has been ridiculous — and this time, that’s especially the Catholic media. The first speakers were a married couple, who spoke powerfully about Humanae Vitae and begged the bishops to explain the Church’s teaching better to those who find Church documents hard to read.

    And yet both the very “conservative” sites like Rorate Caeli and the very “liberal” sites like Crux ignored everything this couple said about their love for Church teaching, and focused on their anecdote about friends of theirs who invited their gay son and his boyfriend to Christmas dinner. And then they spun this point to indicate that this couple was trying to oppose Church teaching, when their point was that “the Church constantly faces the tension of upholding the truth while
    expressing compassion and mercy,” and that “families face this tension all the
    time” as well, and both of them need to find more effective ways to evangelize.

    Don’t trust my summary. Read it for yourself (scroll down for the English version).

    • chezami

      What? A polarized media radically misreporting on the Church and getting everything wrong? Say it ain’t so!

  • Alex

    “According to this story, a traveling circus in Denmark caught fire. The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made up for the performance, into the neighboring village to fetch help, especially as there was a danger that the fire would spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself. The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out. But the villagers took the clown’s shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed till they cried. The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried in vain to get people to be serious, to make it clear to them that this was no stunt, that he was not pretending but was in bitter earnest, that there really was a fire. His supplications only increased the laughter; people thought he was playing his part splendidly — until finally the fire did engulf the village; it was too late for help, and both circus and village were burned to the ground.” — Fr Joseph Ratzinger

    • chezami

      You seem to have a point, but I’m jiggered as to what it is.

      • pete

        That all the talk coming out of the synod so far, about becoming friendlier to the world and taking out offensive words like “sin” will make the church something not to be taken seriously?

        • pete

          Or if you have a fire, don’t send a liberal for help?

          • Rosemarie


            Or that “Clown Masses” are bad?

            • Alex

              Well, I don’t suppose they’d appeal to the Reform of the Reform crowd (if there are any still around):

              Father Lally explains that the theme of the liturgy that day is that they are all free to be fools. Before exercising this prerogative he exhorts them to catch their breath in order to catch the breath of the Spirit that breaths deep within each one of them and to lay hold of that Spirit. The congregation is also urged to be attentive to the word of God and to listen. He explains that in the world of the circus, in the world of fools, when anything goes wrong or anything needs to be sparked up with life there’s a saying, and that saying is “Send in the clowns.”

              The Boston Globe of 3 April 1978 informs us that Father Lally “removed his usual garb, concealing the clown suit he was wearing underneath. Immediately after the prayer, the platform in the middle of the church became filled with clowns and colorful balloons while the Paulist Center Musicians played ‘Send in the Clowns’.”

              The congregation had been urged to be attentive to the Word of God. The “Word of God” is proclaimed. The passage in question is what was known as the Epistle in the days before the great renewal of “the worship-life of Christians.”

              “Damn everything that is grim, dull, motionless, unrisking, inward turning. Damn everything that won’t get into the circle, that won’t enjoy, that won’t throw its heart into the tension, surprise, fear and delight of the circus, the round world, the full existence. Damn everything but the circus.”

              The “Word of God” continues with an item entitled “the Gospel-Message of the Lord”. This consists of the story of the Good Samaritan to the accompaniment of a mime by the clowns which evokes delirious applause from the congregation (audience?). And then, asThe Boston Globe reports:

              “While the priest put on his clown make-up (in seven minutes flat), the others began the acts, which consisted of carnival music, dancing and showing the necessity of being free to love and give. At one point, a clown standing alone was taken into the group and made to realize that she loved everyone, including herself.

              “At the end of the sermon Father Lally placed a red heart sticker on each clown’s forehead while everyone sang ‘Where are the clowns… Well, maybe they’re here…’

              – Michael Davies

          • Alex

            The best parables benefit from a little ambiguity. : )

      • AquinasMan

        I think his point is that if the Church turns into a circus, no one will take Her seriously on matters of salvation.

  • Jared Clark

    I don’t understand the panic. The bishops cannot change Sacred Tradition. If, and this is a huge if, they make a poor canonical decision, the Church will continue to live.

    • AquinasMan

      I think the concern is two-prong, and the first is a huge WHAT IF:

      1) WHAT IF the Church were to nod-and-wink it’s way into a response to divorce/re-marriage that leaves the doctrine formally intact, but ignored in practice with the “pastoral” wild card? (HV and all that).

      2) Precedence. the German “solution” would put just about every aspect of sin in play, where one can argue that the mental suffering of exclusion from the sacraments requires a re-examination of the nature of the relationship between mortal sin and sanctifying grace. It would inevitably touch other issues — cohabitating, homosex, etc. We would stop looking at sin as something concrete — an evil thought or action chosen instead of a good thought or action — and make it something abstract and interminably subjective at every level (“What’s evil for you, is not evil for me.”)

      e.g. Should a person who decides to commit suicide through euthanasia be given Viaticum on their deathbed due to their very real physical and mental suffering, out of “pastoral” concerns? Baptized Catholics may indeed start subscribing to “compassionate” euthanasia in large numbers down the road. I mean, +++Wuerl argues that Communion is just a matter of discipline, so why not?

      I agree with Mark, these matters will be sorted out in the end, but even though we’re just in the listening stage, and even though the HUGE IF will likely not come to pass, the idea that these things are being bandied about as serious possibilities, is disconcerting.

      Anyhow, I have to trust in the Holy Spirit…

  • pete

    What is this “gradualism” they keep pushing at the synod? Even though it’s a sin, it’s not a sin because they are only in the gradualism process? How would that work as far as confession? Say someone is living in sin (oops, some want to put a stop to that phrase), do they need to confess that, or are they going to get a free ride on the gradualism train. Seriously, does anyone know where they’re going with that?

  • Joseph

    I heard on Newstalk Ireland this morning on the way to work that the media is going crazy because, apparently, an old couple 50 years married from Australia addressed the synod to explain that they like sex a lot and that it’s saved their marriage. Of course the pagan radio hosts were joking about it as if this were a surprise to those Church leaders at the Synod (as if ‘Theology of the Body’ never existed or the Church has never had anything good to say about marital sex). I’m left wondering though, what was the greater context of this couple’s statement? Usually, the media doesn’t report on the Church unless it’s something controversial. If this was as innocuous as they made it out to be, this isn’t really *newsworthy*. It only provides a couple of anti-Catholic adolescent commentators who don’t understand Catholicism a bit of lame material for jokes that aren’t really funny.

    Searching online, I cannot find the story they were referring to. Perhaps they exaggerated the claim that it was all over the media just to get a few rather goofy and unintelligent jabs in.

    • Alan

      I’m also in Ireland and find Catholicism under attack all the time. The vast majority of the media is unwatchable, unreadable or unlistenable. Most journalists appear to be socialist and/or atheistic in their outlook. My advice: don’t support it, don’t watch it, don’t buy it.