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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