Pope Francis’ Pre-Synod

Pope Francis’ Pre-Synod September 26, 2014

Source: Google Images - Licensed for Reuse
Source: Google Images – Licensed for Reuse

Opinions have not been lacking in the lead up to the Synod on the family, which begins in Rome on October 5. And now, as I read a preview copy of Remaining in the Truth of Christ, the response to by five Cardinals and some additional scholars to Cardinal Kasper’s The Gospel of the Family, I am more convinced than ever that Pope Francis essentially arranged a pre-Synod.

First, there was the survey that was sent out to all the episcopal conferences around the world. It was not an unprecedented step, it was just unprecedented in the media coverage that it generated. As the results came back, some understood them to be an indication that the Church should change her teachings on the typical hot button issues: contraception, allowing divorced and remarried couples who have not received a decree of nullity to receive the Eucharist, accepting the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex marriage, and so on.

But, secondly, in December 2013, as the Vatican awaited the survey results, Francis addressed the International Theological Commission on the topic of sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful – a somewhat complex theological term).

This witness pertains to the People of God, a People of prophets, in its entirety. By the gift of the Holy Spirit, the members of the Church possess a ‘sense of faith’. This is a kind of ‘spiritual instinct’ that makes us ‘sentire cum Ecclesia’ [think with the mind of the Church] and to discern that which is in conformity with the apostolic faith and is in the spirit of the Gospel. Of course, the ‘sensus fidelium’ [sense of the faithful] cannot be confused with the sociological reality of a majority opinion. It is, therefore, important—and one of your tasks—to develop criteria that allow the authentic expressions of the ‘sensus fidelium’ to be discerned.For its part, the Magisterium has the duty to be attentive to what the Spirit says to the Churches through authentic manifestations of the sensus fidelium. There come to mind the two numbers, 8 and 12, of Lumen Gentium, which is so strong in fact about this.  This attention is of greatest importance for theologians. Pope Benedict XVI often pointed out that the theologian must remain attentive to the faith lived by the humble and the small, to whom it pleased the Father to reveal that which He had hidden from the learned and the wise. (cf. Matthew 11:25-26. Homily in the Mass with the International Theological Commission, December 1, 2009). [Emphasis mine.]

This was a very important preface to the survey results. The Pope was clearly indicating that the survey was not an opinion poll. From my point of view, it was a performance review. The survey showed just how poorly Church teachings are understood. In other words, we as a Church have done a mediocre job of living and communicating what the Church teaches.

The survey results continued to generate a lot of media hype.

Then, thirdly, the extraordinary consistory in preparation for the Synod happened in February 2014. Cardinal Kasper addressed the Cardinals and introduced some very challenging themes, ideas that seem to go counter to existing Church teaching. The Vatican reported:

The introductory presentation by Cardinal Kasper, which will not be published as it was intended for use within the context of the meeting by participants only – occupied almost the entire morning, with the exception of the last ten minutes in which a few comments were made. However, this afternoon and tomorrow morning will be dedicated to comment and discussion.

In all honesty, I don’t find the reporting to be all that forthcoming as later reporting and the Cardinal’s own book indicated quite clearly that his presentation had been innovative, to say the least.

Again, step back and look at what happened. It was sort of a release valve. Debates and unpleasantries that could’ve happened during the Synod happened before instead. The media has hammered the issues requiring responses which have been forthcoming from many, many Catholic voices, turning the preparation for the Synod into a teaching moment as well as allowing participants to prepare more carefully.

Now as I read Remaining in the Truth of Christ, I am seeing a really necessary catechesis and exegesis put forth by some of the Church’s best minds. It’s also refreshing to see the Cardinals, including Cardinal Kasper, doing the work of really testing what the Church teaches. So often, it becomes very easy to see them as having little more than a decorative role, you know, showing up in fancy vestments for big Church events. Even if they’re disagreeing, they are doing the thoughtful and necessary work of helping the Church to conform more to Christ.

Cardinal Burke recently commented on the media hijacking the Synod. I agree that it looks like they might be trying to do so. But I also think that Pope Francis’s words, decisions, and actions may have been a brilliant strategy to essentially hold a pre-synod, one in which Cardinal Burke’s contribution, as in this new book Remaining in the Truth of Christprovide a fantastic basis for moving the conversation in a constructive direction. As the interview above reports:

The danger, Cardinal Burke continued, is that “the media has created a situation in which people expect that there are going to be these major changes which would, in fact, constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible.”

“That’s why it’s very important for those who are in charge to be very clear,” he said.

I’ve never attended a large meeting that didn’t require a lot of management to stay on track. This pre-synod of sorts may just have accomplished a great deal. It’s allowed for a lot of work of clarifying to be done. No doubt the upcoming Synod and the time until the companion Synod in 2015 will generate even more controversy, resulting – one hopes – in conversation, additional clarification, better teaching, and – most importantly – lives lived closer to the truth of Christ.





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