The Word Among Us

September 2015 Issue

Method Matters

Three keys to Pope Francis’ approach to the synod

Method Matters: Three keys to Pope Francis’ approach to the synod

On October 4 of this year, the Synod on the Family will enter its second phase. At this gathering, the bishops will continue to discuss many of the issues they brought up during last year’s synod. But the issues are not the only important aspects of the synod. The process is equally important. Pope Francis wants everyone in the Church to have a voice in these complex issues related to marriage and family.

To that end, he has urged everyone involved to follow a few simple ground rules. He wants everyone to approach this synod in a spirit of constructive collegiality—something that will guard against a spirit of division and inflexibility. Francis’ approach is very much like that of parents who could employ a hard-line, top-down, do-what-I-want philosophy with their children but who choose instead to create an atmosphere marked by open discussion and expression—as long as it is constructive, sincere, and aimed at building up the common good of everyone.

In this article, then, we want to spell out the ground rules that Pope Francis believes are invaluable to the synod process. We do this, first, to understand how the synod will function and, second, to help us identify how we can use a similar approach in our own families.

A Spirit of Transparency. The first thing the Holy Father has insisted on is that the entire synod process be marked by a spirit of transparency. Last year’s synod saw the publication of notes from the working groups, an interim document, and a final document. The final document even included the actual votes of the synod participants.

Well, if this synod is anything like last year’s gathering, we will continue to see a remarkable amount of information flowing each day. Reporters will be given access to a daily press conference; to conflicting comments from cardinals; and to a huge number of reports, survey results, and sets of data regarding the way family life is expressed in the Church. Then there are all the comments that will come from blogs, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, and e-mail blasts from all across the world.

It is clear that Pope Francis is trying to dispel any sense of secrecy from the proceedings. He also wants to do away with the backroom negotiations and private agendas that can be part of so many large meetings—not only in the business world, but also in Church circles. He wants to instill an attitude of openness and accountability among all the participants. He wants to tell the world that he and his fellow bishops are trying to be as transparent as they possibly can.

A Spirit of Dialogue. Flying from Turkey to Rome last November, Pope Francis participated in one of his now customary free-form “airplane press conferences.” During the conversation, Francis said that the synod is “not a Parliament. It’s a protected space in which the Holy Spirit may speak.” And the way that the bishops will hear the Spirit speaking is as they listen carefully and respectfully to each other.

To this end, the Holy Father will adapt the long-respected Jesuit process for discernment and decision-making. This process rests on the belief that the Holy Spirit wants to work through everyone: himself, the cardinals and bishops, and even those observers who may not be steeped in the Scriptures or in the Catholic tradition. For he believes, as did Ignatius of Loyola, that God can reveal his will through his people, no matter what their backgrounds.

As pope, Francis has the power to silence any opinions that are opposed to his. But he doesn’t believe in a top-down method of leadership. He wants the bishops to take the time necessary to listen closely and to pray together. He is willing to risk making a mess for the sake of coming to a clearer understanding of the truth. And so he has repeatedly encouraged everyone to have the courage to speak freely and to be frank with one another.

Naturally, this kind of open expression can create a certain amount of discomfort, anxiety, and reluctance among the synod participants. But Francis is confident that the Spirit will continue to protect the unity of the Church.

In his closing speech at the end of last year’s synod, Pope Francis summed up this method of dialogue and discernment by saying, “I would be very worried and saddened . . . if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace.” Thankfully, that’s not what happened. “Instead,” he went on, “I have seen and I have heard—with joy and appreciation—speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage.”

No Fear of Division. Clearly, there are two distinct viewpoints that have come out since the first synod began. One view believes that doctrine and Scripture ought to be the basis for the formation of the Church’s disciplines regarding marriage, sexuality, and family life. People holding to this view place a high value on remaining faithful to the teachings of Christ. The other view believes that the Church should be welcoming, more like a “field hospital” that is open to everyone. People holding to this view want to make the Church more relevant so as to reach everyday people.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that those who start with doctrine are not sincerely interested in reaching out to couples who have been divorced and remarried civilly. It doesn’t mean that they have no interest in ministering to gay or lesbian Catholics. Neither does it mean that those who believe the Church should focus on pastoral issues first have no concern for doctrine. It’s a matter of emphasis, not of black-and-white thinking.

For an example, look at the Scriptures. They teach very clearly on matters of marriage and family. Genesis talks about how a man and a woman become “one body” in marriage (Genesis 2:24). And Jesus affirmed this teaching when he spoke about how marriages cannot be dissolved (Matthew 5:32; Mark 10:8). But at the same time, the Gospels show Jesus displaying abundant mercy over and over again. He offered living water to a woman who was divorced and remarried five times (John 4:13-19). He told the story of a young man who received mercy even though he had squandered the family fortune while living a life of sin (Luke 15:11-32). And he told us to forgive “not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22).

In reality, these supposedly “polar” views belong together. We should all be merciful, welcoming, and compassionate. But at the same time, we should also hold fast to the teachings of Jesus. Sometimes, it’s hard to hold onto both positions at once. There are not always easy answers. But we have to believe that Jesus wants to help us find the right path. He is too committed to us—to all people—to abandon us when we need him the most. And so we must continue to speak openly, to listen humbly, and to discern carefully, all the while confident that the Holy Spirit will keep us united in him.

The Final Word. It’s important to remember that this October’s synod, while it will encourage transparency, dialogue, and debate, is not the final word. That will come from Pope Francis himself, in the form of an apostolic exhortation. That document, which will likely come out about a year afterward, will contain the pope’s conclusions as well as his own teaching and reflections on the synod. As he said at the closing of last year’s synod, “I am here, and I am the pope.”

We do know that the Holy Father will prayerfully consider all of the input that he has received from the first synod, the surveys, and the final synod as he prepares this document. And when you consider all of the issues that the synod is wrestling with, it can seem like an impossible task. We can be sure that whatever he says will be cheered by some and criticized by others. But one thing is certain: Pope Francis is determined to shine a new light on marriage and the family because these are two of the most important issues of our time. In this way, it’s similar to the way St. John Paul II reached out to young people by inaugurating World Youth Days. It’s also similar to the way Pope Benedict XVI shined a new light on the lay movements that are animating many parts of the Church today. In each case, we have a pope listening carefully and reaching out with the love of Christ—all for the sake of building up the Church.

Come, Holy Spirit! So what can we do in the coming weeks and especially as the synod convenes? We can pray that the Holy Spirit will guide every person who will gather in Rome next month. We can pray that they will remain as open to each other and to the Spirit as possible. We can pray that a constructive brotherly spirit will prevail in every discussion. And we can pray that the synod will be blessed in such a way that everyone will see the entire Church as dedicated, courageous, and determined to proclaim the good news about marriage and family life to a world that is yearning for answers.