Synod 2014: Ecclesiology, Authority, Trust, and Fear as an Occasion of Sin

This portion of Francis’ opening remarks to the synod on the family instantly captured my attention:

“I therefore ask you, please, have these attitudes of brothers in the Lord: speak with boldness and listen with humility. And do so with great tranquility and peace, because the synod is conducted always with Peter and under Peter, and the presence of the pope is the guarantee for all and the custody of the faith”

“With Peter and under Peter,” cum et sub Petro, is a catchphrase that sums up the Catholic understanding of the college of bishops, of which the Pope is both member and head by virtue of his position as bishop of Rome, the traditional see of Peter. It is also bound up in understanding the authority of the pope, and of the college of bishops, and of ecumenical councils.

What struck me was that Francis is here asserting papal primacy as comfort. As security. As protection. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind even if you yourself aren’t sure that what you are saying is correct, he seems to be saying. And don’t be afraid to seriously consider new ideas from others, even if they seem beyond the pale. Nothing bad will happen. I am Peter, and I am here with you, and the Holy Spirit has promised to be with us when we strive for communion together.

That… is actually very close to the way I was taught it was supposed to work, but I have never actually seen it before. Just as the bishops, as successors of the apostles, are guarantors or symbols or sacraments of the unity and apostolicity of their local churches, in a similar way the pope, as the successor of Peter, is the guarantor or symbol or sacrament of the unity and apostolicity of the universal church. The papacy serves the unity of the church. It’s beautiful language, and the theological reasoning behind it was persuasive to me; I’ve just never seen it actually work that way before. (I’ve only ever seen an appeal to papal authority used to thump people, either inside or outside the church.)

I was quite touched by this: it made me empathize with those bishops who might be afraid of this or that direction that the synod might take. I hope they found it as comforting as I believe Francis intended it to be.

Others have observed that this synod finally seems to implement the Vatican II vision of synodality, unlike past synods which seemed to be rather pro forma affairs. This is discussed, and the Pope’s introductory remarks are further quoted, in the rather unfortunately titled article Pope Gives Bishops a Synod 'Bill of Rights' (though I suppose it’s an understandable enough title from America Magazine!), which is worth reading in its entirety.

[H]e addressed the methodology of synodality, and told the 191 synod fathers participating in this assembly to say what they really think, and do so in total freedom and without fear of consequences.

“You bring the voice of the particular churches, gathered at the level of local churches through the bishops’ conferences…” he told them. “You bring this voice in synodality. It’s a great responsibility: you bring the realities and the ‘problematics’ of the churches, to help them to walk on that way which is the Gospel of the family.”

This too is what I was taught: that the bishops are meant to be a two-way channel for the building up of the church. They are not supposed to be mere franchise operators, implementing locally what comes down from Rome. The bishop is meant to bring the charisms, the special particular gifts and wisdom, of the local church into the universal church when the bishops gather together in councils or synods; and to bring the gifts of the other local churches back home. In this way the whole church is built up and the life of the faithful is enriched.

And it is very consistent with the ecclesiology of
Lumen Gentium, which says in paragraph 23:

The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.(30*) The individual bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, (31*) fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church.(32*) For this reason the individual bishops represent each his own church, but all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity.

That was the opening of the synod. Now, a week later, a preliminary document has come out, and an awful lot of people seem to be freaking out about it. Much of yesterday morning’s press conference was apparently devoted to concerns that the document is somehow binding on the synod, constraining what it is now possible to say going forward.

On the one hand, this is understandable, given the specter of Humanae Vitae that hovers over all discussions of church teaching generally and the teaching of this synod on the family in particular. As you may recall, expectations were quite high generally that artificial birth control would be approved, and the negative reaction when the encyclical came out the other way so disheartened Paul VI that he never wrote another encyclical. And we all know how well that teaching has (not) been received by the faithful. Many bishops are not unreasonably afraid that the same thing will happen with this document.

On the other hand, it’s not that reasonable. Don’t forget that a huge part of the difficulty that many people had with HV is that Paul overruled his own commission by going with the minority rather than the majority report. The process was flawed: so lacking in integrity as to suggest non-reception of the teaching for that reason alone.

Furthermore, this draft that was just released was intended to be a working document. That’s how synods normally work — just like a lot of processes I’m sure many of us participate in at work. You have some preliminary discussion, then you write up a straw proposal to circulate so everybody can scream “I didn’t mean that!!” react to it. Then you modify the document to incorporate people’s reactions, and you get a better product at the end, yay! Right?

The problem is, none of us are used to seeing anything from Rome other than final pronouncements. Rome has spoken, the case is closed, right? But during a real synod, one that is implementing genuine synodality — well, to riff on a phrase from my UCC sisters and brothers, Rome is still speaking! 😉

And the strand of the church that has been pushing creeping infallibilism hasn’t helped any. True story: when I was in college, and trying to get a handle on the scope of papal infallibility, I asked one of my chaplains:

Me: Okay, so the Pope is only infallible when he’s speaking ex cathedra. But how do I know when he’s doing that?
Chaplain: Don’t worry, you’ll know.

She was absolutely serious. In 1980, pretty much everyone agreed that papal infallibility has been exercised exactly twice: once to pronounce the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the late 1800s, and once to pronounce the dogma of the Assumption in the 1950s. There was a huge ceremony in Rome with pomp and circumstance. It was a big flippin deal. She was right: you couldn’t miss it.

But that’s not anybody’s idea of papal infallibility anymore, not least because of how the document “closing the case” on women’s ordination has been handled. The lines have been blurred, perhaps in an attempt to bind the consciences of laity, because it is easier to invoke infallibility than to actually teach. (Check out Paul’s letters for what “actually teaching” looks like.)

Anyway, the point is, nobody — neither the laity nor the bishops — is used to non-authoritative statements coming out of Rome anymore. We’re not used to seeing anything that isn’t pronounced definitive. But real synodality, at least in the twenty-first century, practically requires that works-in-progress be circulated and discussed. That also allows the synod to potentially be enriched by contributions from those who are not directly participating. (One might even call it “spooky intervention-at-a-distance”, for my doubly-geeky friends.)

Some bishops fear that certain statements in the preliminary document will “confuse or scandalize” the laity. And here I want to make a final ecclesiological point: the bishops must renounce the fear of confusion and scandal among the laity as a near occasion of episcopal and institutional sin.

This fear has led priests and bishops, cardinals and even popes, to do terrible things. It has led them to sin against their flocks by covering up the sins of priests and coercing victims to silence. To fire gay principals and pregnant teachers. To say one thing in private and another in public. To choose doctrinal enforcement over works of mercy. To obscure or ignore the richness, breadth, and depth of catholic tradition and teaching, presenting instead an oversimplified, univocal, black and white caricature.

I understand the deep concern that a good bishop has for the welfare of his flock. As Augustine wrote, the office of bishop can be a terrifying thing, and the responsibility for souls is weighty. I understand the temptation to err on the side of caution by ignoring the messy complexity of the real world and focusing on simplified narratives with bright clear lines that cannot possibly be misunderstood. But the important word there is err. Ignoring is omission. Simplification is distortion.

You cannot care for our souls by lying to us because you fear that the truth will weaken our faith.

Dear bishops, don’t leave your boldness, your humility, and your trust in the synod hall.

Bring them home with you.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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2 Responses to Synod 2014: Ecclesiology, Authority, Trust, and Fear as an Occasion of Sin

  1. Pingback: The Dislike of Catholicism: Understanding the Holy in the Catholic Tradition, 3 – Theological reasons |

  2. Pingback: Blogiversary: Four Whole Years?! | Gaudete Theology

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