Have Mercy on Me: The Bishops' Synod on the Family 2015

If you think the Bishops Synod on the Family doesn't concern you, think again. It doesn't matter whether you are Roman Catholic. It doesn't even matter if you consider yourself a Christian. What just happened is that the institution that has been the most consistently controlling, defining social institution in the Western World for 2000 years has changed direction.

It was a subtle shift--more attitudinal than doctrinal but still...

The great futurist Buckminster Fuller once identified a phenomenon he called the trim tab factor. "Think of the Queen Mary -- the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there's a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It's a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all... the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it's going right by you, that it's left you altogether. But if you're doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go."

That's exactly what Pope Francis did last week in convening and steering the Bishops' Synod on the Family. He moved the trim tab of the hulking ship that has--for centuries--been increasingly exclusionary in its practices, toward a different shore. In so doing, he directed the big battleship of the Catholic Church toward the Realm of God. Never mind that there were no major policy changes; that wasn't the point. Never mind that the council was contentious, argumentative, and at times downright nasty. That's to be expected--goes back to the original Council of Nicea in 325. What matters is that it happened, that the questions of the family and communion, forgiveness, mercy, rules, human fallibility, and what matters were discussed in real theological and human terms. At the end of the day, getting the final word, Pope Francis declared mercy to trump rules and tradition asserting: Everyone gets to share in God's mercy.

It's nothing new, but it is still revolutionary--as revolutionary as Jesus is, was and always will be in the face of fear, hatred, and entrenched custom. It is as old and as fresh as the Gospel message itself, the story of the prodigal son, the workers in the vineyard, the stories of the coming Realm of God. The Pope in his humble, deeply respectful way, honoring all, returned us to the Gospel at the core of Christianity, something no Pope had done for a long time: the Gospel of Mercy above judgment: "The Church's first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God's mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord (cf. Jn 12:44-50)."

Jesus tried again and again to explain it to his disciples, "No, you don't get it yet," he would say, and then he would launch into another parable about the Realm of God in which all were welcome, especially the latecomers and the ones not expected at the banquet, insisting God opens God's arms to all who would crawl inside them. It is we who want to stipulate a doctrine of the worthy. Jesus did not. He called everyone and especially the little children. He broke the bread and shared the cup with all who were hungry and thirsty.

Consider it a sign: Pope Francis turned the ship of the Mother Church back to Jesus last week. He did not propose political answers or conclusions. That was not the point. The point was redirection toward what Jesus called "the Realm of God."

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky wrote a long section speculating what would have occurred had Jesus himself walked into the town square under the reign of the Inquisition. For close to 200 pages he imagines the Grand Inquisitor justifying himself and the atrocities of the Church under the rationale of order, while Christ keeps silence. Finally the Inquisitor explodes in frustration. "We are not with Thee, but with him, and that is our secret!" he says, pointing downward.

Subtle, yes, like a trim tab, but Pope Francis last week steered the massive heft of the Holy Roman Church, the oldest continuous institution in our midst, toward the Gospel message of mercy for all. I believe it just may be that, at least so far as he can direct it, the church is once again working for the Lord. Amen.