3 Lessons From the Catholic Synod on the Family

What did Pope Francis and the delegates to the Synod on the family achieve after more than three weeks of deliberation? The final propositions of the Synod will not satisfy every person because of the limited scope and objective of the synod. In addition, most of the issues discussed at the Synod will require further engagement, discernment, consultation, and prayers. However, there are three things which I like about what took place at the Synod and what it revealed about Catholicism.

A Spirit of Dialogue

The first is that Pope Francis has kept faith with the spirit of dialogue and openness brought about in the Church by Vatican II. Pope Francis notes in his closing speech that "different opinions were freely expressed" at the Synod, which led to "a rich and lively dialogue." It is so refreshing to see bishops, Cardinals, the pope, priests and laity disagree with each other. It is humbling and gratifying to know that my thoughts and teaching are not the best there can be. Disagreement and disputations help to keep everyone constantly engaged in the unending search which must grip all souls. As St. Ignatius of Antioch pointed out in the second century, the church is "like a great lyre, all of whose sounds while remaining different, must harmonize for a hymn in praise of the Father."

What obtained in the Catholic Church before Pope Francis was an atmosphere of fear and an attempt to enforce orthodoxy defined through a restrictive or one-sided interpretation of the Living Tradition of the Church. This led in most cases to an enforced peace and harmony of the grave in Catholic theology and the silencing, suppression, and punishment of the so-called dissenters. Pope Francis does not see the answers to the challenges of the times in a synchronist Catholicism, punitive Christianity, enforced orthodoxy, and exclusionary pastoral practices. Pope Francis proposes a Catholicism which embraces the symphony of differences while maintaining the unity of faith. Such a renewed Catholicism maintains the family traits of our Church as the bulwark of truth and fidelity while reflecting always the loving face of the God of mercy and the patient heart of the God of compassion. This spirit of openness and healthy disagreement should permeate all the structures of the Catholic Church from the Vatican to the parish levels, religious houses, chanceries, and rectories. Development of doctrine and improvement of pastoral practices can only come about through dialogue, diversity, and discernment of differences. I must, however, add that we need to find appropriate language for dialogue. Some of the points of view reported in the media spoken by some of the fathers could have been better cast in a language which spoke of love, compassion, and the beauty of the truth. There is a language of inclusion, compassion, and mercy which we need to embrace in order to touch the deepest regions of people's hearts over and above harsh and judgmental language spoken from a moral high ground and sometimes with condescending certitude about morality, spirituality and the things of God.

Cultural Diversity Within World Catholicism

The second significance of the Synod for me is that it reflects Vatican II's acceptance of cultural diversity. As Pope Francis said in his closing statement, there is "a richness of diversity" in Catholicism and "what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another." Catholicism is a world church which must reflect the cultural, spiritual and religious diversity of her vastly expanding mission beyond the West. Unlike previous councils and synods where the attempt was to impose common answers to problems and rules about compliance, Pope Francis encouraged each region to come up with their own theological, pastoral and cultural responses to the challenges facing the family. Maybe each region should be encouraged to go and experiment their pastoral solutions. Pope Francis has constantly emphasized that a decentralized papacy requires that local answers should be privileged in Catholicism over and above undue Vatican and curial impositions of rules and regulations on the local churches. Too much centralization of power in the papacy often contradicts the well-known Catholic principle of subsidiarity, that is, that one cannot take away the power of small units to meet particular needs and place it in the hand of a stronger and bigger power center. This denies freedom and dynamism to local churches and stymies pastoral efficiency, contextualization of theology and pastoral life, and the coming of the reign of God among God's people.

Indeed of all the seven sacraments of the church, marriage and family life is the one that is mostly conditioned by cultural knowledge, traditions, behaviors and symbols. Therefore, it will be hard to achieve a consensus on same-sex relations just to give one example because it is a problem only in one region. The same applies to annulment process for instance. In Africa, this is often a waste of time. Marriages are very solid in most African societies even in the face of social change and economic and cultural difficulties. Just as marriage is contracted in stages in Africa, so also is divorce effected in stages. Before two families come to a decision to end a marriage it normally takes more than three years of dialogue, mediation, reconciliation, etc. Thus, if after this long process the marriage ends, annulment seems to be nugatory and an unnecessary burden. As Cardinal Malula of DRC once observed, Africans marry three times (traditional, church, and state marriages), and I will add they divorce three times as well!

The Church of Sinners and Searchers

The final significance of this Synod is that it reveals to us the limitations of the Church in finding answers to new questions of the times. We are all sinners and searchers for the face of God in the face of one another and in the face of creation. Life is a mystery and we need to be conscious as Pope Francis constantly says that when we stand before another person we are standing on holy grounds. The fact that after two synods the Church delegates could not come up with definitive answers just reveals to us how much we need God's grace and the Holy Spirit to lead us to the whole truth. It calls for humility on the part of everyone so that we can hear the voice of God calling us to freedom. We need a new language; a new way of loving, a new way of caring, and a new way of believing which brings us closer as possible to the will of God in Christ. The image of Mary has always been one that the church embraces as a symbol of her true identity. The church fathers called Mary's womb the bridal chambers where the marriage between God and creation took place. In order to bring God to birth again in the new context of the family, we need the heart of Mary which is open to God's genuine newness of creation, the womb of Mary which was empty of herself, and the spirit of Mary which was free for God. Mary gave all that she received from God to the world. She received Jesus from God and gave Jesus to the world. The Church can offer nothing to the world except the Lord Jesus and all that he has given to us in his words and deeds. Faith entails among other things, stepping into uncharted territory with God in humble obedience to the God whose plans are better and bigger than our humanly constructed and limited approximation of divine revelation in our claims, doctrines, moral precepts, and laws.