If you only read the secular media, you probably think that the recently-concluded Vatican Synod on the Family was a huge disappointment, an ecclesiastical gathering whose primary conclusions were a setback for 21st Century ideas about social relationships. “Catholic Church Scraps Welcome to Gays…” was the headline of the Associated Press story that went out immediately when the Synod report was released, and that headline was repeated in countless newspapers and online stories all weekend.
But the headline is wrong, and like most secular media who make hash of religious news, the AP reporters and headline writers went for the sensational rather than the accurate.
They also missed the really big story.
The really big story is that Pope Francis I directed that the final report from the Synod on the Family include the record of how many bishops voted in favor of or against each paragraph in the report — when has the idea of disagreement and even dissent been a matter of official record in the Catholic Church? The very idea that bishops have about as much disagreement on certain issues as the rest of us is a refreshing new thought. Some people find the very idea of disagreement on religious matters to be offensive — but not the Jesuit Pope who now manifests the respect for the dialogical process that is the hallmark of religious life (and academic life, too!). The transparency inherent in publishing the vote tallies shows a very shrewd strategy on the part of Pope Francis to engage this dialogue in a very serious and progressive way.
The big issues at stake concerned divorced and remarried Catholics and whether they could participate in Communion, and how open the Church might be to new forms of family relationships including single-sex partners. Nobody should expect the Roman Catholic Church to change its rules overnight. But the very fact that these issues are up for pastoral discussion is amazing news.
The other really big story is that the MAJORITY of bishops actually voted in favor of the Synod report’s controversial paragraphs on how to treat divorced and remarried Catholics, and the idea of a pastoral “welcome” for gay persons. [Note: I can’t link to the paragraphs here because the report has yet to be translated into English… Rome Time is very different from Internet Time!] While the Synod rules require a 2/3 majority vote to approve a report, the fact remains that the vote tallies show that the majority (but not 2/3) has moved to a more open and progressive place. The secular headlines about “Scraps Welcome….” were sensational but lacking factual nuance. While it is true that an early report from the Synod had more welcoming language, especially on LGBT issues, and the final report was more restrained, the fact remains that a substantial number of bishops — a majority — appear ready to consider important changes in the pastoral approach to these issues.
Anybody who thinks that the Catholic Church will change actual doctrine in a very short period of time is just ignorant of how the Church operates. This is a 2000 year-old-institution where change normally takes centuries. The insatiable need of the Twitterverse to have something to digest every nanosecond is just weird — and look at how the media treats other issues these days, from Ebola to the Hannah Graham story, the sensational headlines are a genuine disservice to rational thought.
The Synod process will go on for another year or more, and during this time we will have many opportunities not only to watch and listen to the bishops, but also to participate in the dialogue process. Already, in the past year, Pope Francis asked bishops to engage parishes in discussions about marriage and family, and they got an earful. In the year ahead, before the next Synod takes place in the fall of 2015, there will be many more dialogues around the world.
I hope that the Trinity community can become involved in this process of dialogue and reflection on the meaning of family today — not only is this relevant for our Catholic mission, but all religions share in the concerns and search for meaning, moral guidance and questions about how to adapt to modern times and modern ways of building familial relationships. Trinity’s very diverse community has a large stake in how these issues unfold, and as a community that emphasizes women’s leadership and role in society, we should have some voice in this discussion.
Meanwhile, if you are interested in following the news of the Synod, I urge you to read broadly beyond the headlines in the popular press to consider at least the commentaries that you can find from Father Thomas Reese, SJ in the National Catholic Reporter or Father James Martin in America Magazine, or John Allen of the Boston Globe and his new website Crux. The Catholic News Service also provides updates on these and many issues in the Church. Of course there are many other sources and I’d be happy to hear from readers about their favorite sources of news about Catholic issues.
More to come as the documents get translated….!!