The howls of derision from some quarters that met the recent note from the Vatican confirming that the Church does not bless same-sex unions should sound a warning bell for anyone looking naively at the idea of a national synod.
The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in a short document approved by Pope Francis, simply confirmed what has been the Church’s constant approach. One might quibble over some parts of the language, but it one should hardly be surprised that the Pope ordered the congregation to clarify the issue.
Most of the annoyance at the document seems to have come from those who believe that the direction of the Church should be set by those who shout the loudest.
This should serve as a wake-up call for those charged with preparations for a proposed synod of the Church in Ireland to be held within the next five years.
Bishops have said that they want to hear from people who have left the Church, and so they should. If we believe – as we do – that Christ revealed the Church as the means of salvation, we should not glibly dismiss the souls of those who have walked. As Pope Francis has shown, the Church has a fundamental duty to draw near to people – particularly those who feel themselves on the margins of the Church.
The challenge in preparing for the synod will be to manage expectations both about the role of a synod and the nature and irreformability of Church doctrine.
Will those who participate in the synodal way have an appreciation for the Church’s self-understanding which, for example, means that the Church has no authority to ordain female priests?
Is it worthwhile to spend time airing the many grievances that many people have about areas of Church teaching that cannot and will not change?
These are questions that will have to be faced honestly. Those who want to engage with the synod process – from whatever hue of Catholicism they come from – deserve the honesty to know what the limits of the synod process are.
Perhaps some of the frustration vented at Pope Francis over same-sex unions is that expectations have been unfairly raised.
This is neither just or honest. If a head of steam is allowed to build up in preparation for a national synod that gives the impression that everything is on the table this will only lead to pointless disagreements. It will also mean that people who have participated in expectation of fundamental change to Church teaching will walk away (again?) even more frustrated than when they began.
We must trust in the power of the Holy Spirit gently guiding the Church, but we cannot be naïve or adopt the approach that “all will be well”.
In his apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis proposed that the real reform that is needed in the Church is transcending traditional divisions and “finding other, better ways, perhaps not yet even imagined”.
Fundamentally more important than an actual national meeting of the Church in Ireland will be ensuring that we can find a way to unleash the synodal nature of the Church where synodality informs the way we interact together in parishes and communities.