Managing expectations on outcome of synod

The Pope has sent a strong message that Church teaching is not open to change, reports Cathal Barry

Pope Francis has given his strongest indication yet that the Church’s stance on marriage, sexuality and family life is not open to change.

In an address that would disappoint those convinced that the key meeting of bishops currently underway in Rome will herald radical change in Church teaching on such contentious issues, the Pope moved swiftly to quash any wild expectations.

Speaking at the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis told those present that the Church was called to carry out its mission in truth which had not been “changed by passing fads or popular opinions”. 

Likewise on the opening day of the key gathering, the Pope warned bishops that the synod was not a parliament where participants will negotiate or lobby.

Rather, he insisted it was a place of prayer where bishops speak with courage, pastoral and doctrinal zeal, wisdom, frankness, at all times keeping Church teaching in mind.

So if doctrine isn’t for changing, then what exactly is the point of some 300 Church leaders from around the world meeting for a three-week-long discourse at the Vatican? 

Talking shop

As usual, there appears to be two schools of thought on what the outcomes of the synod might be. One camp believes the synod will ultimately achieve very little – a talking shop with no conclusion. The other, meanwhile, is convinced of radical, tangible change. 

There is widespread division too on the actual purpose of the synod itself. One senior Vatican official told The Irish Catholic that he felt the meeting would be a waste of time, while others clearly see it as an opportunity for the Church to bridge the gap between it and the modern world.

What both the boosters and knockers fail to see, however, is that the fruits of the synod will unlikely fulfil either of their desires.

Rather than appeasing those on either side of the debate, the synod fathers will likely strive to find some sort of middle ground. 

They will reaffirm Church teaching while at the same time searching to find a way to be more welcoming, compassionate and merciful to all people, particularly those who are suffering and feel excluded.

Pope Francis’ address at the synod’s opening Mass more or less affirmed that.

Short and to the point, the Pope insisted it was the Church’s mission to defend “the unity and indissolubility” of marriage, which he said was the “loving union between a man and a woman”.

However, he warned that the Church must be conscious of its duty “to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy”.

Likening the Church to a “field hospital” with “doors wide open”, Pope Francis said it was the Church’s responsibility to “reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation”.

Turning his attention to the problem of loneliness in the world, the Pontiff said people are less and less serious about building a “solid and fruitful relationship of love”.

“Love which is lasting, faithful, conscientious, stable and fruitful is increasingly looked down upon,” he said, adding that it is “viewed as a quaint relic of the past”. 

“It would seem that the most advanced societies are the very ones which have the lowest birth-rates and the highest percentages of abortion, divorce, suicide and social and environmental pollution,” he warned. 

Concluding, the Pope made it clear that he dreams of a Church which “teaches authentic love, which is capable of taking loneliness away without neglecting her mission to be a good Samaritan to wounded humanity”. 

While the particulars remain to be seen, that is the dream that the Pope and the synod fathers are attempting to make a reality.

Yet the Pope went even further the following day in the synod hall, insisting that the gathering was an “expression” of the Church.

He urged the bishops gathered to be faithful to Church teaching, “the deposit of faith, which does not represent for the Church a museum to view, nor even something merely to safeguard, but is a living source from which the Church shall drink, to satisfy the thirst of, and illuminate, the deposit of life”.

The synod should be “a protected space where the Church experiences the action of the Holy Spirit”, Pope Francis said, adding that the Spirit will speak through “everyone who allows themselves to be guided by God, who always surprises us”.

Synod members would need “an apostolic courage,” he said, “which refuses to be intimidated in the face of the temptations of the world – temptations that tend to extinguish the light of truth in the hearts of men, replacing it with small and temporary lights”.

Those so called “temporary lights” were the subject of discussion at the synod press briefing a few hours later.

Fielding questions from the media on some of the ‘hot button’ issues such as Communion for the divorced and remarried, were French Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdö and Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte.

All three made it clear that everything was up for discus sion and indeed debate. Everything bar Church teaching that is.

Archbishop Forte insisted Church doctrine would not be altered but the synod would openly address the many pastoral challenges facing the Church.

Cardinal Erdö likewise spoke of changing emphasis rather than structures, while Cardinal Vingt-Trois declared emphatically that anybody expecting “spectacular” change to Church teaching would be bitterly “disappointed”.

Overall the message from the opening days of the synod was succinct and clear. While discussions in the weeks ahead may be the opposite, the synod will eventually arrive at some coherent conclusions. Only time will tell.