After the synod: Questions remain, looking ahead to next year

Rome – I am zipping the last stray items into my luggage. As I prepare to depart from Rome after the Extraordinary Synod on the Family there are dozens of emails yet unanswered from friends and family.  “What did it all mean?”

Sifting through the mail, these questions appear most often:

1) Will there be a split in Church over the sexual morality questions because of what happened at the synod?

2) Is Pope Francis moving the Church in a different direction than we saw with Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI?

3) If this synod did not change doctrine, what’s the point of the synod? Will divorced Catholics be subject of the regular synod next year?

I am surely no prophet, but I cannot think that the Church will split over the issues raised at the synod. Two factors contributed to the confusion that might lead one to that question.

First, the synodal process was different. It may be that this new process will be retained, but the Synod Fathers may decide to use the standard procedures for the regular synod next year, when the work of this preparatory synod will continue. If nothing else, it is very probable that next year the whole body will see the draft of the midterm report, the “relatio,” before it is released to the public, if it is released at all.

Much of the confusion came from this synod’s “relatio,” an interim draft, which was written by a small committee and never seen by the whole synod until the press had chewed it up for a few hours. In the words of Cardinal Napier of South Africa, “A message went out [to the world] and was not a true message,” because it was a message based on a draft, not a final document.  But, as the cardinal lamented, everything that followed appeared to the public as damage control.

Secondly, this synod was media-driven in many respects. After days spent in the Holy See’s press office, it became clear to me that many of the journalists from secular press sources simply do not understand important distinctions within Catholic Church. Even a cursory review of mainstream publications indicates that few know the difference between doctrine and discipline, “dogmatic” and “pastoral,” much less the relationships between these terms. Thus you saw headlines like, “Church Says Gay OK!” Even less over-the-top headlines proclaimed that the Church had “changed” its doctrine. The day after the release of the relatio the headlines screamed, “Vatican backtracks.” No wonder confusion flooded the Catholic world.

This claim of change was erroneous on two accounts: it was not a final report, but only draft of what were essentially brainstorming sessions, and even a final synod report is not doctrinal.

As for the question, “Is Pope Francis turning aside the theological work of his predecessors?” This is a more nuanced question and answer. Each pope is called to present the perennial teachings of the Gospel and the Magisterium anew to his era. Perhaps the best indication of the Holy Father’s desire following the synod is his stated wish to bridge the extremes that he listed in his closing address.

The third question is the simplest. The purpose of this synod was to prepare for the regular synod in October 2015. In the year ahead the bishops of the world will study the results of the Extraordinary Synod. This preparation, plus prayer and discernment, is the process by which the Church as a whole discerns the path ahead.  We need a more complete pastoral response to the many issues that beset the intersection of family life and contemporary culture. As Archbishop Kurtz noted, this new pastoral dynamic must be framed with the Scriptures and set in the context of Church teaching. This is the task our bishops will tackle.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Mary Jo Anderson 32 Articles
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications. She was appointed to the USCCB's National Advisory Council (NAC) from 2010 to 2014 and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011. She covered the Synods from Rome in 2014, 2015, and 2019. She is the co-author of Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers). Follow her on Twitter @maryjoanderson3.