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Worried About the Synod? Here Are Ten Things to Remember


We've got the clash of cardinals, a bash up among bishops and vitriol in the Vatican!

worriedThe secular press are ecstatic over the idea that the Catholic Church has capitulated to the spirit of the age while conservatives are furious.

Many Catholics are upset about Monday's relatio suspicious of the process, believing that the whole thing was written beforehand, slanted towards the progressives in a back room deal and engineered by powerful forces behind the scenes.  All the usual rumors of Vatican intrigue and politicking are buzzing like flies over a corpse.

It's not very edifying, but maybe it's all part of what we have to go through in the church.

So here are ten things to remember if you are one of those who is feeling skittish about the Synod on the Family.

1.  The relatio is not church teaching

As Fr Barron points out here and the fathers of the synod said yesterday, this is a discussion document.  It is not a papal encyclical or pastoral letter.  It is not a teaching document or a definitive statement.  It is a summary of what the bishops discussed.  That the discussion has ruffled feathers both among the bishops and the faithful is no bad thing.  This is how we clear the air, express our views and move to a conclusion.  It's my feeling that the language of the relatio was incredibly vague, often misleading and confusing.  Let's hope things improve, but the main point here is that this is not the final word.

2.  This is part of a process

The Synod of the Family starts with this extraordinary synod.  This gets the ball rolling.  There are two weeks of discussion left at this stage.  You can bet that there is going to be a vigorous tug of war as the synod fathers continue the debate.  Today's news is that the bishops and cardinals who opposed this document are speaking out.  Good.  That's part of the tug of war.  As Fr Barron points out, this is the way the Spirit works in the church.  It is the old "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" struggle.  You make your point.  I tear it apart and make my point.  You tear that apart and make your point.  Then we find what was true about both sides and come up with the Catholic "both-and" solution.  After this extraordinary synod everybody goes home and the debate continues for a year.  Next Autumn they all gather again for the Ordinary Synod.  More arguments and counter arguments will be made, then after another elapse of time the Pope will write up the Post Synodal Exhortation which will be the definitive teaching that has come out of the process.

3.  This process is very necessary

Have you taken a look at the state of the family in the world?  For many, many complicated reasons the old model of the family is broken.  It is broken by human sin, but it is also broken by economic factors, cultural and social factors like increased mobility, disastrous wealth inequality, advanced medical technologies, artificial contraception, weird reproductive technologies, sexual identity confusion, feminism, homosexualism, etc. etc. etc. When we consider the global picture, the variety of different cultures in the church from primitive tribal people to sophisticated Westerners, what are we to do?  This debate must be done.  It's painful but necessary so buckle your seat belts.

4.  The synod is not an attempt to change church teaching

It comes across that way, and I've done my own bit of head scratching to figure out what is going on, but despite the confusion, lack of clarity and mess, the main attempt is to discover just how the timeless teaching of Christ and his church can be applied in the situation we are now faced with.  The breakdown of the family and the moral morass we are now in must be faced.  No good putting our head in the sand.  How on earth do we uphold Christ's teaching and help people understand it and live it?  This is the huge challenge that the Synod fathers are facing.  Will they make mistakes as they struggle through this swamp?  No doubt.  We must walk with them and pray for them.

5.  This challenge involves everyone

I think I can honestly say as a pastor that I do not know a single family in my parish who have not, in some way or other, faced some aspect of the problems the synod fathers are discussing.  You know what it is like.  Here a mother tells me her son is gay.  There a man tells me about his impending divorce.  Here a young woman asks defiantly why the church hates lesbians.  There a schoolteacher wonders what on earth to do about the homosexual couple who want their kid in our Catholic school.  Here a Catholic family struggles with their kids cohabiting, there an old couple tell me about infidelity and betrayal.  These discussions involve everyone.  They are messy.  They are heartbreaking and we have to wade through the mess together.

6.  It's okay to be upset

Some Catholics are wringing their hands with dismay, believing the church fathers have abandoned the faith.  They talk of becoming Eastern Orthodox or joining a conservative breakaway Protestant group or scampering off to the Lefebvrists.  Don't worry.  It's okay to be upset.  I'm fed up with the wishy washy secularist talk in the relatio. I suspect foul play.  I'm worried about the process and the players.  I worry about the rumors that the gay lobby have taken over, the faith is being compromised and the "smoke of Satan has entered the church."  However, I also recognize that being upset is a healthy part of the process.  Our faith is not supposed to make us comfortable all the time.  It is a battle and warfare is uncomfortable.  It is full of doubt and worry, fear and despair.  So buckle on your armor, join in the battle.  Speak your piece, listen to others and be engaged.  If you're angry or upset, well that's one of the ways to be engaged.

7.  Love is messy

Remember the subject of this synod is not some lofty theological concept, an inspiring saint or a serene spirituality.  It's family life.  It's marriage.  It's sex and babies and the whole messy business of being in love.  We're wrestling here with the most basic human passions and desires.  Emotions run high.  Hearts are broken.  Wounds are open.  All that we as human beings hold most dear, and that which we most fear is opened here.  Of course we need the unchanging truths of the Christ and his church to be taught, but we also have to face the messy, messy business of love and marriage.  We all need to roll up our sleeves, struggle with the big questions and work it out.  This is the subject of the synod and we should be prepared for the mess that follows.  Think of it this way: if you're doing surgery you need to cut open the patient, shed blood, take risks, make a mess and then fix things and hope for healing.  In the face of this we have to be patient, mature and kind.

8.  Some Things Change

The brilliant thing about the Catholic Church is that she is capable of change where change is necessary.  The Eastern Orthodox, some arch conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants never change anything.  Ever.  They expect the whole world to change for them.  Liberal Catholics and mainstream Protestants are at the other extreme.  They change everything according to the latest secular idea, fashion or craze.  For them the church is always and ever evolving.  The truly Catholic view is a balance between the two.  We hold to the unchanging truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ and will never compromise.  On the other hand, the expression and application of those truths changes according to contemporary and cultural needs.  The struggle of the synod is to work out that balance.  What can we alter in order to bring the gospel to people in the midst of our morally crazy mixed up world?  What can we adjust and how can we change our emphasis to do this without compromising the faith once delivered to the saints?  It's a tough one.

9.  The Holy Spirit is in charge

 So do you believe Christ's promise to the church or not?  The gates of hell will not prevail against his church.  From the beginning there have been battles in the church.  Through synods and councils and back room debates the church wrestles with angels and demons.  Read church history.  For that matter read the Old Testament.  God works his purpose out through conflict and controversy.  You can't win a war unless you fight first, and within the battle the unfailing light of the Holy Spirit is there shining bright like the sanctuary lamp in a darkened church.   As another Jesuit has written, "The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with  warm breast and with Ah! bright wings.

10.  Prayers and Peace

If you're upset about the synod have you taken it to God in prayer?  If we rely on our own human wisdom we'll soon end in frustration, fear and fanaticism.  When we return to prayer we return to peace.  We pray not only for the synod fathers, but for ourselves, that we might see clearly what God is doing in our church.  Prayer will bring us a sense of proportion.  We'll be able to see the big picture and go with God.  Prayer will open hearts to the love of Christ and open minds to the truth of his gospel.  I need to pray more.  Don't you?



longeneckerFather Dwight Longenecker. "Worried About the Synod? Here Are Ten Things to Remember." Patheos (Standing on My Head) (October 15, 2014).

Reprinted with permission from Father Dwight Longenecker. See the original article here.

Standing on my head is the blog of Father Longenecker on Patheos.  

The Author

Longenecker1Longeneckercps Father Dwight Longenecker is the chaplain of St. Joseph's Catholic School, Greenville, South Carolina. He also serves on the staff of St. Mary's, Greenville. Father Longenecker studied for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and served for ten years in the Anglican ministry as a curate, a chaplain at Cambridge and a country parson. In 1995 he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is the author of books on apologetics, conversion stories and Benedictine spirituality including: Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing, Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers, More Christianity, Challenging Catholics: A Catholic Evangelical Dialogue, St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule & the Little Way, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, and The Path to Rome. Visit his website here and his blog here where you can listen to his podcasts of his lectures and homilies and read regular updates.

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