Church Synod Recap: Micromanaging the Morals of Others

No one tweeted the Protestant Reformation. Pope John XXIII had no Facebook page at Vatican II. The Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, commonly referred to as the Synod on the Family, will be remembered as a postmodern effort at conversation in a church that has a medieval mindset. Tilt!

The theological production was truncated at best. Like any good postmodern drama, it is to be continued, though I expect no earthshattering changes in October 2015 when Catholics will go through this again. Change requires both new ideas and new methods; one without the other will not get the job done. All the Tweets in the world are no substitute for straightforward acknowledgement of a new reality. Alas, that did not happen and is unlikely to happen in a year.

Let’s belabor the obvious. The 180 or so voting members of the assembly were all male and celibate; none of them have been more than sons, brothers, or cousins in families. They have never been husbands, partners, or fathers who assume adult responsibility. It is one thing to go home to Mom’s for Easter dinner like a good boy priest, quite another to invite the guests, buy the food, cook the meal, entertain, and do the dishes as an adult member of a family.

I am not suggesting that everyone has to live the same way, but I am underscoring that the voters in this case had little standing on the topic they chose to consider. I would hesitate to vote in a parallel synod of priestly celibacy about which I have no experience. Until this unworkable model of church is upended, until those most affected have voice and vote in decision-making, many Catholic groups see no possibility of institutional change. I concur.

The 60 auditors, including married heterosexual couples, a nun, a few priests, and others were invited to add a modicum of diversity but not to share power. But most of them were the “good Catholics” who use Natural Family Planning and were otherwise vetted for line-toeing. Even so, one Australian couple managed to mention the “g” word about a Catholic family that invited their son and his male partner home for Christmas. Some prelates were aghast at the thought of such simple family decency.

As far as I know, no divorced and remarried people were on hand to speak from their experience, no same-sex families were part of the conversation, no folks who are open about their use of many forms of effective contraception, much less any who would receive a sympathetic listen to the story of their abortions were part of the mix. Many will say that expecting such is pie in the sky. But in 2014, I don’t think so. Not expecting what makes rational sense is to concede the terms of discussion before the conversation begins. Why waste the time?

The Synod could have gone on without media glare as similar meetings do except that Pope Francis spells change in the air. Many members of the media cannot resist his charms and seem desperately to want to report on a BIG religion story. One major paper jumped on the interim report that contained some useful language, though by no means the “earthquake” or “revolutionary” theology that some commentators proclaimed, reporting “At the Vatican, a Shift in Tone Toward Gays and Divorce”. A week later the same daily had to concede “No Consensus at Vatican as Synod Ends.” Given the heated debate this was surely an ironic understatement. Many progressive groups from around the world that work on family-related issues were on hand in Rome to provide regular updates and press opportunities, so the clerics and company were not the only show in town.

Dueling hashtags made for a fortnight of Catholic theo-political wrangling for all to see. Initial statements and the first report contained some very promising possibilities. Then the jousting started as blustering bishops panicked at the slightest suggestion that new ideas would gain traction. What survived the onslaught were “timeless truths” about how to exclude people who experience disastrous marriages. Words of welcome and mercy were replaced with tiresome, offensive repetitions of old teachings on same-sex loving people. Such efforts to micromanage the morals of others find scant welcome in contemporary society.

The voting men were ostensibly horrified by the notion that same-sex couples might have any redeeming features, or that there might be “charity in its caring…” rather than “weakening of its faith…” (par. 46 of the early draft) if divorced and remarried people receive communion. Dear God, what crumbs they quibble over and fall on their croziers to defend. Have they missed the fact that the worldwide pedophilia crimes and cover-up on their watch have left them without a fig leaf of credibility? No wonder no one looks to them to be helpful about the moral issues at stake in Ebola, terrorism, or environmental threats.

This kind of meeting is not new in church history. The centuries are replete with tales, usually told years/decades later rather than in the next news cycle, of dueling factions among the bishops, close votes, and dirty tricks. Hey, how about that change in the English, but not the official Italian, version of the first report that toughened up the language on LGBTIQ people before anyone thought they should be welcome? It was as if gay gremlins in the Vatican had inserted it in the first place. It was just like the old days before Google Translate, except now more people can see the shenanigans in real time. While the Vatican claims transparency all of a sudden, I respectfully inquire what their options are in an age when hacking happens and electronic bugs are the order of the day. Surely the Holy Spirit has an iPad by now.

What is new is that the players get photographed and audiotaped as they argue, that the votes on each issue are a matter of the record so where the issues lie is relatively clear. We still don’t know exactly why the three paragraphs on divorce/remarriage and homosexuality (52,53, 55) did not receive the requisite two thirds vote to be approved. Were they too progressive, too conservative, or both? And what were the men thinking in paragraph 56 when they lamented with injured innocence the prospect of international bodies conditioning aid on the basis of not discriminating against equal marriage?

It does not really matter; few people will read the document. They will rather rely on the McNews that told them that there was a little opening, a chink in the armor. I understand why. In the face of a smiling Pope Francis, and after fifty years of terrible theology, they prefer to believe, at least to hope for something better. As it turned out, the final wording was pretty much the same old same old: deeply entrenched anti-body, anti-women ideas that give institutional Catholicism its well-deserved reputation as an unwelcome place for all but the most rigidly observant.

What about the much-vaunted changes in tone? Changes in tone are no substitute for changes in substance. It is as if instead of saying, “Go to hell,” one were to say “Have a lovely, safe trip to your eternal damnation.” This time around, contraception and abortion did not even get a kind word. Tone deaf to women’s lives is how I read the document.

Still, the report of the doomed upbeat first draft gave millions of people a glimpse of what it might be like, what could be, and just how important it would be if the Catholic institution came kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Perhaps one day it will. No human institution, not even the seemingly impenetrable Roman Catholic Church, can withstand the torrent of history, try as it might.

Meanwhile, human civilization runs its course, with or without help from the Roman Catholic Church. Pity in this case, because it would be useful to have some seasoned ethical insight into how to respect African cultures and American mores at the same time, how to repent of the damage done to so many by so few, indeed how to bring diverse people into communion both at the table and in peace.

Fortunately, there are millions of Catholics who are more than willing to join other people of goodwill in these tasks, leaving the bishops to figure out how to tweet their way home.