Over the next two weeks, Catholic bishops from around the world are meeting in Rome to discuss challenges facing the family. The extraordinary synod, as it is called because this gathering of bishops falls outside the usual three to four year cycle of meetings, will shape the discussion for meetings in 2015.
The synod on the “Pastoral care of the family in the context of evangelization” could be a pivotal moment in Pope Francis’s papacy, demonstrating the degree to which the bishops of the world accept the pope’s vision for Roman Catholicism.
In a groundbreaking interview with the Jesuit magazine America in September 2013, Francis spoke about the need for the Church to engage with the world, to focus less on questions of sexual morality and more on the merciful love of God. He likened the Church to a “field hospital”, healing wounds and touching hearts; and, he cautioned against a Church that is too much like a laboratory, shut off from everyday life and focused on a “compendium of abstract truths.”
It is my view that these two images of the Church will be at odds, vying for precedence over the next weeks. The synod will either chart a new course, or reiterate the same old attitudes that a majority of Catholics have already rejected.
In the west, there are great expectations for change in the Church’s attitude and practice towards divorced Catholics who have remarried without obtaining an annulment from the Vatican. These expectations have arisen in large part due to the pope’s pastoral style and the groundwork laid prior to the opening of the synod.
In advance of the synod, Francis took a risk; he asked the world’s Catholics to respond to a questionnaire on the family. This novel approach engaged lay people, and gave them hope that they might finally have a meaningful voice in the hierarchical church. In the west, those voices make known that the Church is too much like the laboratory Francis wants to avoid; responses indicate that there is a significant gap between the lived experience of Catholics and Church teachings.
Francis took another risk when he invited his theologian, Cardinal Walter Kasper, to address the world’s cardinals this past February. Kasper, with support of the Pope, spoke to the possibility of relaxing the rules so that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could receive communion.
The German cardinal’s approach, which is to re-interpret and adapt Church teaching so that its pastoral practices respond to the realities of people’s lives, is in line with the image of the Church as a field hospital. But, Kasper’s views are not universally well regarded. Some bishops, notably Cardinal Raymond Burke of the United States, seem attached to the laboratory. They have publicly rebutted Kasper’s position, putting limits on mercy and insisting that nothing around communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can change.
This pope’s words and actions indicate that he wants a more open and missionary church, a field hospital not a laboratory. Has the pope’s imagery of the Church, and his language of God’s mercy and love penetrated the hearts of the bishops who will make the decisions? And if not, what will be the pope’s response?
While the topic may be the family, the Pope’s credibility is on the line with this synod.
Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .