Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
Last year, the Extraordinary Synod on the Family took place in Rome from Oct. 5 to 19. The participants boldly examined family life in the light of today’s culture. They did not shy away from topics such as the breakdown in marriages, multiple marriages, polygamy, divorce, inter-religious marriages, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, domestic violence as well as the effects of war and immigration on the family. The heated debates, news leaks and media reports stirred vigorous discussion both inside and outside the synod halls. A sense of heightened expectation and anxiety now await the final outcome of those deliberations.
Just six days after his return to the Vatican from his nine-day apostolic journey to Cuba and the United States, Pope Francis convoked the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The bishops are meeting from the 4th to the 25th of October. They are revisiting the proposals that emerged from last year’s extraordinary synod. As the turbulent winds of modern secularism batter the bark of Peter, honest debate among bishops should never lead to simply accepting cultural trends. Divine Revelation is always the source for responding pastorally to the challenges of any age so that the faithful live out the universal call to holiness.
Just before the closing of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI first introduced the Synod of Bishops as a permanent feature of Church structure. The word “synod” comes from the Greek and means “assembly” or “gathering.” Every synod is a means for the Pope to consult with his brother bishops on matters of Church life.
If the bishops gathered in synod consider matters that directly concern the entire Church, such as the New Evangelization or the Eucharist, their meeting is called a general synod. Since 1967, there have been 13 ordinary general synods. If the bishops examine situations in particular areas, such as Europe, or America, their assembly is called a special synod. There have been 10 special synods. Since 1969, there have also been three extraordinary general synods to discuss particular topics, such as the Word of God in the life of the Church.
While the 279 bishops from more than 120 nations meet in Rome looking for ways for the Church to foster family life, the media have their ears attuned to their discussions. Many are already asking whether or not the Church is changing her teaching on marriage. They are waiting to see how the Church will adjust her pastoral practices to a culture that rejects the indissolubility of marriage and accepts artificial birth control and same-sex marriages.
If the reporting of last year’s synod is any indication, this year’s synod promises to be a feeding frenzy for those who are hungry for stories about passionate debates, conflicts, intrigues and controversies. Pope Francis has said that the media covered the 2014 Synod “somewhat in the style of sports or political chronicles.” One side winning. The other losing. Progressives pitted against conservatives. But this view of the synod misunderstands both its purpose and authority.
The Synod of Bishops is advisory to the Pope. It does not decide doctrine, issue decrees or legislate practice (Code of Canon Law, 343). In and of itself, it has no binding authority on the faithful. Rather, upon completion of its work, the synod makes recommendations to the Pope. He may issue an apostolic exhortation for the whole Church or choose another means to communicate his teaching as Pope on the matters discussed.
Ever since the 2014 synod, there has been some confusion about certain aspects of Church teaching on cohabitation, marriage, divorce and same-sex unions. Some are even suggesting the reception of the Eucharist by those who have entered a second marriage civilly while still bound by a previous sacramental marriage. Many of the faithful are experiencing some uneasiness with the very discussion of these issues.
As a result, nearly 800,000 individuals from 178 countries, including 202 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, have sent a letter petitioning the Pope to make clear what the Church has consistently taught. Last year, Ignatius Press published a book that five cardinals wrote defending the Church’s teaching. This year, another book written by 11 cardinals. All this to keep the synod on track with Church teaching.
But, what if the synod chooses to depart from Church teaching? What if the synod proposes practices not consistent with the doctrine of the Church? Could this possibly happen?
In the past, there have been synods, such as the 5th century Robber Synod of Ephesus and the 18th century Synod of Pistoia, which proposed unorthodox teaching. In the end, the faith of the Church prevailed. If a synod does not uphold the faith, the Pope and the whole Church have the duty to correct it. Synods are not infallible.
When the Pope takes up the recommendations of the synod, he himself is also bound to safeguard the deposit of faith. He bases his teaching on Divine Revelation as given us in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. He offers his teaching to help the members of the Church understand and better appreciate the truths given us by Christ.
Not every utterance of a Pope is infallible. The Pope is infallible only when he teaches ex cathedra on faith and morals. And, he does so after widespread and long consultation. Furthermore, he must solemnly declare that he is teaching infallibly and binding the whole Church to his teaching. This has happened only twice. Once, to define the Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception of Mary. A second time, to define the Church’s belief in the Assumption of Mary.
The charism of infallibility guarantees that the Church hands on the deposit of faith without error from generation to generation. Together with the bishops, the Pope receives the deposit of faith that he hands on. In July 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, in an impromptu address to priests in Aosta, Italy, said that: “The Pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations…”
Papal infallibility does not extend to the theological opinions held by a particular pope or to his preference for certain pastoral accommodations. Popes are mortal men and remain so even as they hold an office of divine origin. Popes are men of their times. They are subject to the currents of their day.
At times, popes revise their personal teachings. For example, in the 14th century, Pope John XXII, proposed that the just who die must wait until the end of time before they enjoy the Beatific Vision. This was contrary to the consistent teaching of the Church. After much prodding by cardinals and theologians, he finally withdrew this personal opinion.
As the synod now taking place in Rome grapples with contemporary culture in light of Divine Revelation, it cannot separate doctrine from pastoral practice. Pastoral solutions to present difficult situations must flow from the truth of Divine Revelation. The Pope and the bishops are subject to the Word of God that has been entrusted to the Church. And, the Church herself is servant, not master, of the Word of God.
At the opening of last year’s synod on the family, Pope Francis reminded the bishops that “Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas…They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.”
In opening this year’s synod that continues the discussion on the family, the Holy Father once again reminded us of “God’s dream…fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self.” He emphasized that “The Church is called to carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions.” He said, “The truth …protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centeredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds.”
As the bishops meet with the Pope in synod, we join in prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In following Pope’s Francis’ direction, may this synod dispel any confusion that clouds the clarity of God’s plan for humankind. For, as Pope Francis has said, “the family… has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.”