When Pope Francis released “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home” in June, four paragraphs on climate change dominated the discussion and media coverage of the nearly 200-page document. The so-called controversial passages garnered so much attention that they risked eclipsing the beauty of the text as a whole — a text that carefully and thoughtfully illuminated the interconnectivity of mankind with all aspects of God’s created universe.
Fewer than five months later, history is repeating itself. With the ink barely dry on the final report written and voted on by bishops at the family synod that concluded in Rome Oct. 25, four paragraphs out of 94 have been honed in on by the media as the only text worth discussing. The content of these paragraphs centers on the controversial issues of pastoral ministry both to divorced and remarried Catholics and to those with same-sex attraction. These issues have become the crux of a post-synod narrative that promises to keep the Church’s factions — their divisions clearly on display last month — on edge.
But while some synod fathers did make headlines for embracing Pope Francis’ call to speak candidly and not to fear making “a mess” in the name of synodality, it would be a shame if the primary takeaway from the marathon gathering was one of discord. As Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote upon his return to Philadelphia: “True to his style, Pope Francis has encouraged an open and frank spirit from the start. Differences among the synod fathers — including serious differences on serious matters — are part of the natural flow of discussion. Bishops at the synod need to deal with such matters candidly. Otherwise, nothing good can result. But ‘warring camps’ simply don’t exist. The mood among the synod fathers has been far friendlier than any commentators seem to imagine. There are no ‘revolutionaries’ or ‘reactionaries’ in the synod hall — only bishops sincerely trying to face sensitive issues and chart the right course for the Church in the light of the Gospel.”
Archbishop Chaput’s comments serve as an important reminder that participating actively in a synod is very different from simply observing one, and that the amount of agreement among bishops at the synod outweighed the disagreement. For evidence of this, one only has to look at the consensus in the remaining 90 paragraphs of the final report, on which all 265 voting bishops signed off. The bishops affirmed the indissolubility of marriage, called for the “rediscovery” of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and, while stating the faithful’s obligation to welcome and listen with respect to persons with same-sex attraction, strongly reaffirmed Church teaching on gay marriage. The synod fathers also offered concrete ways in which the Church can bolster family life through its pastoral programs, several of which are ongoing in the U.S.: increased focus on marriage preparation; better formation of priests, deacons, religious and catechists; and more input by laypeople, particularly women, at seminaries. We commend the efforts currently being made in this area and offer encouragement to the men and women who lead them.
It’s important, however, not to ignore how much work is yet to be done in terms of the catechesis and faith formation, particularly for adults, if any of these recommendations are to bear lasting fruit. Synods come and go. Reports are issued and forgotten. Programs start and stop. The most telling measure of success for these two family synods will be the emergence of families that are well-formed and eager to embrace their call to be missionary disciples.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor