By Archbishop Mark Coleridge
THE Synod next October has been much on my mind. What time I’ve been able to gouge out of the diary I’ve spent boning up on the many complex issues that will be on the table at the Synod.
The more you look at them, the more complex they become.
But the Synod has been on many other minds as well, which is the way it’s meant to be.
I’ve spent time catching up with what people think should be said and done by the Synod. This listening phase is a crucial part of the Synod process.
As I said to the clergy at the convocation before Holy Week where we discussed the Synod theme (with the help of some married couples), “This isn’t just preparation for the Synod; this is the Synod. It’s part of the Synod process, the journey we’re on together”.
I’ve met with people, read texts that have been sent to me and trawled through responses to the questionnaire. I’ve also been following various discussions taking place overseas.
My impression is that, though the voices are many, the viewpoints are few.
They range from one end of the spectrum to the other; but there’s a certain predictability about them, with few surprises.
Increasingly I’ve come to think that we need some lateral thinking not just about the hot-button issues, but about the Synod process as a whole.
On the hot-button issues that have received all the media attention, we need to rise above the predictable antagonisms that range from an insistence that Church teaching be reiterated holus-bolus, to an insistence that Church teaching be summarily overturned.
With regard to the Synod process, we need to keep in mind the nature of this particular Synod journey.
In some ways, it’s more like the Second Vatican Council where much of the real fermentation happened between the five sessions rather than during them. That’s the kind of fermentation that’s going on now.
The Synod journey began when Pope Francis announced the two Synods. We then had the preparation for the first Synod, followed by the Synod itself last October.
Now we have the response to the first Synod which is also preparation for the next Synod. And the Synod journey won’t end on October 25 this year.
A whole new phase of the Synod process will begin then and will be given added impetus, I suspect, by the Jubilee of Mercy.
Good pastoral planning, like good pastoral care, is always based on the facts as they are rather than as we might wish them to be; and that is true of the Synod.
Here I think of the oft-quoted maxim: “the facts are friendly”.
In the area of marriage and the family, the facts don’t seem too friendly to the Catholic Church.
Yet in the end they are friendly, because the incarnate God is somewhere, somehow in the facts; and God is always friendly, though isn’t always obvious either.
No-one doubts that the gap between the facts on the ground and the Church’s teaching has grown wider; the Synod last year made that clear.
The question is what we do about that. Theoretically, one option is simply to cave into the facts and adjust Church teaching to match them.
But that’s not going to happen, nor should it.
Another theoretical option is simply to lament or condemn the facts and go on repeating Church teaching in the hope that the facts might eventually change to match it.
But there’s no sign that the facts on the ground will change any time soon to match Church teaching.
We need a new kind of dialogue between the facts and the teaching – a dialogue respectful of both. This will require some genuinely lateral thinking or, better, a kind of apostolic imagination. It will also need to have a practical edge.
The Synod last October sought to name the current challenges to marriage and the family; its task was diagnosis.
The Synod next October will have the task of prescribing remedies, by which I mean strategies flowing from the dialogue between the facts and the teaching.
The Synod can’t afford to be theoretical or evasive.
It will need to come up with practical strategies, or at least set in place a process that will come up with such strategies.
The Pope’s choice of theme for this two-part Synod was shrewd; because in many ways marriage and the family is where the rubber hits the road, not just for the Church but for society as a whole.
In the end, the larger issue which the Synod must address is how the Gospel can more powerfully and creatively engage contemporary culture.
That won’t happen if we simply stand back and watch as Church teaching and contemporary culture drift further apart – or simply look the other way in a gesture of denial.
A new engagement of Gospel and culture was at the heart of the Second Vatican Council and it’s at the heart of this Synod process.
Yet the Catholic Church embraces many cultures; and that will be clear at the Synod as it was at our clergy convocation.
A widely read book on the Second Vatican Council bore the title “The Rhine Flows into the Tiber”, pointing to the decisive influence of theologies and personalities from northern Europe in shaping the outcomes of the Council.
Through the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI – and even in the recent interventions of Cardinal Walter Kasper – the Rhine has continued to flow into the Tiber.
But things have changed and are changing.
I suspect that, at the next Synod, we may see the Rhine revert to its traditional course as the Niger, the Ganges, the Yangtze and the Amazon flow into the Tiber.
Some of the hot-button issues in the hitherto dominant cultures of the West barely appear on the radar screen elsewhere; and hot-button issues elsewhere don’t figure in the West.
That will have its effect at the Synod.
The colour of the face of the Bride of Christ is darkening by the day as the centre of gravity in the Church moves from the so-called First World to Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The Bride is looking different, but she’s also sounding different.
The Synod may well be a moment when the Churches of the First World have to listen rather than speak, to learn rather than teach.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge is the Archbishop of Brisbane.