03 July 2014, The Tablet

Will Francis still be the media’s darling after the Synod on the Family?

by Ben Ryan

Francis has a real and instinctive gift for reaching out to people and it has been met with astonishing positivity by the Western media. His personal phone calls to people who have written to him cause a particular interest. One, to an unmarried mother promising to baptise her child if the parish priest refused to, was almost universally warmly received. Another though, in which he allegedly told a divorcee she could receive Communion led to a great deal of shock and criticism from parts of the Catholic press (though not from the majority of the mainstream non-Catholic media). His comment “who am I to judge” to journalists on the subject of gay priests was seized on as an example of a new, liberal Pope who would bring radical change to the Church.

These separate incidents highlight a major potential problem for Francis in the coming months. A synod on the family will be held in Rome in October. Its working document known as the instrumentum laboris has already been published on the back of a consultation with Catholics around the world. The press coverage in papers like the Daily Telegraph has raised expectations that this could be what liberal commentators have been calling for – an end to “rigid teaching” on sex, contraception, marriage and homosexuality. Perhaps the Church will at last realise how few of its adherents follow its teachings and come to terms with the modern world.

They will be disappointed, however, as Francis must already know. To be unambiguously clear; there will be no reversal of the views of the Church on the central importance of marriage and the opposition to divorce, co-habitation, contraception or the recognition of homosexual marriages. What there will be discussion on is the pastoral role of education and mercy in reaching out to a society which does not necessarily share those positions.

All of which is one reason why former Irish President Mary McAleese and others who have mocked the idea of old celibate men meeting to discuss family issues are missing the point. Questions on how to discuss the more positive aspects of church teaching on the importance of family and the Church’s position with mercy and humility will be central to the Synod.  Bishops are exactly the people who should be discussing those issues because it is they who are responsible for catechism and care for Catholics in their dioceses.

This poses a different problem for Francis. The Church is right to consider how to educate people in its message on the family and right to reconsider the best ways of doing this in line with the issues facing people. But in doing so it is going to disappoint a great many commentators who are hoping for something more radical. The Church certainly does not exist to please the media, but it does need positive media coverage to help spread its message and its beliefs on what should be done. Francis has recognised the importance of the media, his difficulty will be in keeping them on side when they react against the synod’s proposals.

Ben Ryan is a researcher at the religious thinktank Theos

What do you think?


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User comments (11)

Comment by: Ed Rennie
Posted: 15/07/2014 17:27:57

I think those who are mocking 'old celibate men' need to seriously question how it is that their beliefs are in any way Catholic and are not just Protestant.

Comment by: Chris McDonnell
Posted: 08/07/2014 09:34:36

For me this is what has changed with Francis. He has not made sweeping statements that discard the roots of tradition, nor offered a whole tranche of new ideas. But he has shown a willingness to discuss our present difficulties, honestly and openly, in a spirit of faith. This is the first stage towards crossing the fringe of fear. It offers to all the opportunity to review, in the context of genuine dialogue, the issues facing us in these early years of the 21st Century. The Lord of our faith is not one of fear and trepidation but an open, welcoming God of love who is within each one of us.
As for him being packaged with Benedict and John Paul, no. He has offered a very different style and substance of leadership that will be remembered in future years. He has disturbed us where we needed disturbing. He has reminded us that we are indeed pilgrims in a pilgrim church

Comment by: Quinnstar
Posted: 05/07/2014 01:42:35

It is not a question of mocking the bishops, but it most certainly is a question of feeling that the bishops are out of touch with, and poorly qualified to proclaim on how family life is salvational and how it is not.

If there was need for a synod it was for a synod representative of the 99% to which representatives of the 1% were invited to listen and hopefully learn. Form follows function. The form of the upcoming synod, a meeting of representatives of the law-making, catechism-proclaiming celibate 1%, shows us the function of the meeting. It is to reiterate centuries, nay millennia old teachings, to the 99%.

As an historic church, one that exists in reality and is somewhat more than a second degree abstraction, the 1% - the celibate clergy and hierarchs – need to first listen to and then hear what the 99%, the majority of whom live salvivic non-celibate lives, are saying.

The author suggests that “Questions on how to discuss the more positive aspects of church teaching on the importance of family and the Church’s position with mercy and humility will be central to the Synod. “ First of all who has already decided what are “the more positive aspects of church teaching, ”? Why Mary McAleese’s celibate old men.

And the result will be the continuing exodus from the institution that is the Roman Catholic Church. Pity.

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 04/07/2014 22:13:57

The secular media have been very selective in their reporting and presentation of Pope Francis. What they like in the Pontiff is highlighted what they dislike is - at present - largely unreported. As with any prolonged propaganda campaign, its proponents start to believe their distorted representations are the truth.

Ben Ryan is spot on in saying that those hoping the Church will embrace the contemporary secular agenda will be disappointed. Soon the media will join the wailing of McAleese, the like-minded and their sympathisers - and Pope Francis will be placed with his predecessors Benedict XVI and St John-Paul II on the media hate list.

Comment by: Maryk
Posted: 04/07/2014 19:31:49

I agree with Sandi and am concerned that, when the Bishops go to the Synod, they will say that we don't understand the Church's teaching. We do. The point is that we do not accept it. Mary McAleese speaks for so many of us. I remember how people agonised about contraception. Most people don't go through that now as they think the Church is wrong. Better presentation will not alter that. Galileo was right after all.

Comment by: sprietsma29
Posted: 04/07/2014 18:52:04

That study of the “Sensus Fidei” ought to at least give P. Francis and participants at the Synod to declare that some of these issues need to be openly discussed and the wisdom of the people of the whole Church be consulted.

Some of the issues need not be decided at this Synod. They can be passed on to the next Synod of the Family for a decision after consulting the “Sensus Fidei”.

Comment by: Sandi
Posted: 04/07/2014 16:07:25

Mr. Ryan is correct in saying that the Synod will not result in changed teachings - that is a misunderstanding of the reason it was called. But Mr. Ryan is wrong in saying that "Mary McAleese and others who have mocked the idea of old celibate men meeting to discuss family issues are missing the point."

The reality is that the men who will attend the Synod and create "policy" really ARE "old celibate men". It is these "old celibate men" who miss the point. It is not surprising, as they have no lived experience with marriage, parenthood, and sexuality.

The bishops want to find a "new" way to teach the doctrines that have been rejected. They think the "problem" is that the laity simply don't understand the teachings and the natural law that underlies them. But they are wrong. The laity do understand the teachings and they understand what natural law is according to the church - they simply do not accept the teachings nor the understanding of natural law as defined by the church.

The problem is not catechesis - the problem is that the teachings have been tested and found wanting.

A new Synod should be called - the bishops should be observers, and the participants should be lay men and women -including many couples together, and parents. It should include gay people, including gays in committed relationships who are also parents.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 04/07/2014 13:54:46

"Will Francis still be the media’s darling after the Synod on the Family?"
Ben you take top spot for asking a very pertinent question. There is already evidence that some Tablet contributors are already revising their view and if Pope Francis fails to deliver then the love affair will really come unstuck.
On another point Mary McAleese speaks for Ireland's great and good. Extraordinary that she failed to address the issue of an elderly celibate priesthood until it became politically expedient for her to do so.

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 04/07/2014 07:11:01

Part of the dilemma that Mr Ryan outlined in the blog is due to Catholics (lay or otherwise) being rather indiscrete about discussing issues outside the Church.

I have always found it strange how Catholic journalists take to secular newspapers to discuss what the Church should or should not do. A recent Telegraph blog demonstrates this point (28 June, Mr Tim Stanton). There are quite a few Catholic newspapers around, not least The Tablet, for people to debate Church issues.

It is the family business. (My wife and I try not to have heated arguments about how to raise our child in the public!) Can the Church not sort out the Church's own problems on its own instead of having to appeal to the wider public?

Comment by: clairejxx
Posted: 04/07/2014 07:00:03

The document does indeed seem to reflect current teaching on the family and intimate relationships. The understanding of gender ideology, concerning the relationship between sex and gender, expressed in the document is poor and about 30 years out of date. If this problem and a better theoretical understanding of familial intimacy is addressed then there will be scope for Pope Francis to reach out to the oppressed and marginalised.

Comment by: cradleanglican
Posted: 03/07/2014 21:47:38

Mary McAleese is missing the point???
Are you joking
She's spot on, and from what I've read recently in the media, many catholics agree with her

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