12 October 2015, The Tablet

Synod: Can the Church cope with a bit of mess?

Anyone who familiar with family life knows that it is far from a tidy, pristine and straightforward exercise. 

Houses are messy - particularly when there are small children - relationships can be strained and sometimes it might feel that chaos rather than order reigns. 

Despite their difficulties, however, families retain a glue that keeps them together or, as Pope Francis might say: love is forged in the moments of trial. 

Through the synod Francis seems to be asking the family of the Church to be a bit more honest about some of the mess - that differences and disagreement that exist. More than that, he believes that through the difficulties, new solutions can emerge (the Pope famously told young Catholics in 2013 to “¡Hagan lío!” - “make a mess”)

The synod process has revealed the huge variation of concerns that exist across the world. 

The Church in Europe wants greater acceptance of gays while bishops in Africa are opposed to such moves. In the Middle East, church leaders are worried about migration and persecution while in Latin America it is economic hardship. 

This week Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec honestly admitted the synod fathers disagreed on whether communion for the divorced and remarried was a question of doctrine or discipline. If the latter then it could be allowed. 


A growing majority do believe, however, that the Church needs to find a new language to find ways to welcome gay unions and those couples whose lives do not conform to Catholic teaching. During last year’s synod a document issued half way through sought to do that by talking about the “seeds of the word” among some unmarried relationships while talking of the gifts homosexuals had to bring to the Christian community. 

Speaking to The Tablet this week Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez said he “loved” the language of that document which ended up being rejected by the synod fathers. 

Yet attempts to find ways through the mess of the Church can be unnerving to those who feel the entire synod process is a mistake. For them, the teaching on marriage and family is settled and the best outcome for this synod is to simply state once again the old formulas.  

They believe that Catholics have a nice, clean and ordered house of teachings to give to the world and the best pastoral approach is to present the doctrine as clearly and perhaps as loudly as possible. 

Many bishops from across the world are no longer happy with that approach, however. They can see the growing gap between official teaching and the ordinary lives of Catholics which in itself shows that that doctrine has not been received or understood. 

Pope Francis told young Catholics in 2013 to <i>Hagan lío!</i> - make a messPope Francis told young Catholics in 2013 to Hagan lío! - make a mess


It is also true to say that the Church is not, and never has been, a house for the perfect but a refuge for sinners. On Monday the Pope told the synod fathers that Catholic teaching is not a museum, but a living source while one of his advisers Fr Antonio Spadaro tweeted on Saturday: “The Church isn't a fast train of doctrine which runs without any understanding of the landscape around it.” 

The synod process has caused debate, confusion and a bit of a mess. It is, for example, unclear whether the Pope will issue a final apostolic exhortation. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle hinted that Francis will not do so pointing out that he might follow the example of Pope Paul VI in 1967. 

A decision by the Pope not to issue a final exhortation would demonstrate his trust in the notion of synodality, of Rome governing with the local churches. It was for this reason that Paul VI established the synod of bishops following the Second Vatican Council. 

In many ways it is easier for the Pope to govern alone as a sort of monarch - it is much harder to open up discussion, debate and disagreement.

Francis is taking a gamble: in two weeks we will be closer to seeing if it has paid off. 



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