Due to its fiery exchanges between conservatives and progressives some have likened the Synod on the Family to the Second Vatican Council.
While the synod is certainly in keeping with the spirit and mission of Vatican II there is one key difference and that is on theology.
At the council there was a team of periti -theological advisers - that included the future Pope Joseph Ratzinger and the Jesuit giant theologian Karl Rahner. Also present was Yves Congar, the Dominican whose ecclesiology has inspired Pope Francis. In many ways the work of the council was the fruit of these theologians labours in the years leading up to the gathering.
During the synod, however, it is the lack of first rate theologians that is noticeable with the exception of the German speakers. Cardinals Walter Kasper, Gerhard Muller and Christoph Schonborn have all been professors.
It is the development of good theology that might be able to provide some openings at the synod. In their small group reports the German speakers have reflected on Thomas Aquinas and the notion that principles of justice need to be applied to particular situations - there isn’t one overarching principle that everything fits into. This would allow, as the German speakers propose in their latest report, for an internal forum solution for giving communion to the divorced and remarried. This could be done on a case-by-case basis when a person reflects and forms their conscience with the help of a priest. The Church’s teaching on marriage would not be altered as this is about pastoral responses to particular situations rather than a shift in a general principle.
Yet this development of theology - which has won the backing of all the german speakers including the conservative Cardinal Muller, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith - is unnerving to some who cannot countenance any development.
At a press briefing today Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, pointed out that “doctrine and theology are not the same” adding that "many people talk about doctrine but they have no idea what it is.”
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Doctrine, he explained, is the tradition of the Church which is "not a closed shop, it is a living tradition” while doctrine needs to be lived rather than read in a book. He pointed to the difference between the First Vatican Council - which defined papal infallibility - and the Second Vatican Council, which stressed the collegiality between the Pope and bishops. Both express the truth, but in different ways.
The cardinal added: "We don't own the truth, the truth is owning us. The truth is a person we meet.”
Of course the synod is not defining doctrine and is there to advise the Pope but his remarks provided some balance to those voices inside and outside the synod hall who use sentences such as “the Church has always taught that” or “the Church can never change.”
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Nichols celebrates shift away from Eurocentric Church - James Roberts
Wuerl disputes claims of synod manipulation - Christopher Lamb
Mgr Roderick Strange, the former Rector of the Beda College, Rome, and himself a theologian, told me in an interview this year: “ ‘How do you know when somebody is going to tell you something that is untrue?’ It’s when the sentence begins ‘The Church has always taught that …’,”
Finally, Cardinal Marx, a social scientist, showed that theology and doctrine can draw on other sources such as literature - it is not simply kept in a museum or like a fast train with no understanding of the landscape around it.
He concluded the briefing by quoting William Shakespeare from the Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained/ it drops as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest/ It blesses him that gives and him that takes.”
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