Pope Francis CNS photo/Paul Haring

Risky business

  • October 23, 2014

Pope Francis sought a “sincere and open” discussion among Church leaders attending the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. Well, he got it. And then some.

With the Synod concluded, the conversation now moves into a wider realm as the world Church enters what portends to be a rancourous year leading into a larger synod next October. If what we just witnessed is an indication, we’re entering months of ill humour, politicking, confusion and disagreement. Hopefully, that’s as far as it will go and all those fretting about a possible division in the Church — the type we’ve witnessed among some Protestant churches — will be proved wrong.

But events of recent weeks provide reason for some concern. The Pope encouraged a free-wheeling, honest debate. And bravo to him for that. It would be a flawed Church that shied from sincere debate. Francis not only invited bishops to speak freely, he urged them to do so. 

The result, however, was not entirely what the Catholic world expected. Two weeks of sometimes heated exchanges exposed disagreements along theological and geographical lines on matters concerning the pastoral approach to same-sex unions and divorced couples. Then, strikingly and unfortunately, in some cases the disagreements were taken outside the Synod hall and replayed for the media. 

Not so long ago, bishops would have been censured for even raising some of the topics that were discussed so openly at the Synod. Now they are encouraged to not only raise contentious social issues, but to propose ways for the Church to accept, if not endorse, practices that since the early Church have been contrary to doctrine. This candid, collegial style of conducting Church business — moreso than the matters on the agenda — may be the real earthquake being triggered by the Pope. 

Is this what the Pope intended when he encouraged bishops to be sincere and open? Who’s to say? But it seems clear that Francis is intent on having his bishops fully engaged as the Church rethinks how to provide pastoral care in a world that is increasingly less receptive to its message.

The questions being asked are valid. The world is changing. Families are changing. The Pope is correct to wonder how the Church should react and to demand that his bishops find ways to respond that remain true to Scripture and doctrine. 

So far, the Pope has not suggested going further than that. He wants debate and ideas from his bishops that are truthful and faithful. But it can be risky. These public debates can cause confusion or unrealistic expectations from those following the debate in the media. They can also cause polarization, as witnessed in other Churches.

In the year ahead, the bishops should tread with purpose, but also with caution.

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