Pope Francis raises the Book of the Gospels during the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the Family in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 25. CNS photo/Paul Haring

The Synod’s curious biblical commentary

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  • October 29, 2015

VATICAN CITY - One of the most repeated themes during the Synod on the Family was the need for a more biblically based approach. The original working document for the Synod — the Instrumentum Laboris — came in for repeated and severe criticism for taking as its starting point sociological data rather than the Word of God.

The final report made substantial improvements in that regard, but there was throughout the Synod a troubling usage of the Scriptures, as they were often employed to make a particular point in contradiction to the plain meaning of the actual text.

The most spectacular example was given on the Synod’s very first day. One of Pope Francis’ “cardinals from the periphery,” Jose Luiz Lacunza Maestrojuan of Panama, argued that the indissolubility of marriage is contrary to God’s mercy, and asked the Synod fathers why the Successor of Peter could not be more like Moses, who permitted divorce. The clear implication, one hopes lost on Cardinal Lacunza, was that when Jesus corrected the teaching of Moses, He was wrong to do so. Lacunza employed the Scriptures to argue that the Vicar of Christ should be more like Moses, faced with a hard-hearted people, and less like Christ, who transforms the hearts of the baptized by sharing with them the life of grace.

Cardinal Lacunza was soon corrected by a fellow bishop and, to prevent such embarrassments from becoming widely known, the Synod secretariat requested that participants no longer put online the speeches of the Synod fathers. After that misadventure in biblical interpretation got things off to a bad start, we hope that no other Synod fathers were so egregious. Yet the use of the Bible was not infrequently partial and tendentious. There were at least four frequently cited biblical passages consistently put to use contrary to their plain meaning.

1. The mercy of the father who goes in search of the prodigal son.

The father in the parable does not go after his prodigal son. Indeed, respecting his freedom, the father facilitates his departure from the family home. It is only after the son is permitted literally to wallow in the consequence of his sins that he has a conversion, and decides to return home to confess his sins. He then receives the father’s mercy. The father is quick to give it, and eagerly restores the prodigal son to far more than he deserves. I think that we should chase after those who turn their back on the Father’s house, but we can’t use the prodigal son parable to that effect, because the father did not do so. He waited for the son to return on his own.

2. The Good Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep.

This was often employed as a model of pastoral accompaniment, the pastor of the flock gently entering into the lives of the lost and distant. Contrary to the prodigal son, this is a parable of God going in search of the lost, of chasing after them to bring them home. But it is not about accompaniment. The sheep is not at all free, and the choices it has made are not respected. The shepherd finds the sheep and forcibly removes it from danger, carrying it back to the flock independent of its own will. Nothing at all wrong with that, but the parable is not about mature pastoral accompaniment.

3. The disciples on the Road to Emmaus.

This episode from the life of Jesus, not a parable, is about authentic pastoral accompaniment. The Lord Jesus does in fact draw close to the forlorn disciples, walking with them and re-awakening in them their hope. Yet the entire purpose of the Lord’s presence on the road to Emmaus is to convert — literally, to “turn around” — the disciples who are going into the night, away from the nascent Church in Jerusalem. Emmaus is one of the most beautiful models of pastoral ministry in the entire Scriptures, but it is about more than merely walking alongside those moving away from the Church. The Risen Jesus walks with them, questions them about their experience, listens intently to them, sternly rebukes them for their foolishness and lack of understanding, teaches them authoritatively and, only then, reveals Himself in the Eucharist. It is a complete model of pastoral service; too often the model is presented only in part.

4. The Pharisees and the question about divorce.

This was the most stunning example of curious biblical commentary in the entire Synod. There were no shortage of denunciations of pastors who are like Pharisees, not least from the Holy Father himself, who concluded the Synod with fearsome rhetoric against the Synod fathers who most strongly opposed changing the Church’s practices. Yet it was the Pharisees who favoured divorce and remarriage. It was Jesus who opposed it. And when the apostles preferred the Pharisees’ option, thinking the teaching of Jesus too difficult, He did not accommodate them but promised that all things are possible with God’s grace. The allowance for divorce and remarriage is the position of the Pharisees; yet many Synod fathers appeared to favour their position over that of Jesus.

The final report of the Synod restored the proper priority of the Word of God in the Church’s mission. That begins by reading the Scriptures as they are, and not as we would wish them to be.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.conviviummagazine.ca.)

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