As the Bishop’s Synod for the Family comes to a close, Philadelphia archbishop Charles Chaput called it “a very good, very fraternal experience” and insisted that the 21-day meeting was “a lot friendlier inside the synod than people on the outside seemed to think … I suspect the final document will be a great deal better than the original working text.”
Meanwhile, New York’s Cardinal, Timothy Dolan, compared a number of the synod sessions to “a retreat, or a day of recollection. That’s because so many perceptive and enlightening comments arise that get me thinking …”
Both churchmen, however, also admitted that tensions—”creative tensions”, as Dolan called them in a thoughtful breakdown posted to his blog—were part of the 21-day event, as discussions pushed forward and contracted in the laborious delivery of ideas:
3. God’s mercy versus admitting we need it! Many pastors report that the big problem is not that their people feel they do not deserve God’s mercy, but that people feel they don’t need it! It’s not that we think we’re such big sinners that God won’t forgive us, but that we figure we’re such radiant saints that we don’t even need his pardon! 4. Wanting mercy versus wanting approval. The biblical tradition is that God’s forgiveness does not mean his approval. What some people want, as one bishop commented, is not mercy for their sins—that’s theirs for the asking—but approval of their decision to live in opposition to what God has taught. God’s mercy we can assure them; his approval? Sorry … 5. The “suffering Church” versus the “comfortable Church.” We in the more “secure” Church might speak about people falling away from the faith; these imperiled bishops tell us of people losing their lives because they are loyal to their faith. We worry about some of our people feeling “excluded” from the Church; they describe their struggling people “excluded” from jobs, society, culture, homes and professions—and at times even from life itself—just because of their allegiance to the Church … One exasperated bishop from the Mid-East whispered to me on the way out one evening, “If all we’re going to talk about are people with same-sex attraction, and Holy Communion for those invalidly married, this should have been a regional synod only for Europe.” 6. “Meeting people where they’re at” versus “Calling them to where God wants them to be.” As one wise spiritual director told me years ago, “God loves you where you’re at, but he loves you so much that he doesn’t want you to stay there!” […] Sometimes this creative tension is expressed by the phrase “All are Welcome” versus “But, to what?” Yes, we obey the clear mandate of Jesus to invite everyone. All are welcome! But we also realize we are inviting them into a spiritual family with clear convictions, and an invitation to conversion of heart which is as warm as the one to “come on in.”
Calling Pope Francis “a wonderful pastor,” meanwhile, Archbishop Chaput—in an interview with the National Catholic Register—addressed the tensions that have made some synod-watchers feel anxious about the future of the church. In response to a question about Pope Francis’ meaning when he discussed the need for “a healthy ‘decentralization,'” the archbishop struck a calming note, saying the Holy Father “said pretty much what his predecessors also taught. He used some new language and ideas. He had a different structure to his comments. But he didn’t say anything radical. I know some people were delighted, and others upset, by what they thought he said about a new ecclesiology. I think they misread his content.”
Chaput suggested that the media, both Catholic and mainstream, contributed to the sense of controversy and contretemps that seemed to accompany the day-to-day workings of the synod:
Bringing bishops together makes no sense unless you want them to speak frankly. And candor is something Pope Francis has welcomed—which I find very healthy. The Church could use a lot more of it at every level: honest discussion, always ruled by charity and respect. And those last two words—charity and respect—need to be more than just pious language that gives us some cover while we destroy people whose ideas we don’t like. There’s already too much of that in ecclesial life. It was obvious in the media coverage of the synod.
Both Chaput and Dolan ended their remarks on hopeful notes that were nevertheless cautious. Repeating the oft-noted idea that the Church is less “either/or” than “both/and,” Cardinal Dolan quoted one of the synod fathers, whom he called “wise”:
Maybe we just have to learn to live with a lot of seeming ambiguity, knowing that only God has all perfection, only the Lord has the answer to these questions that perplex us, and that all we can do is try our best to live as he has revealed, to rely on his grace and mercy, and leave it up to him to bring order out of this mess!
“The key lesson we need to learn is very local and personal,” concluded Chaput. “We need to behave like the Christians we claim to be … If we can do that, we’ll be talking about very different things after the next synod.”