I keep getting worried e-mails from friends about the synod that wraps up Sunday in Rome. They range from mild alert (“How do you think the synod will go?”) to serious alarm (“Did you see this article about Cardinal Danneels?”) to freak-out mode (“The synod is getting hijacked!”).
There is a very real fear out there that the synod fathers could take the Church in a revolutionary new direction—a direction opposite what the Church (and the Bible. And Jesus. And social science, incidentally) teaches about marriage.
Specifically, I think, people worry about sexual morality going out the window and the permanence of marriage taking a hit. Both teachings of the Church have brought far, far more happiness to mankind than they get credit for by taming sexual appetites that would otherwise get us into trouble and by keeping our marriages together through very tough times to realize the very happy times that lie on the other end.
I care about those things too. But a few principles help me sleep at night untroubled by the bishops meeting in Rome.
First: That there is plenty of bad news is actually good news.
The bad news is there seems to be lots of craziness happening at the synod.
The good news is you and I are hearing all about it.
The transparency is unsettling, yes, but that is why transparency is a good thing. I would rather have a messy process end in a good document than an ordered process end in either:
a) A lovely, ordered document whose presumptions and decisions are irrelevant to life on the ground for 93 percentof the Catholic community,
b) a bad document that got no public airing and so kept its tank full of crazy.
That we get to hear everyone’s ideas early means that Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila got asked “Would German bishops side with Henry VIII or Thomas More?”
And it means we get to hear that after all is said and done, “Synod Finds Strong Support for Church Teaching in Communion Debate.”
The second reason I’m not worried: I trust Francis.
Pope Francis is doing things the way he did the Aparecida document, a document the Latin American churches produced in 2007 with then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as editor and shaper.
His process then as now is to make a big funnel, with lots of input on the wide end and him on the other. The document creates a second funnel, with his document at the narrow end and its many applications to specific problems coming out the wide end.
Pope Francis sits in the center of it all, a man who has been excoriated throughout his career from the Left and from the Right, but has always backed Church teaching on every major issue that has come his way, including divorce, contraception and gay marriage.
His approach is the principle of subsidiarity applied to the Church. Rather than create a one-size-fits all solution to pastoral questions, he hears from lots of people, nails down the fundamentals and entrusts solutions to those closest to the problem.
Ironically, we Catholics accept the principle of subsidiarity with regard to random local politicians more than we do with regard to the successors to the apostles appointed by the Supreme Pontiff. But I totally understand why: we have been through the ringer in the Catholic Church in my lifetime, too often faced with leaders who plainly were not on board with some pretty basic Church teachings.
Francis’s approach is meant to preserve doctrinal unity while breaking the stasis that comes from the “wait for headquarters” approach to problem solving.
This approach is more necessary than ever, now that the European Church is on the wane while the Catholic communities in Africa, India, South America and China are growing.
Shifting power from old European hands to the faith-filled enthusiastic South—in other words, listening to the African bishops—is good thing, not a bad one.
The Bergoglioan approach sure worked with the Aparecida document. I, for one, expect it to work again.
(But it never hurts to pray.)
Tom Hoopesis writer in residence at Benedictine College.