Opinion: A Yes Nod to the Synod

The Synod of Bishops on the Family had hardly concluded last Sunday, and both “conservative” and “liberal” camps raced to express their dissatisfaction over its balanced outcome. But this rejection from both camps is probably a good sign. It literally captures the Church being a “sign of contradiction” – that is a good thing.

Vatican II was also rejected by liberals and conservatives. Conservatives rejected it outright. The liberals’ rejection of Vatican II came in the form of abusing and perverting it.

But that Vatican II was a gift to the Church and came at just the moment it was needed in history is a no-brainer. It has been affirmed as such by popes who are saints or saintly, beginning with Saint John XXIII all the way to Pope Francis himself. We lay people only need to remember that it was through Vatican II that the universal call to holiness took real traction. If not for Vatican II, we would still be languishing in our status as second class citizens for sainthood.

So the controversy surrounding the results of the Synod on the Family is not new, not surprising, and should not be cause for concern. The important thing is that the Synod, as Vatican II, has confirmed the perennial teachings of the Church, this time on marriage and family. Moreover, through this Synod, the Church has shown to the world, yet more deeply, a truth she has always taught and practiced from the beginning: the primacy of mercy.

Mercy, as Pope Francis suggests in the document that established the Year of Mercy, begins with the “opening of our heart.” And indeed, this Synod has fearlessly manifested this openness of the Church’s heart that began with Vatican II. In the words of Vatican Radio, more than breaking new theological grounds, the Synod showcased the Church’s “new, more inclusive way of working, which began with the questionnaires sent out to families around the world and concluded with the intense small group discussions inside the Synod Hall.”

Lest that last sentence give the jitters to some faithful, here’s the antidote: the word “inclusive” there was understood in a very Catholic way by the Synod Fathers. The upshot is that the phrases with the most unanimity in the final document on the Synod focused on the Synod Father’s union with the Pope, on reaffirming the family as “school of humanity” and “foundation of society,” the importance of grandparents in the family, and the necessity of sacraments in marriage. In others words, “inclusivity” begins with being “rooted within” the very Church Magisterium articulated by Pope Francis in the months leading up to the Synod.

Yet even the most contested phrases (84 – 86), which centers on the divorced and the remarried are hardly a source of concern. Indeed, they only highlight even further that the Church really is a Mother of Mercy; and this, despite and perhaps, precisely by, being faithful to her own teachings.

These paragraphs emphasize that the divorced and the remarried “are baptized, they are brothers and sisters…” and thus, “must be more integrated into the Christian communities in the diverse ways possible, avoiding every occasion of scandal.” As well, “it's therefore the responsibility of pastors to accompany the persons concerned on a path of discernment according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.”

But it’s not as if the paragraphs are just handing out Kleenex for drying tears. Instead, they hold up the divorced and the remarried to a serious degree of responsibility by asking them to make an examination of conscience on "how they behaved toward their children when the marriage entered into crisis; … what the situation is for the abandoned partner; … what example this offers to the youth who must prepare for marriage." This is tough love, a characteristic of all good parents.

One sentence, in my opinion, shone above all: “For the Christian community, taking care of these people is not a weakness in its own faith and its witness as to the indissolubility of marriage; indeed, the Church expresses its own charity through this care.” This is “caritas in veritate” (charity in truth) in all its splendor.

If one asked how the final document achieved this level of charity, the answer would be within the Synod itself. A venerable professor of my university, who was present in the Synod proceedings as a consultor, told me that he was particularly impressed at the charity that he saw among the bishops. One anecdote he narrated illustrates this. “A Brazilian bishop made a proposal that did not get sufficient votes. When an Argentinian bishop’s better proposal was then accepted, he said to the former, ‘If you want I can integrate your idea with mine.’”

Equally moving, as well, he said, was the reminder (later incorporated) from bishops who had suffered much under communist rule “to speak of the mystery of the Cross as the basis and source of all Christian life in families” for through it “difficulties and sufferings in family life are transformed into acts of love.” He even added that a Jesuit provost who was in the Philippines for some years spoke to him of the joy we have in our country, a joy rooted in the family.

So for all the reported “inside stories” of machinations and strife, we now know there are also untold stories of joy and hope. Perhaps, then, amidst the suggestions that the Synod of Bishops only left the Church in confusion, there is reason to believe, instead, that it happened was quite a good thing.

Robert Z. Cortes is a Filipino PhD student in Social Institutional Communication at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce, Rome. He has an M.A. in Ed. Leadership from Columbia University, N.Y.

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