I think it’s safe to say that the synod was a media fiasco. The last time Catholics looked quite that bad was during the U.S. clerical sex abuse scandal, but that was twelve years ago, and the Church has come so far since then (thanks be to God). We might never recover our damaged reputation after that disaster, though.
The recent extraordinary synod of bishops on marriage and the family in the context of evangelization (a.k.a. #Synod14) had the potential to be so beautiful, but it was essentially a hot mess. My immediate reaction was to stop reading any articles or even headlines about it. I’ve been an involved Catholic long enough to understand that the Church does nothing quickly and therefore generally gets things right the first time. I take a “wait and see” attitude. Your reaction might have been different.
In the end, the synod seems to have accomplished its goals: to openly discuss (a) the problems facing the actual people of the Church regarding marriage and family life and (b) the successes and failures in sharing (i.e. evangelizing) the Church’s teachings in the same areas. It was a discussion forum. The concluding document was not nearly as sensationalist and rough-drafted as the interim relatio (the one that got the media all worked up), and there was always a follow-up plan. Next fall, the bishops will meet again to discuss the results of the first session. Pope Francis is expected to issue an apostolic exhortation some time after that. Only the apostollic exhortation actually affects church teaching. The other documents are basically extra-fancy and important notes. They’re not the final exam.
In essence: everybody calm down!
One of the saddest consequences of the #synodfiasco is that the Humanum Colloquium was a huge surprise, got almost no media coverage, and hasn’t even gone very far in my usual Catholic circles.
The Humanum Colloquium, which was also organized by Pope Francis, was an international gathering held November 17–19 (right after the synod) on the topic of the complementarity of man and woman. The pope gathered with international scholars from many religions to discuss sexual complementarity and its reality as an innate construct, not a social one.
The two most incredible products of the colloquium were a series of six(!) videos and one roof-raising speech given by a rabbi. The videos were released for public viewing just a few days ago. Watch the trailer below:
On the very first day of the colloquium, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, gave a speech about critical moments in the development of marriage from the first scientifically verified instance of sexual reproduction all the way through Genesis. It was so astounding that he received a standing ovation. The full text can be found at Catholic Voices Comment. Rabbi Sacks identifies seven key moments in the development of marriage and family as the foundation of society:
- Sexual reproduction requires male and female to unite despite being opposites. Advanced organisms (from fish on up) cannot exist without this union.
- Unlike most other mammals, human biological mothers and fathers unite as pairs to care for their offspring. We expect fathers to stick around after mating and birth because baby humans don’t become adult humans as quickly as other mammal babies do.
- In contrast to ancient civilizations that practiced polygamy, Genesis shows us the family beginning with one man, one woman, and their children. Every person has an equal chance at a monogamous family life just as every person is equal before God. The exceptions (such as Jacob with Leah and Rachel) prove the rule.
- Love and forgiveness guide morality, and they are first learned in the family.
- Marriage is the the human expression of the covenant between God and all of humanity.
- Truth, beauty, goodness, and life do not exist within individuals but only in relationship. God converses with us to bring them forth just as man converses with woman to bring the same things forth.
- Faith has its anchor not in buildings but in families and communities.
His conclusion is that, when we pull apart man and woman, marriage and family, sex and love and children, to replace and supplant them as we wish, we lose our foundation. We must be “advocates for the single most humani[z]ing institution in history. … For any society, the family is the crucible of its future, and for the sake of our children’s future, we must be its defenders.”
Regardless of your personal response to the #synodfiasco, you must acknowledge Pope Francis’s long-term wisdom here. He asked his people exactly what they thought about the evangelization of marriage and the family. (In the Diocese of Austin, Bishop Joe actually asked us all directly using SurveyMonkey. You probably missed it; we at Austin CNM did! I’ve been writing a series on my personal blog offering my answers to Pope Francis’s questions.) He gathered bishops with lay experts to discuss their lived experience openly. He planned a formal follow-up discussion of the same topics to be held after a full year of reflection. And in the interim, he gathered people of many beliefs to discuss what we all know to be true.
What more can we ask from our shepherd but to call us each by name and lead us to the truth?