In one of the most touching moments on record for any synod, a three-month-old – Davide Paloni , who spent the whole of the first day in the Synod Hall with his mother and father (lay missionaries invited to participate) – added his voice to those of the Synod Fathers, as they were singing the Salve Regina together Monday evening at the end of their deliberations. That may well turn out to be the moment of greatest innocence and harmony for the whole Synod. Because despite the evident effort by all parties to be on their best behavior, some differences, perhaps outright divisions, began to show themselves Tuesday.
A half century ago, the world famous French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote a groundbreaking study of how cultures generate mythologies, titled The Crude [or Raw] and the Cooked . His main contention, which he demonstrated from various tribal cultures, was that opposed terms like “raw” and “cooked” are often crucial dividing lines, from which arise whole explanatory systems of the world. I’ve been thinking that if he were around today and observing the Synod on the Family, he might note the odd way that the Church now speaks of the world and Herself in terms of “open” and “closed.”
This may seem a bit esoteric, but bear with me for a moment and you’ll see below the concrete consequences for the debates Monday and Tuesday in the Synod Hall. The classic Christian understanding of the world is that, through sin, the human race fell and separated itself from God. In a concrete sense, it became “closed” in on itself. Until, after preparing the way via hints and prophecies in the Old Testament, God became man in Jesus Christ, revealing the whole plan of divine salvation and “opening” the human race to the fullness of reality and truth again.
This sort or language was differently applied – and in some ways reversed in meaning – at the Second Vatican Council, which is often described as an “opening” to the world by a Church that had allegedly become “closed” in on itself. Pope Francis often thinks along these lines, and speaks of the need to “go out,” not remain shut up inside the Church. An important point because, in a way, even God was not content to remain wholly within Himself, like the aloof Absolute Being of the philosophers, but chose to become Man, to go out into the world for the sake of opening it up to Himself. After Vatican II, however, the Church didn’t evangelize the world; the opening largely meant that the world evangelized the Church, until the counterrevolution led by St. John Paul II
It’s when we come to concrete cases, however, that things really start to get confusing. The First Part of the Instrumentum laboris, the working plan for the Synod, is being discussed this week (Parts Two and Three – the latter devoted to practical solutions, will each also get a week of study). Part One examines the anthropological and sociological realities of marriage today , but as many have noted, not from the kind of theological anthropology I’ve just described. Somehow, the “reality” we must now be “open” to is largely that same old world, “closed” to God that the whole story of salvation was intended to overcome. Since this has already been tried once, it’s difficult to say what’s going to be different this time.
There is no little confusion about exactly what all this means, too, and how the Synod, therefore, will proceed. So much so that Cardinal Baldisseri, who is again presiding this year, had to explain the changed rules (again) yesterday morning, a move that was described during Tuesday’s press briefing as necessary because for many participants this is their first synod. Perhaps so, but there is also palpable anxiety and open discontent with the new procedures, which will certainly not be as “open” as in past synods. Some participants have even suggested that the whole working plan be scrapped and replaced so that the discussions will be more transparent, and the content less closed to Scriptural and doctrinal perspectives.
The nervousness about all this must even have reached Pope Francis, who took the unusual step of speaking to the participants early Tuesday. According to Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Holy Father wanted to clarify two things: that nothing from last year’s synod “touched” established doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage; and that this year’s synod should not be regarded as limited to questions about Communion for divorced/remarrieds, but should be “open” to the many other challenges facing the family in the modern world.
He added that the only documents from last year that should be considered as “officially” to be followed are his own opening and closing remarks, and the final report approved by the bishops, and elaborated in the Instrumentum.
The Vatican Press Office adopted a somewhat unusual way of reporting on Tuesday’s discussions. Fr. Lombardi gave a summary of what was said in Italian, then other spokesmen gave summaries of the English, French, Spanish, and German interventions. According to Lombardi there was a lot of discussion of the current cultural crisis, along with the usual concerns about immigration, violence against women, poverty, minor children, the breaking of the links between generations (particularly grandparents to grandchildren, as channels of faith and Christian life). Several speakers emphasized the need for more “positive” language in addressing current culture, focusing on what is good in it, and taking as a model the way Pope Francis has conducted himself in his public statements.
This is all “positive” and sounds uplifting, but we heard much the same thing at the time of Vatican II. There are positive elements, of course, even in our decadent West, as there are in all cultures. But taking this linguistic turn typically ends up, not in the evangelization of culture, but in a diminished sense of urgency that the culture needs conversion.
And there’s no doubt that our culture needs conversion, even in secular terms, if the collapse of marriage and the family isn’t going to lead us to ultimate ruin. Tuesday, Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of Il Foglio, one of the most important Italian newspapers, offered appreciation  from a secular perspective for what the Synod is trying to accomplish. But he issued an “appeal” to organize a “lay synod,” at which sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, etc., all of whom know what the threatened disappearance of the family portends, can take on the subject directly:
Marriage has been criticized from many points of view, it’s been considered a philistine, bourgeois ideal, it’s been reviled, satirized, judged the height of social hypocrisy, and as such rejected, but it has never before been intrinsically corroded, weakened, emptied, almost annulled, as is happening today in the part of the world known as the West.
That’s the way to sound a clarion call about the seriousness of the danger. By contrast, the desire of Church leaders to adopt a “friendly” manner towards non-Catholics or Catholics in irregular situations, fallen creatures like ourselves to be sure, is confusing to the world, which is happy to be welcomed, but reacts aggressively when the Church later tries to affirm the importance of some teaching, not only to human happiness (as Ferrara and others know only too well), but to eternal life.
Changes in language cannot eliminate the divisive points that inevitably arise over questions of truth. Fr. Thomas Rosica, the English-language reporter, emphasized that, especially with regard to homosexuals, we should always remember that they are our children, brothers, sisters, friends, and that all harsh language is therefore inappropriate. True, up to a point, though anyone who has raised children knows that harsh language and more have to be part of the toolbox. In our current culture, the soft approach usually means indefinitely postponing any serious call to conversion of life, perhaps even tacit acceptance: the “opening” to friendship means a “closing” of evangelization. Fr Rosica mentioned, in this context, that there was talk of bringing back General Absolution (group confessions) for the Year of Mercy, as a way of attracting back people who have strayed. Worth discussing, perhaps, but it seems an almost desperate (and likely ineffective) measure.
And on the issue most discussed since last year, the same is true. The pope said nothing last year “touched” Catholic doctrine, but he’s encouraged “pastoral developments.” Canadian Archbishop Paul André Durocher, one of only two prelates at Tuesday’s press briefing, remarked that it was only honest to note that opinion was divided over whether a pastoral change would also imply a doctrinal change – and that the whole question would have to be dealt with, especially in the Synod’s final week.
It’s one aspect of the Christian vocation to overcome divisions, to reconcile those at odds with one another. Yes, even to practice mercy towards one another, since we are sinners all. But that can only happen where there is both goodwill and truth, the truth of things as God made them, not as we have marred them. And where we do not ignore the foundation of all valid human thinking: the Law of Non- Contradiction .