Wisdom and the Synod Schedule

Senior Editor’s note: Today’s column by Editor-in-Chief Robert Royal begins his reporting from the final week of the 2015 Synod on the Family. Dr. Royal’s presence in Rome is due in large measure to reader support of The Catholic Thing. As I’ve mentioned in the past, TCT receives no corporate, government, or Church grants to keep our work going: seven days a week, every day of the year. We do have a handful of angels, whose generosity is a godsend, but most of what we receive to keep publishing comes from readers like you. So . . . IF you agree – as how could you not? – that Bob Royal’s dispatches from Rome have been essential reading, please click here to make a financial expression of your appreciation. And may God bless you for it. – Brad Miner

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter. . . .So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine [Christianity] tells us something more certain, it seems justly to be followed in our kingdom.”

The Venerable Bede records this remark by the Christian Paulinus, seeking to convert the seventh-century Northumbrian King Edwin. But the image of life as a bird of passage through a small lit room at night goes back to the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who knew, even without the benefit of Biblical revelation, that our human life on earth is infinitesimal compared with the vast ages before and after. Even pagan reason at its best grasps this truth and it used to be a commonplace in Catholic – indeed, all Christian – thought that we learn to properly value the things of this life when we see them against the backdrop of eternity.

If there is one thing that has been conspicuous by it absence from the Synod on the Family, it is this wisdom dimension and the many practical consequences it has given rise to in Catholic culture. Critics of Christianity often accuse believers of neglecting the earth for pie-in the-sky. Where that happens, it’s a failure to appreciate the fullness of and incarnational faith like Christianity, to be sure. But to grasp the brevity of life is not escapism, but realism, and to live our lives aware of that truth changes our perspectives on everything. In our time, if there’s a characteristic failure of Christian thought – and it’s partly been the case at the Synod as much as anywhere – it’s not that we undervalue our material existence. It’s that we find it difficult to lift up our gaze to the things that are going to transcend, always and forever, our hopes and fears, satisfactions and disappointments.

You can’t help but feel that some of the things we cannot solve at the rather superficial level of a large public discussion, would get put into proper perspective when we rediscover the older pagan and Christian wisdom about the brevity and incompleteness of earthly life. It was already an old debate, for example, in Plato that there had to be rewards and punishments after death, otherwise the obvious and irresolvable sufferings and injustices in this life would mean the world was founded in injustice. The Book of Revelation (21:4) puts it even more forcefully: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.”

When the Synod Fathers observe, as some have, that there are not always answers for situations that arise in this life, we might wish that they would highlight as part of the “accompaniment” that they are seeking, not just ordinary human fellowship, but the sapiential side of reason and the greater promises of faith. As we come to the difficult questions we have all been anticipating in this final week of the Synod on the Family, we can hope that those perspectives will be more in evidence for the sake of the final resolutions, but also for the sake of God’s people.

A family at the Synod
A family at the Synod

But they’ll have to move fast this week. To help orient us in what we’ll be seeing over coming days, it’s worth reviewing carefully how things will unfold:

The work that will be done this week has, to a great degree, already been started (as we’ve reported, several bishops thought Part Three of the text, the one with the most controversial material, such as Communion for the divorced and remarried and how to deal with those experiencing same-sex attraction, could not be sufficiently considered if treatment was not begun earlier than planned). This work will mostly be completed in a very few days (if the schedule holds), too few in light of how, precisely, all the prior talk and editing will be translated into concrete paragraphs in the Final Report.

Thursday and Friday of last week were devoted to discussion in the General Congregation, on the Third Part of the Working Document, or Instrumentum Laboris (IL). The weekend was mostly divided between two other matters: the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Synod of Bishops, and the canonizations of St. Vincent Grossi, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, and Sts. Louis Martin and Zelie Guerin.

But all day today (Monday) and tomorrow morning (Tuesday), there will be a return to the small group discussions – nine and a half hours total, quite a lot of close reading and rewriting. Late in the afternoon Tuesday, the thirteen small group reports will be read out to the entire Synod, the written modifications (modi) to Part III will be given to the drafting committee, and a first round of votes will be taken for the Synod Council. That’s a lot in only two and a half hours, especially after such intensive days. But most of the Synod Fathers will have all Wednesday off, while the Commission for the reworking of the Final Report is busy all that day.

Then the real crunch begins. Early Thursday, the Commission will present what amounts to a draft of the Final Report to the whole Synod (and final votes for the Synod Council will be held.). This will be the first time anyone sees how much – or how little – the work of the Synod Fathers will have changed the IL. There may be large and small surprises – though it would be a very great surprise indeed if, with so many people involved in the process and watching from outside, anything as radical as last year’s Interim Report emerges at that point.

That’s when the organizational structure, however, may play a major role. On the schedule, the Synod Assembly breaks up at 10:30 AM Thursday and reconvenes later in the day, 4:30-7:00 PM. This means that the bishops will have only six hours (including lunch) to look over, in private, a lengthy document, which may have many new and crucial points. They then come together for only two and a half hours to speak in the presence of one another about what they have found, though written interventions will also be allowed. In essence, about one working day to respond to what the drafting committee has wrought.

Friday, the bishops are on vacation again, while the drafting committee incorporates their reactions to the first draft.

Saturday, another tight day of reaction: the “final” text is read out in the morning, 9-12:30 AM. The bishops take a break for four hours and then between 4:30 and 7PM are expected to vote, paragraph by paragraph, what to accept and what to reject in this text.

When that’s done – and few expect it will be done exactly by 7PM – they will sing the Te Deum and the Holy Father will have the advice, and let us hope wisdom, of his Synod of Bishops on the Vocation and Mission of the Family.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, of whom some are butchered each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men.” (Pascal, Pensées 199)

    I cannot forebear quoting the beautiful, limip languageof the original: « Qu’on s’imagine un nombre d’hommes dans les chaînes, et tous condamnés à la mort, dont les uns étant chaque jour égorgés à la vue des autres, ceux qui restent voient leur propre condition dans celle de leurs semblables, et, se regardant les uns les autres avec douleur et sans espérance, attendent leur tour. C’est l’image de la condition des hommes. »

  • Chris in Maryland

    Cardinal Sarah speaks the truth to the “Synod-of-the-Manipulators:”

    “For there are new challenges with respect to the synod celebrated in 1980. A theological discernment enables us to see in our time two unexpected threats (almost like two “apocalyptic beasts”) located on opposite poles: on the one hand, the idolatry of Western freedom; on the other, Islamic fundamentalism: atheistic secularism versus religious fanaticism.

    To use a slogan, we find ourselves between “gender ideology and ISIS”. Islamic massacres and libertarian demands regularly contend for the front page of the newspapers. From
    these two radicalizations arise the two major threats to the family: its subjectivist disintegration in the secularized West through quick and easy divorce, abortion, homosexual unions, euthanasia etc. On the other hand, the pseudo-family of ideologized Islam which legitimizes polygamy, female subservience, sexual slavery, child marriage etc.

    Several clues enable us to intuit the same demonic origin of these two movements. Unlike the Spirit of Truth that promotes communion in the distinction (perichoresis), these encourage confusion (homo-gamy) or subordination (poly-gamy). Furthermore, they demand a universal and totalitarian rule, are violently intolerant, destroyers of families, society and the Church, and are openly Christianophobic.

    “We are not contending against creatures of flesh and blood ….” We need to be inclusive and
    welcoming to all that is human; but what comes from the Enemy cannot and must not be assimilated. You cannot join Christ and Belial! What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion Ideologies and Islamic Fanaticism are today.

    3. Proclaim and serve the beauty of Monogamy and the Family

    Faced with these two deadly and unprecedented challenges (“homo-gamy” and “poly-gamy”) the
    Church must promote a true “epiphany of the Family.” To this both the Pope (as spokesman of the Church) may contribute, and individual Bishops and Pastors of the Christian flock: that is, “the Church of God, which he has obtained with his own blood” (Acts: 20:28).

    We must proclaim the truth without fear, i.e. the Plan of God, which is monogamy in conjugal love open to life. Bearing in mind the historical situation just recalled, it is urgent that the
    Church, at its summit, definitively declare the will of the Creator for marriage. How many people of good will and common sense would join in this luminous act of courage carried out by the Church!”

    • Peter O’Reilly

      You said it all. Thank you

  • FreemenRtrue

    Cannot see that the Synod Against the Family serves any good purpose.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Today is the feast of martyr saints Isaac Jogues and Jean De Brebeuf. We are living in times in ways similar to 17th century France troubled by the growth of Calvinism whose converts from Catholicism were later known as Huguenots and who established the threatening military bastion of St Rochelle. At that time Issac and John left the comforts of France to bring Christ to the warlike Iroquois and Huron in the dark forests of upstate New York and Quebec. John’s love for Christ was great and he wrote of a deep desire to shed his blood for Him. His and Isaac’s faith never doubted that whatever might transpire Our Lord’s love and His promised Presence would remain especially at the moment of their torture and death. Today the Mohawk the most warlike of the Iroquois Confederation are virtually all Catholic. I met the first Mohawk priest years ago at St. Regis, NY. These two saints give us an example of faith that we must emulate in trying times. Some of us are given to fear bordering on panic and frequently misplaced anger which does no one good including themselves. Pope Francis has universally pronounced Catholic doctrine including to our Congress and has preached the very valid need for us to be more available to the poor. Unfortunately there are other instances in which he seems to be engineering by suggestive actions and words a change in practice in contradistinction to doctrine. If he is purposely doing so there is no indisputable evidence at this time. There may be in time, perhaps even at the culmination of the Synod. My spiritual advice to some of our bloggers is to bring our faith in Christ’s loyalty and love for us closer to that of Issac Jogues and Jean De Brebeuf and rather than cause further dismay among the faithful at large strengthen them.

    • StatusQrow

      As someone who has long admired the sacrifices made by the North American martyrs—-Isaac Jogues, who escaped and was helped by the Dutch to go back to France yet returned a second time, in particular—I understand the impulse to imitate them by trusting Christ’s love and loyalty to us. Yet, I think that that trust is not incompatible with the risk of dismaying the faithful, by way of sounding necessary alarms.

      Francis may not be purposely intending a change in Catholic practice, but he has certainly failed to sufficiently pronounce Catholic doctrine.

      In my own judgment—and as I’ve mentioned in other posts—this Pope’s proudest moment was when he visited Calabria, Italy, in June of last year and announced that every Catholic who belonged to the Mafia was excommunicated. It was an incredibly brave thing to do in a country where leaders who stand up to violent criminals are often assassinated.

      One was so looking forward to seeing Francis stand up, similarly, and just as loudly proclaim that every Catholic politician who supports abortion policies likewise incurs automatic excommunication and may not receive Communion. Arriving, as he did, in the immediate aftermath of the diabolical Planned Parenthood outrages, the Pope couldn’t have been provided with a more perfect entrée.

      Instead, the single, the only person with whom Francis shook hands was the rabidly pro-abort John Kerry. At which opportunity our media jumped to say that it repaired a longstanding rift caused by Cardinal Burke—removed from the Signatura by this same Francis—who was one of the few bishops who had the guts to castigate Kerry for his pro-abortion positions when he ran for president in 2004.

      Bad enough had Secretary Kerry been one of a number of politicians with whom the Pope shook hands; that he was the only person is too reminiscent of the eye-poking tactics of our president. It seemed to highlight a personal approval of a man who deserves utter contempt for his part in the abortion holocaust.

      As with the excommunication of Catholic Mafia members, I believe it strengthens the faithful as much to admonish public sin as it does to display one’s trust in Christ. And considering the pc climate in which we live, calling sin ‘sin’ may itself be an act of trust in Christ.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Thanks for the comment. There should be more of this. Actually I agree with you that the parishioner in the pew should be fully informed and warned not to be drawn into falsehood, and yes even if needed dismayed as you couch it. In this I have a serious responsibility to Christ in my priesthood. That is why I have pointedly addressed the issues we’re concerned with in my sermons but always with the intent of identifying the truth and strengthening the faith not weakening it by causing panic and despair. If you read my previous blogs you will have a better idea where I am at.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Actually I agree with you that

  • Tanyi Tanyi

    I can’t wait for this Synod to be over! Then we will know the through colors of Francis, if he is prepared to propose the faith of the Church held everywhere at all times and by all, or he wants to serve the interest of the rich German Church! SO much for the Church of the poor!

  • Manfred

    Reading the reports of the Synod on various Catholic websites is like re-reading Rashomon. It is impossible to believe that all are reporting on the same Synod.

  • mary-ellen riedel

    I tell people who ask me why we reject same-sex marriage, that first of all, no extraordinary penalties are imposed upon same-sex couples. Marriage always has restrictions: for instance, a couple incapable of normal sexual intercourse is not allowed to marry in the Catholic Church and their marriage cannot be sacramental.
    Many legally married are not permitted to receive communion, especially the divorced and ‘remarried’ Catholics. A marriage may be ‘legal’ but not binding because it has not been consummated; if the couple never has had intercourse, their marriage may be nullified. Marriage is all about sex as well as procreation. To get married you have to be able to have normal sexual intercourse. Remember the ‘witnesses’ that attended the wedding nights of the newly married in ancient times? They were checking to be sure sexual intercourse had occurred. Also, Catholics don’t allow non-Catholics to go to communion either; somebody could be mad at that.

    • Greg

      I am not sure how these interventions can be seen as helping or inviting people into the Catholic faith and following Christ.

      Do you think they are?



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