The Extraordinary Synod on the Family: Let’s All Take a Deep Breath

Newly-elected Pope Francis waves after praying at basilica in Rome

Story by Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of the Diocese of Joliet

The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, whose subject was on the family, ended in Rome on Oct. 20. Depending on varying news reports and commentators, the Catholic Church, in the wake of the synod, is either on the verge of major changes in its teaching about marriage and sexual morality, or is deadlocked between a pope who wants to make big changes and bishops who don’t. At stake are hot-­button issues, like divorce and remarriage and same-sex unions.

In looking at the synod, a couple of factual matters need to be kept in mind. First, an extraordinary synod is a gathering of bishops with the pope in preparation for an ordinary synod – in this case, scheduled to take place in another year. Conclusions are not expected from an extraordinary synod; even ordinary synods conclude only with propositions, that traditionally the pope then formulates into an official teaching document later. Thus, a synod is not a sort of Catholic congress. An extraordinary synod is also much smaller than an ordinary one. The United States had only one delegate at this one, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, whereas at an ordinary synod the U.S. usually has four representatives.

It is also noteworthy that Pope Francis, in preparation for this Extraordinary Synod, invited bishops’ conferences around the world to consult “widely” about a series of questions concerning family life and marriage, with many of those conferences and individual bishops, including in the United States, choosing to make the consultation very public. This may have created the impression that the entire matter was open to popular referendum and radical changes.

The Church, however, does not define marriage. God does. The Church’s task, under the leadership of her bishops, is to discern the truth as revealed by God. Now, obviously, marriage and family life in the contemporary world are challenged in ways that they were not in the past, and the pastors of the Church have an obligation to understand the situation and respond to it as best they can, but always within the framework of divinely revealed truth.

The Church does have the authority to modify certain things, such as its annulment procedure. But it cannot change the fundamental definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman that, properly undertaken, endures for life and is intended for the procreation of children.

Pope John XXIII’s most-familiar encyclical is entitled Mater et Magistra. It was about the Church: mother and teacher. While there are many things the Church can learn from the secular world, Christ endowed the Church with the Holy Spirit to teach the world the truth that “sets you free.” On something as important as marriage and family life, the Church cannot allow herself to be forced by the secular world to throw off the truth that a loving God has given His human children. Not only would she be disloyal to God, she would be disloyal to God’s children.

So, in the aftermath of the recent Extraordinary Synod, we all need to take a deep breath. The reporters and pundits who claim that the synod has set the course for the Catholic Church to change its fundamental teachings about marriage, or that “conservative” bishops have thwarted a “progressive” pope who would like to, are writing the libretto for an opera that will never be staged. We should be confident that the same Holy Spirit who guided the College of Cardinals in the election of Pope Francis will also guide the Holy Father and the Ordinary Synod according to his will.