Monday, October 26, 2015

The Synod Ends

As of this morning, no official English translation of the Synod of Bishops' final Relatio has been produced. Only some of the more controverted paragraphs have been easy to access in English (albeit in unofficial translations). Much of what is said in those paragraphs seems helpful and attractive. But any serious reaction to the actual contents of the Relatio will just have to wait until there is an official English text to treat. 

Meanwhile, however, there has been no end of commentary - some of it quite contradictory - about the event of the Synod itself and about the way it has concluded, all of which does deserve some preliminary and perhaps tentative reflection.

The paragraphs of the Relatio that have gotten the most attention are also, of course, the ones that passed with the smallest margin of votes. It must be acknowledged that, unlike the case with the 2014 Relatio this time every paragraph managed to muster the required 2/3 vote - although in one case it was apparently by just one vote. This tells us two things about the controverted paragraphs. There was probably enough ambiguity in the texts to create the required consensus to pass them (not unlike what seems to have happened at Vatican II), but there was still strong opposition even given the ambiguities built into the texts (which was not the case at Vatican II).

During the Synod much of the acknowledged conflict centered on arguments about the Synod's process. Perhaps the highpoint of that was the imbroglio about the letter from the 13 Cardinals, who apparently took seriously the Pope's invitation to speak freely and so questioned some aspects of the process. The vitriolic invective that has been directed in some quarters against the 13 Cardinals and their letter confirms what every serious student of politics knows (or should know) - namely that arguments about process are rarely really just about process and are primarily about the substantive outcomes which this or that procedural arrangement is likely to produce. Presumably, the critics of the 13 Cardinals and their letter saw Their Eminences' procedural concerns as a reflection of a substantive agenda the critics did not completely share. Hence the nonsense about the Cardinals being somehow disloyal to the Pope - it being seen by some as disloyal to do what Cardinals are theoretically supposed to do, i.e,. advise the Pope.

The other leitmotif flowing through the coverage of the synod has been whether some sort of doctrinal Rubicon was about to be crossed. The secular media has a certain interest in presenting the Synod's debates that way, of course. Whether or not they are correct - and whether or not the media's Rubicon and the actual Rubicon (if there was one) are exactly the same also remains to be seen. Ultimately, we must wait to receive the Pope's Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation (or whatever alternative form his response to the Synod may take). 

What is already evident, however, is that the very public factional conflicts at this Synod did not come out of nowhere and reflect real, substantive conflicts within the Church - in some cases, between particular groups within the Church (for example, between the poor but growing church communities in Africa and the rich but increasingly moribund church communities in Europe, especially German-speaking Europe). The vibrancy of the African Church communities at the "peripheries" did not preclude the at least partial success of the European Church's agenda. On the other hand, the European Church's successes at the Synod are hardly likely to stem either those communities' long-term trajectory of decline or the increasing influence of the Churches at the "peripheries."

Again, without access to the entire document in an official English version, it remains problematic to comment on specifics. From the reports so far and from the widely circulated translations of the more controversial paragraphs, it may be possible to suggest some general observations.

For one thing, if the reports are accurate, it does seem that the critiques of the Instrumentum Laboris were taken to heart and a final Relatio was produced that is more theological and scriptural, which would seem to be a good thing in what is, after all, a religious rather than a sociological document.

Secondly, as with Vatican II, it remains to be seen how much weight what the Synod actually said will carry, and how much concepts like "the spirit of the Synod" and "the Synod as event" will facilitate a greater variety in interpretation. Here too, however, we must await what Pope decides to do.

Unfortunately, such is the dynamic of polarization, that, regardless of how the Pope interprets the Synod and implements his interpretation, it will still always be possible for either side - or both sides - to object to any particular interpretation and implementation. Remember how one side saw Pope Paul VI as going way beyond any appropriate interpretation of Vatican II in terms of what he did with the liturgy, while another side saw him as regressing from the "spirit" of the Council in Humanae Vitae.

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