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Councils and Synods: Reforming the Catholic Church in the digital age

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Characterized as a ‘poisonous Synod’ or more obliquely as ‘febrile’, the Bishops’ recent discussions of marriage and divorce, family life with all its stresses, brokenness and complexity, as well as contemporary understandings of sexuality have ‘thrown open the windows of the church’ (to echo Pope John XXIII at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council). But whether the air let into the institution is fresh or fetid is a matter of heated interpretation. Pope Francis himself, in a closing speech ripe with understatement, acknowledged that the Synod had elicited ‘different opinions … freely expressed – and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways – [which] certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue’.

In a year that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the closing session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the contested legacy of that extraordinary gathering of the world’s Bishops continues to animate the ways contemporary Catholics understand and interpret change within the Church. One of the most striking recent examples of the mobilization of this historic memory was the decision of the US polemicist George Weigel, writing for the conservative monthly journal First Things, to adopt the pseudonym ‘Xavier Rynne II’ for his reports from Rome covering the recent Synod on the Family (4-25 October 2015).

Weigel’s insightful dispatches can be seen as a subversive evocation of Fr. Francis X. Murphy, who wrote anonymously in the New Yorker in the 1960s. Just as Murphy enthralled his public with gossip and leaks about the theological wranglings of ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ at the Council, Weigel reanimated the constructed legacy of two warring episcopal factions and their conflicting visions of the future Church.

Judging by the media coverage, debates clearly rose to expectations of historical rhetorics and high drama. In Britain, the Catholic Herald likened the synodical discussions to watching ‘ferrets fighting in a sack’.  The Tablet wrote plaintively about its final days under the headline ‘The Endgame’. These polite differences of theological accent and ecclesiological interpretation pale, however, in comparison to journalistic interpretation elsewhere.  For example, a very public twitter-storm developed between Italian-American theologian Massimo Faggioli and New York Times’ journalist Ross Douthat over the latter’s assertion of a ‘Plot to Change Catholicism’ and his brandishing of the word ‘heretic’. At issue here was who has standing to speak and what vision of the church they articulate.

However, it should be noted that an interpretative key to entire Synod was given in Pope Francis’ closing endorsement of ‘different opinions … freely expressed’. Murphy wrote anonymously in 1962 for fear of the punitive consequences of airing his personal opinions.  The early 1960s still saw exposing episcopal disagreement as tantamount to disloyalty. The Synod of the Family, despite the echoes of Vatican II, is situated within a fundamentally different Catholic and media landscape. From the well-organized, online ‘Voice of the Family coalition’, the viral reach of the online ‘filial appeal to Pope Francis’ petition, through to Facebook collectives such as ‘Catholic Women Speak’, this Synod has taken place within a new ecclesial landscape of frankness, openness and (agonising) transparency.

A more democratic, open-ended, dynamic and responsive Church had already generated the working agenda of the Synod. The worldwide questionnaire circulated ahead of the first session last year elicited an immensely challenging programme for debate. On closing the Synod, Francis acknowledged the ‘difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family’ while pledging a determination to study and confront them ‘fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand.’ In another Synod address a week earlier, the Pope urged a refreshed understanding of the church as an ‘inverted pyramid’ in which the top (the successor of St Peter) is located beneath the broader base of the people of God. In this Christocentric image, hierarchy is also inverted and bishops are best understood as those who serve and respond to the wider church of the laity. So while the final, cautiously worded and open-ended report - full of delicate compromise and ambiguity - is not the ‘earthquake’ either anticipated by some or feared by others, the historical legacy of the Second Vatican Council offers revealing parallels.

Historians of the Council, wrestling with the ambiguities and indeterminacy of many of the Conciliar Constitutions and Decrees, speak about Vatican II as an unfolding ‘event’ – as much about gatherings outside St Peter’s aula as those within it.  Its imagined possibilities of church renewal circulated widely, and had a wider impact than the declarations which found their way into print and definitive documentation.

The Synod of the Family has the potential for a similar afterlife. As Pope Francis contended in his 17 October address to the Bishops, all Synods should ‘reproduce the image of the Ecumenical Council and reflect its spirit and method.’ The ‘journeying together’ and new processes which Pope Francis stressed so repeatedly in all his official statements, may lead in unexpected directions.  What is clear is that this journey, on the surface directed by a voting clerical episcopacy (and one layman, it was discovered!), will continue beyond institutional structures.  As in 1962, diverse constituencies have been empowered, and indeed encouraged, to continue the conversation.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


Dr. Alana Harris is a Teaching Fellow in Modern British History at Kings College London. Dr Harris sits on the Editorial Board for the journal British Catholic History (CUP) and is also a Steering Committee member of the Women’s History Network, and founding co-editor of the Routledge Series ‘Studies in Religion, Travel and Tourism’. Email: alana.harris@kcl.ac.uk

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