Family life is a towering priority for Pope Francis, reflected not only in his recent visit to Philadelphia to attend a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, but also in his unprecedented decision to convene two synods of bishops on the theme one year apart.
The first synod took place at the Vatican 5-19 Oct. 2014, and was, by any measure, an extraordinary affair.
To be honest, previous synods were generally sleepy affairs where the conclusions seemed pre-ordained and participants mostly phoned in their contributions without any real conviction it would influence the outcome. Given Francis’ determination to let the voices of the bishops be heard, however, prelates seemed to step out of their official personas and speak their minds, creating perhaps the most fascinating synod ever held.
It featured sharp clashes on three key issues:
$ Should the Church’s traditional ban on Communion for Catholics who divorce and then remarry civilly be relaxed?
$ Should the Church adopt a more welcoming posture to same-sex couples?
$ Should the Church take a more positive view of couples who live together outside marriage, along with other forms of what have traditionally been called “irregular” relationships, acknowledging some moral value to them even if they fall short of the ideal?
There’s little reason to believe the same issues won’t come up in this second edition, though Pope Francis recently has taken a step that may reduce some of the focus on the divorce question by implementing a reform in the process of annulment.
This Synod (4-25 Oct.) will have more than 360 participants, with 18 married couples from around the world, including a Hindu-Christian couple from Mumbai. In addition to the 166 synod members elected by their national bishops’ conferences, 22 heads of Eastern Catholic churches, 25 heads of Vatican congregations and councils and 10 heads of men’s religious orders, the Pope has appointed an additional 45 synod fathers.
This ordinary synod will bring together nine additional leaders of Eastern Catholic churches and six more “fraternal delegates” from the Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant communities. The Pope also named 45 voting members of the synod and he appointed 51 observers and 23 experts.
The most important thing to grasp about a synod is that it is not the legislative branch of the Catholic Church. It has no power to vote anything in or out, but only make recommendations to the pope. That said, Pope Francis has signalled that he wants to govern collegially and there’s every reason to believe he would take seriously recommendations that come to him with a strong consensus.
This time, the bishops will not release an interim report at the halfway point. This time the work will be divvied up week by week, with talks and then small group discussions each week. The Vatican announced on Friday that the full texts of the reports from small working groups organized by language will be released, rather than simply brief summaries of their discussions. The Vatican will also hold daily briefings in which synod participants will provide updates, rather than media spokesmen. A dedicated interview space may be set up near the synod, to help journalists get notes to the bishops requesting interviews. These steps are intended to counteract impressions from last time, which synod officials were trying to spin the content of its discussions.
If all this comes to pass, the 2015 synod may deliver one of the more open Vatican gatherings in recent memory.
Finally, it’s important to recall that the synod doesn’t ‘end’ on Oct. 25 because after the bishops say their final word, the ball will then be in the Pope’s court and it is hard to predict what he may do.
The moral analysis of same-sex relationships and other “irregular” unions, the pastoral care of divorced and remarried believers, fewer marriages among the young and more divorces, helping marriages, connecting with children, broken families etc are among the issues that will come up.
When Pope Francis talks about threats to family, he takes a 360-degree view: Youth unemployment, the abandonment of the elderly, the impact of immigration policies that split families apart, the fallout of war, ecological crises and poverty, and much else. If this synod is able to focus more on those matters, it would thereby stage the conversation the pontiff appeared to want all along.
What to expect
When Pope Francis is involved in anything, predictions about what might happen are notoriously hazardous. That said, here are two bets about the 2015 Synod of Bishops that seem fairly safe.
First, watch for the African bishops to play a leadership role. The Africans are no longer content to play the role of junior partners in Catholicism Inc.
Second, the synod is likely to face Catholic advocacy groups trying to influence its deliberations. On 18 Oct. Pope Francis is also expected to canonize Louis and Marie-Azélie Guérin Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux. All the survived five children had entered religious life.