On the Road Together – In the field of God

Synod Venue, Paul VI Hall, Vatican City, Rome

Synod Venue, Paul VI Hall, Vatican City, Rome

Follow the journey through the Synod on the Family with our blog, ‘On the Road Together‘ featuring daily updates from our Australian representatives.

Yesterday morning the Pope wasn’t in the Synod Hall because he was out in the rain in St Peter’s Square at the General Audience. I thought he might say something about the Synod, but he didn’t. Perhaps he thought it would be premature or that his words, whatever they were, would be pounced upon and misinterpreted in a way that wouldn’t be helpful at this delicate midpoint of the Synod process.

Benedict XVI learnt the hard way how the words of a Pope can be misread: think of his Regensburg address which would have been perfectly OK in an academic common room but which really stirred the pot given it was the Pope who was speaking. When I was working in the Vatican Secretariat of State, helping to prepare and finalise texts for the Pope, the golden rule was: “when in doubt, leave it out”. In other words, if there’s any chance that this or that text may be misread or turned against the Pope, “drop it”.

Interestingly, Pope Francis decided to offer a public apology for some recent – and unspecified – mishaps that have happened in the Vatican and perhaps the Church more broadly. You can speculate about what exactly he had in mind; it was hard to know exactly. Perhaps his point was simply to have the Pope say sorry in public. That’s not something Popes have done too often.

I remember when Pope John Paul proposed the Day of Pardon during the Great Jubilee of 2000, saying sorry publicly for the Church’s sins over two millennia, there were voices of disquiet, even complaint – at least in the Vatican. Some of these voices were worried that if you started saying sorry, where and when would it stop. As it turned out, there was something to this because, after the Day of Pardon had been celebrated, all kinds of groups and individuals wrote to the Pope saying: “what about us? You left us out”.

But other voices appealed to the old distinction between the Church and her members. Traditionally, the Catholic Church has distinguished between the Church as the sinless Bride of Christ and her members, all of whom are sinful. For these voices, the Day of Pardon seemed to undo this distinction, suggesting that the Church herself was somehow sinful. Theologically, I understand the traditional approach; but I think it’s another one of those long-used distinctions that’s broken down (like public truth/private mercy, or sin/sinner). People – even devout Catholics – no longer understand what it means to say that the Church is sinless but her children are sinful. We may have to rethink and reformulate that distinction too.

This touches upon the whole question of what reform has meant in the Church over the centuries. In the early centuries, it wasn’t thought of as reform of the Church, but the reform of her sinful members. The preferred metaphor was getting rid of the weeds in what the Church understood as the field of God. But in later centuries reform came to mean reform of the Church herself, not just getting rid of the weeds but doing something about the field. Not just this or that bit, or this or that person, needed to be reformed: it was the whole Church that needed reforming. I write this on the feast of St Teresa of Avila, who was no academic theologian or historian but who knew more than most about reform in the Church, what it did and didn’t entail.

A key question of Vatican II was: what might it mean to reform the Church? And it’s surged again in recent times as we explore the deeper implications of the crisis of sexual abuse in the Church and ask how both the abuse and its mishandling could have happened. The larger question has also simmered beneath the surface of this Synod which is talking about marriage and the family certainly, but broaching deeper and larger questions as well – questions about the engagement of faith and culture, the Church and history. Whatever the short or longer-term outcomes of this Synod, the deeper questions won’t go away. And they won’t be properly addressed unless we read our history seriously.

The Pope was back in the Synod Hall yesterday afternoon, but I wasn’t. I was out the back once again (for four hours!) with the other group reporters and the experts, hacking our way through the proposed amendments to Part II of the working document on the vocation of the family. Mercifully and a bit surprisingly there weren’t as many amendments proposed for this second Part as there had been for Part I.

We did our work under the able guidance of the intelligent, business-like and good-humoured Bishop of Novara, Franco Brambilla (same name as a former Nuncio in Australia). The other bishop was the jolly Spanish-born Panamanian Cardinal Jose Luis Lacunza; and the fourth reporter in the group was the French Rector of the Gregorian University in Rome, Fr Xavier Dumortier SJ. As experts we had an American (John Grabowski, lay moral theologian from the Catholic University of America) plus an Italian, a Brazilian and another Frenchman, this time the Rector of the Institut Catholique in Paris. The meeting was the usual fruit salad of languages, but you get used to that here in a very polyglot world. It doesn’t pay to be monoglot in the shadow of St Peter’s, but that doesn’t stop Cardinal Lacunza just plowing on at a great rate in Castilian Spanish. Muchas gracias, Eminencia!

Looking at the proposed amendments in the afternoon and listening to the now-published group reports in the morning, it’s clear that there are certain overarching themes emerging from the Synod. Perhaps the clearest is that we need to draw more deeply on the Bible in shaping our vision of marriage and the family and the way we speak about them. This doesn’t mean just sticking a few more quotes from Scripture into the text but seeing the Bible as the matrix for what we say and do. This has many implications, and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes. Given my biblical background, I’m intensely interested.

This relates to a larger question of language, keeping in mind what the Bible says – that words create worlds. To speak of language therefore is to speak of something that is far more than cosmetic. All the reports and many of the amendments are looking for a more positive idiom; and the parade example is the word “indissolubility”. No-one at the Synod disputes what the word is trying to say, but many – myself included – are looking for a less canonical and negatively-formulated way of saying it, to help people understand what we’re trying to say – that “indissolubility” is a gift from God to the spouses, not a burden mercilessly imposed upon them.

Today we’re back in the Synod Hall listening to more three-minute speeches. Yesterday in the Hall a bishop behind me – not sure which one – was snoring and chattering through the interventions. This tested the patience – but the real challenge came when his cellphone rang not once but twice during the speeches. Even my neighbour, the mild-mannered and courteous Archbishop of Marseilles, gave him the glare. I wasn’t game even to look around, lest I say something I might regret. I could try the glare if there’s a repeat performance today – just to try to “reform” this man. True, it’s hard work listening to a new voice every three minutes, and it takes a certain discipline. But snoring and cellphones are, as they say here, “un po’ troppo”. I might doze (very briefly) when it gets stuffy in the Hall with all that hot air – but at least I don’t snore. Or at least the Archbishop of Marseilles hasn’t told me I do.

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By Archbishop Coleridge