Despite questionnaires and invited auditors, the upcoming synod on the family is still a synod of bishops. Is there any hope that the voices of families will be heard? Is there any hope that the voices of women will be heard when only a handful of handpicked women will be present (Pope Francis has appointed 30 women to attend the synod as auditors making contributions to the discussions, but only the 279 male members of the meetings can vote)? Is there any hope that there will be any changes in church teachings and discipline surrounding family life?
If the final recommendations of the synod are to have any real effect at the grassroots level, what happens behind closed doors must respond to what is going on outside, in the world. Pope Francis has re-opened the windows of the church, encouraging a freer atmosphere for dialogue. And, the People of God are talking. If the bishops attending the synod disregard the voice of the people, it will be to their detriment.
Abuse scandals, financial scandals, and hypocrisy within the leadership of the church have eroded the moral authority of many bishops in recent decades. And, yes, this too is a family issue. How many families have left the church from disillusionment and disgust? The synod is an opportunity, on the world stage, for bishops to show true servant leadership - humble leadership that acknowledges its own human weaknesses, understands the needs of those they serve, and responds in mercy to their struggles.
During the 2014 synod we were exposed to the clear lines of polarity within episcopal ranks. Some synod members come with the “smell of the sheep” on them. Like Pope Francis, these pastor bishops are immersed in the reality of the people they serve and have an understanding of the practical issues faced within their local cultures.
Sadly, some bishops live a cocooned existence in diocesan and curial halls. Others spend their energy gathering armies of culture warriors to defend each jot and title of church law regarding human sexuality and family life. Some expend more effort in fighting the legalization of same-sex marriage, for example, than in actively fighting the racism and sexism that feed the cycle of poverty and social inequality.
Today we have a pope who insists that we focus less on ideology and more on gospel action. His pastoral experiences in the slums of Buenos Aires lend him moral authority when speaking about the challenges faced by families. He promotes an open-door policy for the church, baptizing the children of single mothers when other priests refused. He recently said, “Churches, parishes, and institutions whose doors are closed should not call themselves churches. They should call themselves museums.”
How far to open the doors, and how to treat those who enter will be at the centre of many discussions at the synod. Opening the door of our churches is the first, and perhaps easiest step. We are happy to have our pews filled. The second step is welcoming all to the table of the Lord, and this is where disagreements will occur. What kind of hospitality says that you are welcome to sit with us, but are not invited to eat? How can we preach of covenant love, and then reject or attack the love of couples that do not fit into our vision of the perfect marriage and family?
How can we be pro-life without addressing the economic and political issues that leave so many women, men and children starving, homeless or fleeing the ravages of war? How can we speak of motherhood in glowing, poetic terms while ignoring continued gender inequality and violence against women?
We cannot expect the synod of bishops to heal the world of all her ills. Neither can we expect, nor should we expect, the bishops to throw aside core beliefs of our Catholic faith. At the heart of our faith is the great commandment of loving God and loving each other. Over the years we have developed numerous doctrines on how that love should be expressed and lived. History shows that some of these doctrines can and have evolved over the years as we gain newer and deeper understandings of human nature and our relationship with each other and with our God.
It is possible that this synod will merely reiterate all the existing doctrines and disciplines of the church, while blaming a catechetically ignorant laity on the current crises in family life. I hope this doesn't happen. It will constitute a missed opportunity for much-needed reconciliation and mercy for our church and her people.
It is also possible that Pope Francis will nudge his fellow bishops to listen well to the voice of the people, and seek prophetic and courageous solutions to the challenges faced by families around the world. If this happens, then the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will become a providential moment in church history.
Moyer blogs at http://catholicdialogue.com/. She lives in Gimli, Man., with her husband David. They have five adult children and four grandchildren.