THE BLOG
10/17/2014 12:23 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

The Vatican's Synod on the Family, and Why You've Missed the Point.

If you are extraordinarily upset or excited about the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family that has taken place for the last two weeks here in Rome, then you likely don't really understand what it actually is. The prior statement is neither a cynical nor is it a flip or reductive statement. It is also not meant to be merely provocative, and it is certainly not meant to be insulting. It is, however, a dose of reality. In the months leading up to this synod we have heard the narrative of a gradual simultaneous crescendo of the two seemingly discordant melodies of "justice" and "mercy" rising up within the Vatican.

The media, both Catholic and secular, has told us how those two tunes have swelled to their height in the past two weeks during the synod. We are presented the narrative of bishops in turmoil and of battling movements, political and otherwise, within the Church. Depending on how passionate you are about that narrative, you may have even identified heroes and villains among the more outspoken members of the synod. If you have been listening to and ascribing to this narrative, then I would like to assure you that all will be well, that you can remain calm, and that all is under control. I would also like to point out, however, that you likely haven't understood what is actually going on in the synod.

The "messy" church that Pope Francis called for, and that we see in the context of the synod, is nothing new. It is rather the reality of the Church at some of its most important and profound moments. We are all human, it takes us time to figure out precisely how the the Holy Spirit is moving. Our humanity necessarily implies disagreement as people rarely agree one hundred percent on anything. This human reality also means that we need to take the time proper to think, to reflect, and to pray. Two weeks, or even the year long lead up to this synod, does not constitute unto itself such a proper period of time. Some of the most important and most beautiful articles of our Catholic faith are the result of conversations like the ones that we are having at the current moment, and many of them came at the cost of a polemical environment far more heated than the one that some media outlets claim has existed in the synod hall. At the first Council of Nicea, in the midst of dogmatic debate on the divinity of Christ, it is well known that St. Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus, pulled the the bishop Arius to the ground by the beard and punched him in the face. Nicholas was subsequently imprisoned by the other bishops for his actions. As far as we know, no matter how heated we would like to imagine the floor of the synod hall, it hasn't come to fisticuffs, and no bishops have been hauled off to the Vatican lock-up, so relax. There is more than enough precedent for the messiness of the current situation and the Church has survived and even thrived, so we can all calm down.

If you identify yourself as a follower of one camp or another then you likely don't understand what this is all about. The Church is not a democracy. We cannot, by popular fiat, simply will the Church into being what we wish it to be, nor can we stop it from developing into what God wants it to be. This is not about political allegiances, it is not about whether one could be considered "conservative" or "liberal" (terms which are immediately odious and throughly unhelpful), nor is it about who might win the day. This is also not about two separate agendas of "mercy" and "justice." There is one agenda shared by the members of the synod. Among those I have met personally they are all good men who, while they might disagree about how to apply the lessons of the Gospel to our contemporary reality, have one agenda in mind: Find the best way to help people to be most fully alive and, as a result of Catholic and Christian faith, find their way to God both in this life and the next. In the end the narrative of two factions is useless because there is, at base, one faction seeking the one agenda of a more perfect consensus on how to proceed as a Church in the current context.

All of this is to leave aside the obvious practical realities, that the votes of the synod are merely a consultative reality and that any legislation comes only from Pope Francis, that this has simply been the first formal phase of a longer conversation, and that in the end for Catholics there is the belief that God is ultimately in control of all of this. So if you're overly energized about the synod, if this is for you an ecclesial soap-opera, or if you have used the word "revolution" in the context of describing this whole process, please, I beg you, relax. You likely haven't really understood what this synod actually is, anyway.