A word on the Synod

First, sorry I’m writing this weekend’s post a day late and missed last weekend’s post altogether.  As a token of my contrition, here’s a photo I took of Pope Francis when he was in DC.


It is a school day for me today (Hurricane Joaquin decided to spare us), so I don’t have time to make this a very well-edited post.  But now that it’s begun, I do think I need to acknowledge that the Synod of Bishops begins in earnest today.

I don’t want to, though.

Because I’m burned out about it already.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that our American media have zeroed in on three salient topics of conversation the Synod Fathers will be taking up this month: the status of homosexual persons and their relationships in the sacramental life of the Church; the status of civilly divorced, un-annulled, and civilly remarried persons and their relationships in the sacramental life of the Church; and the simplification of the canonical process for declarations of marriage nullity.

I’m sure I also don’t need to tell you that our American secular media failed to represent any of these three issues accurately, treating nullity like “Catholic divorce” and completely failing to distinguish between the Church’s  membership,  ministries, and sacramental communion when it comes to the civilly remarried (if they remembered to make that distinction at all) and persons with disordered sexual orientations.

What has been the most depressing, and for me the most soul-crushing, is that our American Catholic media has also largely forgotten that these are not the only three issues at stake in this month’s Synod.  I’m not providing links this time, partly because I don’t have time to look them up, and partly because I don’t want to give the conspiracy theorists and partisan pundits any more visibility.  Not only have they reduced the Synod to these three matters, but they’ve constructed apocalyptic narratives about progressive or ultra-orthodox camps attempting to “rig” the Synod in their ideological favor.

Not to say that there isn’t some truth to that – there is plenty of reliable anecdotal evidence out there that the Swiss and German Bishops’ conferences have been manipulating media coverage, the African Bishops have felt shut out of the global conversation, the Italian administrators of the Synod drafted reports that didn’t reflect the actual course of discussion within the Synod, etc.

But very much to say that if the leading Catholic voices in America have allowed themselves to be drawn into the seedy politics of fallen humanity and lost sight of the spiritual and human truths at stake in this Synod, they have become part of the problem.  They are giving scandal to the faithful no less than the politicking Bishops are, and frankly it is shameful.

So my advice for the next three weeks (to you and to myself): ignore all media coverage of the Synod.  Ignore the secular media outright, since they have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to matters of faith and probably don’t realize that and wouldn’t make any effort to fix it if they did.  Ignore the Catholic media (perhaps making an exception for the reliably level-headed John Allen), since they’re more likely to obscure the working of the Holy Spirit in the Synod Fathers’ discussions than to draw attention to it.

Instead, just read the working document for the Synod.  Notice that those three hot-button issues are 1-2 paragraphs each in a 16-page document.  Look at the chapter and section headings.  Reflect on the much larger, much more fundamental questions.  How does the family foster faith?  How can it do so when the spouses may not even know their faith?  How does a post-Christian secular world, including the media, stack the deck against healthy families?  What can the Church do to help?

And notice that Christian doctrine is never in question.  No Church teachings will change at this Synod.  Practices may change; emphases may change in light of the needs of this day and age; but we will not emerge from this Synod with any less Christian truth than we had before.  If all goes well, we may even gain some.

And then remember that the Synod, unlike an Ecumenical Council, is only a consulting body.  It has no legislative power of its own.  It makes recommendations to the Pope, who decides what sort of statement or changes to make (if any) after a few months.  Even the final report on the Synod that comes out later in October has no “authority” like an Apostolic Exhortation does.

So read the text linked above, reflect on it, pray on it, pray for the Pope, pray for the Synod, pray that the Holy Spirit guide the Synod to remain faithful to the Word of Christ and the eternal truths put in place by the Father while also advancing the pastoral care of souls in the modern world.  And then forget about the Synod and go on with your lives.  As Padre Pio is quoted as saying: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”


5 thoughts on “A word on the Synod

  1. 1) No live twitting of media coverage of the synod by Ross? Sadness.
    2) The “ultra-orthodox” are normally followers of Jansenism or Rigorism. So, I wouldn’t actually call them orthodox, but that’s me.
    3) Don’t Popes technically have veto power ecumenical councils?

    100 trillion blessings coming your way.


    1. 1) It’s better for my grad-student life anyway. But if anything especially inflammatory ends up on my News Feed, I’ll probably cave and do some more ranting.
      2) …no comment.
      3) Yes, that is true. I only meant that Ecumenical Councils enjoy the presumption of legislative power, which Synods do not.


  2. While I definitely agree with your concluding with Padre Pio’s quote and your call to prayer, as a member of the Catholic Press Association, I have to respectfully disagree with your admonition to avoid media coverage. We are adults, and we have a responsibility to engage with the world. What others report on the synod may not be accurate, and it may not be objective, but it’s the world’s view (secular and Catholic), and I don’t find it threatening or confusing. I have confidence in the Holy Spirit, and I’m excited to hear what She has in store for us. 🙂 (couldn’t resist)


    1. Please don’t think I want us all to ignore the Synod entirely. I do counsel waiting until the end of the three weeks, when the Synod releases its final report (there’s not a midterm report this time around), and then taking the recommendations of the Synod on their own terms. Nor do I necessarily find media coverage “threatening or confusing” – just frustrating and dispiriting.

      Though I do think (mostly secular) media misreporting can be threatening to the faithful’s faith if they’re not getting formation from anywhere else. Vatican II’s decree on social communications (Inter mirifica) makes it clear that the mass media have an obligation to the people to report and convey the facts, and the truth, accurately and precisely. It’s not just a professional obligation, but a moral obligation, and insofar as Jesus is the Truth and faith and reason do not contradict each other, a religious obligation. When the media end up giving scandal to the faithful (deliberately or not), I do think the better course is to separate oneself and read more life-giving reporting.

      Which is why I’ve been particularly disappointed in Catholic media reporting as a whole.


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