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Home : Faith/Spirituality : Archbishop Sample's Column
11/18/2015 9:48:00 AM
What the Synod was . . . and was not

Most Rev. Alexander Sample
Archbishop of Portland

I have followed with no little concern the coverage of the recent Synod on marriage and the family in the media, especially in the secular media. If one did not know better, we might have thought that we were in the middle of an ecumenical council of the Church, a sort of Vatican III. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Synod of Bishops is simply a permanently established vehicle for the Pope to consult with a representation of the world’s bishops on matters of importance to the life of the Church. It was established by Blessed Pope Paul VI after Vatican II. It was intended to perpetuate the spirit of collegiality and dialogue so evident at the Council itself.

Blessed Pope Paul VI described his intentions this way: “The advanced information that We Ourselves are happy to share with you is that We intend to give you some institution, called for by this Council, a ‘Synod of Bishops’ which will be made up of bishops nominated for the most part by the Episcopal Conferences with our approval and called by the Pope according to the needs of the Church, for his consultation and collaboration, when for the well-being of the Church it might seem to him opportune.”

The Synod has representation from every national bishops’ conference, and only a small representation at that. As an example, there are 272 active bishops in the United States, and yet we only elected four bishops to represent us at the Synod. In addition four other bishops from the U.S. were appointed by Pope Francis, bringing the total number of U.S. bishops at the Synod to eight. This represents only 3 percent of U.S. active bishops.

I emphasize this point because some are attributing far more authority to the Synod than it actually possesses. In fact the Synod has no deliberative power or authority to make decisions. It is simply a representative group of bishops with whom Pope Francis consulted on matters affecting marriage and family life in the Church and in the contemporary world.

But to listen to much of the secular media (and even some Catholic media), the Synod was preparing to make sweeping changes to the pastoral practice of the Church, if not Catholic doctrine itself. The Synod never had the authority to do either.

The recent Synod garnered so much media attention because of the subject matter (marriage and family), and because of some rather controversial questions that had been placed on the table for discussion. These included the place of homosexual persons in the life of the Church and the question of Holy Communion for the civilly divorced and remarried.

Past Synods had not garnered so much attention, and most Catholics hardly remember the work of past Synods on topics such as the new evangelization, the Word of God, the Most Holy Eucharist, the role of the bishop, and consecrated life, just to name a few. What made the recent Synod more visible was the false expectation on the part of some that the Church was about to make radical changes in doctrine and/or pastoral practice.

So what will become of the Synod’s work, and all the preparation and consultation that preceded the Synod? The Synod bishops issued a final report which has been given to the Holy Father, Pope Francis. This final report attempts to summarize the work of the Synod, the results of the deliberations and discussions that took place, and makes some recommendations to the Holy Father. This emphasizes the consultative nature of the Synod. They have advised the Holy Father.

It is now for Pope Francis to reflect on the work of the Synod and its final report. If recent practice holds, the Holy Father will issue what is known as a “post-synodal exhortation” on the subject matter of the Synod. It will be this letter from the Holy Father that will guide the Church in its pastoral application of the Synod’s work. This document alone will carry any authority.

So in the meantime I would like to emphasize that there has been no change in Catholic doctrine as a result of the Synod. There can never be change in Catholic doctrine on defined matter of faith and morals. There has also been no change in pastoral practice as it regards the sacraments of the Church. And any proposed changes to pastoral practice that may result after the Holy Father issues his exhortation must be fully consistent with the doctrine of the Church. The Church cannot teach one thing and then have pastoral practices that contradict that teaching.

So, in the meantime, pray for the Holy Spirit to guide our Holy Father in his final message to the Church on this crucial topic of marriage and family life which plays such a pivotal role in the life of the Church and society.

Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, November 23, 2015
Article comment by: Dennis McCartin

It is difficult for those of us in the pews not to be confused.

Archbishop Sample says in this article: “There can never be change in Catholic doctrine on defined matter of faith and morals…… The Church cannot teach one thing and then have pastoral practices that contradict that teaching.”

Pope Francis has said: “ Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth….. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”
(See: “A Big Heart Open to God,” in America Magazine, 9/30/2013)

Dennis M. McCartin
Central Point, Oregon

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