The Holy Father denounced many of the synod fathers as being Pharisees rather than good pastors

At the synod’s mid-point, Pope Francis delivered an address in which he called for a “synodal Church”, indicating that he desired more synods, with more authority, in the life of the Church.

By the end of the synod, the Holy Father might have changed his mind. He closed the synod with the most scathing speech of his pontificate to date, denouncing some of his brother bishops for “a facile repetition of what is obvious or has already been said”; of “burying their heads in the sand”; of “indoctrinating” the Gospel “in dead stones to be hurled at others”; of hiding “behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families”; of giving into “conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints”; of using “language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible”; of being like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, or the jealous labourers in the parable of the workers in the vineyard; perhaps suffering from a “fear of love and showing that love concretely”.

Papa Bergoglio is a better man than me, because the idea of spending several weeks in the company of men so characterised would put me off the synodal path entirely.

Yet if the Church is going to have more frequent synods, there are some things that will have to be corrected.

Synods are purely advisory to the pope. Yet they are widely viewed as deciding matters, meaning that bishops advise, but do not have real responsibility for their decisions. The synod final report scrounged together enough votes to pass the sections on Holy Communion for the civilly divorced and remarried by a rhetorical fudge. It reaffirmed the need to proceed in accord with the “comprehensive criteria” of St John Paul II. But it did not quote that criteria specifically. So is the teaching of John Paul upheld, as Cardinal Pell insisted? Or are pastors and their penitents free to reject his definitive articulation of the Catholic tradition in certain cases, as Cardinal Schönborn said?

Did the Wall Street Journal get it right, with its headline, “Bishops Hand the Pope a Defeat on His Outreach to Divorced Catholics”? Or was Il Messaggero right, which led with “Yes to Communion for the divorced: The host for those who are remarried, but it must be evaluated on a case by case basis”?

If the bishops could actually decide – as they do in the case of ecumenical councils – they would have to be clear, not seek to achieve consensus in confusing ambiguities. But then synods could not proceed as they do now, with Archbishop Blase Cupich floating ideas about conscience well outside the Catholic tradition on Friday, bishops discussing the matter on Monday and Tuesday, with everyone waiting with baited breath for a first draft of a final report to emerge on Thursday afternoon to see if the synod is going to declare John Henry Newman wrong about conscience.

Not to worry, in this case the Thursday conscience language was not fully Cupichine, but still not fully Catholic, so the synod fathers, having stayed up late on Thursday night like students cramming for an exam, offered various amendments on Friday morning, wondering if the central drafting committee would, according to entirely unknown criteria, accept the amendments or not. That news was delivered on Saturday morning with the presentation of the revised text which, after a solid five hours of deliberation, the synod fathers voted upon.

Meanwhile, the media is waiting to tell Catholics the world over who won the synod, the conservatives or the liberals. The process certainly is successful in terms of generating interest, but it is ill-suited to arriving at contested truths, let alone truths pertaining to, in this case, the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life.

One of the most prominent cardinals at the synod announced to his brothers in the language group discussions that the synod had been a catechetical catastrophe. Not for what it taught about anything in particular, but because it suggested to the Church and the world that Catholic teaching was determined by parliamentary methods, the basic procedures of which were made up on the fly.

The Holy Father anticipated this danger in his opening address, specifically saying that a synod is “neither a convention … nor a parliament or senate, where people make deals and reach compromises.”

That is, though, how it often appears in the mainstream media, from which most Catholics get their news about the Church. There are Christian communities which have wrapped themselves up for years in synods, in which the outcome of Church teaching and discipline is the result of parliamentary manoeuvring.

The Holy Father denounced many of the synod fathers as being Pharisees rather than good pastors. If the dynamics of this synod return in more frequent future synods, it may be less that the fathers are Pharisees than that the process is to akin to party politics.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (30/10/15)

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