Discerning Paradox: Why We Should Care About the Synod

Bishops arrive in procession for a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis to open extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. (CNS photo/CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool)
Bishops arrive in procession for a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis to open extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. (CNS photo/CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool)
Let’s be honest: Christianity is built on seemingly irreconcilable paradoxes. God becomes human. Jesus is both God and man. Death brings life. And we’re all called to be last so that we might be first.

It’s a lot to take in — and that’s why we should all be particularly interested in this week’s extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. There’s a lot of paradox — a lot of seemingly irreconcilable difference –and we get a front-row seat to watch the Holy Spirit work.

Any cursory glance through Catholic news reports and blogs over the last few months will show you what I mean. We’ve seen journalists at each other’s throats trying to interpret Pope Francis’ intentions. (Check out our own Mike Hayes’ predictions here.) We’ve seen arguments upon arguments about what makes a valid marriage. We’ve even seen cardinals quarreling in public.

Really, what we’ve seen is conversation and dialogue, which in reality is what we should be hoping for. Such conversation leads to good discernment and allows impossible paradoxes to become moments of creativity. (After all, not so long ago, having a retired and active pope living in the Vatican would have been considered such a paradox.)

Here are five paradoxical points of dialogue we should be attentive to during these days of conversation.

  1. Pastoral vs. Doctrinal Approach

    There’s a lot of talk of streamlining the annulment process and reevaluating how the Church cares for those who are divorced. German Cardinal Walter Kasper has articulated a new way forward that would allow those who have gotten divorced and remarried to receive Communion after a period of penance, focusing more on the pastoral realities and needs of individuals without changing doctrine. Yet, can there be a pastoral approach that does not mirror doctrine? Shouldn’t our actions be reflections of our beliefs?

    Here we will see the Church grappling with the nitty-gritty realities faced by so many people around the world. Here we may also see the “Francis Factor” on full display, bringing lofty language and theological concepts into the realm of everyday people. But, will this be a one-sided dialogue?

  2. Bottom-up vs. Top-down

    Pope Francis shocked the Church last October when he asked that all Catholics be surveyed regarding issues affecting the family. Though it was a drastic change in Church governance — asking for input from the grassroots — the 39-question survey was unwieldy in its wording and implemented haphazardly from one diocese to the next. While some bishop conferences made it available widely, others failed to do so. And there continues to be apprehension as to how the answers will factor into the synod discussion.

    How, then, can so many voices be heard? Will the airing of so many opinions be possible — or wanted — amidst the bishops’ own opinions?

  3. One Church vs. Big Tent

    Some say the Church is a big tent welcoming all, even those of differing views; others say there is just one way to be Catholic. We’ve most likely heard this before, but rarely have we seen such adamant and public arguments between cardinals, bishops, and other church leaders putting this statement on display. While Cardinal Kasper expounds upon his ideas for reconciling divorced and remarried Catholics, American Cardinal Raymond Burke publicly denounces his plan. Five cardinals have also co-authored a book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ, to dismantle Cardinal Kasper’s proposal. This is a particularly pertinent paradox, as Pope Francis himself is particularly taken by Kasper’s theological approach.

    Can these differing — and disparaging — views find common ground? More importantly, will the pastors themselves? The pope has plans to be actively involved in the discussions throughout the synod — unlike his predecessors. We will see how his leadership style navigates these treacherous waters.

  4. Global vs. Local

    As church, we’re to make Christ known throughout the world, yet the Church looks very different depending on where in the world we are. This goes beyond giving local bishops more influence. This means that the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church must relate and react to the reality of different cultures, geographies, and governments. In thinking about issues affecting the family, Catholics in the United States often default to issues like contraception, gay marriage, and divorce. But what about interreligious dialogue, conflict, poverty, migration, or forced and child marriages? The bishops will need to develop a pastoral plan that accounts for the entirety of the Church’s needs, not just respond to a few hot-button issues.

  5. Continuity vs. Change

    In the years since Vatican II, we’ve heard a lot about continuity and discontinuity — was the Church actually changed or simply renewed? Is change even possible when we’re tasked with carrying Christ’s message through the ages? We’ve seen this same conversation continue during Francis’ papacy: Has he broken with his immediate predecessors or simply changed the tone and emphasis of his teachings?

    Regardless, this will certainly serve as a paradoxical backdrop to the proceedings of the synod, as doctrine cannot change but emphasis can. Working within that dichotomy, what new work is even achievable?

So, why should we care about the synod? Because we’ll see what a discerning church looks like under Pope Francis. In the end, it’s the Holy Spirit’s game — and we must allow the Spirit to work, in the Church and in ourselves. The synod begins the conversation that will culminate at the World Meeting of Families next year in Philadelphia.

That means we have a whole year for dialogue, discernment, and paradox.