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Betting on the Synod

  • 29 October 2015

The journalist Claud Cockburn (pictured) once said that Catholics could and would never bet on the election of the Pope because they believed it was all up to the Holy Spirit. Whether Catholic abstinence reflected reverence or the absence of a form guide, he did not say.

Cockburn was factually mistaken, of course — many Catholics then and now would place a bet on anything and everything. His reasoning also overlooked the Catholic understanding that human beings cooperate with the Holy Spirit. But his association of God's action with the election and the actions of popes provides a lens for looking at the recently concluded Synod on the Family.

Cockburn's view of Catholics would have seemed reasonable when he wrote. Although they understood that God worked in many places, they gave precedence to the words and actions of ordained ministers, and particularly to the Pope. At a time when the Pope was remote, never left Rome, and gatherings of bishops were clothed in ceremony, the Catholic hierarchy had a mystique. People saw the mitres, not the faces. So it was natural to give priority to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Pope and clergy.

The Second Vatican Council challenged this popular view by presenting a broader understanding of the church and the place of the laity, and by revealing the evident disagreements between bishops. In the West the later condemnation of contraception in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which touched the lives of lay people, made it harder unquestioningly to attribute divine authority to the instructions of Pope and clergy.  

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to recapture the mystique attaching to the ordained ministry and papal authority, while at the same time encouraging a committed laity. They worked to build a holy church, united in faith and discipline under an authoritative Pope and compliant bishops, in the face of an increasingly secularised world.

But as the extent of clerical sexual abuse and its cover up, and of corruption in the Vatican bureaucracy became evident, this project seemed threadbare. People now looked under the mitres of bishops gathered together to saw all too human faces. The question left hanging was where evidence of God's work might be found in the Catholic Church.

The Synod on the Family at which Pope Francis was joined by bishops from around the world has inevitably been scrutinised with that question in mind. For those who locate