Betting on the Synod


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.

Claud CockburnCockburn 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 God's working in the authoritative and practical decisions of Pope and bishops the Synod was a failure. It decided nothing; its words were encouraging rather than defining or commanding; its conclusions were sent to the Pope rather than to the universal church.

During the Synod strong differences of opinion were voiced; accusations of manipulation were made; cardinals criticised one another; letters were leaked. Agreement on controversial points was secured only through a measure of ambiguity.

Pope Francis' own view of the Synod was more optimistic. He welcomed the honest discussion. He saw in the opposing views strongly held by different cultural groups evidence of cultural divergence and an argument for embodying the faith in different cultures. The value of the Synod lay in the care with which the participants listened to one another, entered the complex human reality of family life throughout the world, and wished to reach out to people marginalised in the church and in society.

He took Catholic doctrine for granted, but said: 'the true defenders of doctrine are not those that uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God's love and forgiveness'.

From this perspective the privileged evidence for God's working in the church is not to be sought in the authoritative words or actions of Pope and bishops but in the way they follow Christ's example in reaching out to people in need. When synods meet we should not look for practical solutions to complex issues but for a conversion in the participants and in Catholics more generally that leads them to look freshly at their world and may engender effective words and actions.

God's work in not found primarily in results — in answering questions, stating doctrines, reinforcing disciplines. It has primarily to do with reaching out to those in need of God's mercy. Evidence for it is to be sought in people encouraged, not in the world confronted.

In describing where the Holy Spirit is to be found in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has pointed to the bishops meeting together. But he directs attention away from their mitres, away from their faces, and on to their feet, asking with whom they are walking. In this race that is the form that counts.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Synod on the Family, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

After the Fine Cotton scandal, it was a mild surprise to me that betting continued as normal at Australian racetracks. We Aussies aren't ones to let a little thing like that stop us in our tracks. Mr Cockburn's choice of pet reflects a clear optimism, particularly given the colour of his lounge suite. Solutions come about because of co-operation and each participant needs to be fair dinkum.

Pam | 28 October 2015  

Yes, the pet will affect the condition of the lounge suite, and hiding it under pillows isn't going to change that ... which is why Andrew's column is a tad incomplete. Making the higher clergy walk with the challenged and conflicted laity is all well and good, but to where are they walking? All walk and no destination is hiding the dog under pillows so we won't see, for a little while at least, the dust and hairs accumulating on the lounge. Isn't it a false dichotomy to contrast 'people encouraged' with 'world confronted'? 'Christ's example in reaching out to people in need' seems to result in him telling the person what's-what. The record shows that he (more or less) told the Samaritan woman at the well she was a sinner but gave her no advice on how a single woman in those pre-social security times could get out of her moral bind without starving. 'Go and sin no more' seems to indicate that people are to accommodate themselves to doctrine, not the other way around, and charity is to help them do it without their having to starve. But they have to do it.

Roy Chen Yee | 29 October 2015  

Interesting perspective today Fr Andrew. I reckon I would be prepared to wager that in his obvious Christ-like practice, Pope Francis won't be backing any fundamental change in Church teaching or authority. Christ was indeed compassionate, did reach out to the downtrodden and oppressed, did accept the sinner with love, not condemnation. But in forgiving them always added the exhortation to "go and sin no more". It seems that conditions were attached to Christ's concerns for all men. If these were not met there was much anguish, much weeping, much gnashing of teeth and exclusion from his Father's house to be endured. Christ, it appears, did impose some limits!

john frawley | 29 October 2015  

I didn't see any families at the Synod. Did I miss something?

Susan | 30 October 2015  

Thank you Fr Hamilton for this commentary - I believe Popes John XXIII and Francis would welcome your contribution. I was interested, impressed by the comments of the German-speaking bishops, cardinals post synod: "In the wrongly understood endeavor to uphold church teaching, harsh and unmerciful attitudes were consistently taken in pastoral work,,,,, As bishops in our church we would like to ask forgiveness" for those attitudes. They assert the Synod's discussions, tone of discussion is a signal for Pope Francis "to proceed with revolutionizing a pastoral approach of the Church that has been too often strictly dogmatic and unrelenting". We hope - and I believe the hope is justified for we have a truly pastoral Pope.

John Nicholson | 30 October 2015  

The perennial doctrines and defined Spirit filled infallible dogmas on magisterium remain unassailable. Non acceptance by dissenters has a 2000 year track record due to their blindness and obduracy. I utterly reject the glib anarchist/antinomian tone of the article as well as implicit gratuitous global surveys of peoples' attitudes.

Father John George | 01 November 2015  

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We can assume that despite the recent Synod's focus on families, most of the voters have never had any involvement in raising families, and certainly not of experiencing pregnancy and childbirth. None have directly dealt with an abusive spouse, struggled to regulate family size, questioned whether to stay in an unhappy marriage, or dealt with a child identifying as gay, lesbian or transgender. Last year, I spent time working in a parish in Paraguay, where, unlike the church more broadly, women run the show.



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