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Synod affirms Francis' vision of church governance

  • 22 October 2014

Popular expectations of the Synod on the Family rose to unexpected heights when the draft report was prepared. They fell to earth with the publication of the final report which removed more welcoming and positive phrases about homosexual relationships.

The Synod was thus reported as a defeat for Pope Francis at the hands of conservative bishops. Yet for one who had suffered a defeat the Pope seemed remarkably buoyant at the end of the Synod. 

His equanimity is not surprising if we take seriously his frequent claim that he has neither wish nor intention to change church teaching. He simply wants to find new possibilities in it so that the Catholic Church can reach out to people who are marginal and estranged. His claim is given little weight by many of those who desire to see change in church teaching and of those who are opposed to change. Both believe that pastoral practice cannot be radically changed without changing doctrine. 

But if the Pope means what he says, he may have seen the Synod as a victory for his vision of church governance. It allowed the participants to engage in open discussion in which nothing was put off bounds. 

The openness of the conversation was emphasised by the frank and passionate differences of opinion between different bishops expressed outside of the Synod. Its transparency was expressed in the publication of the draft document and of the voting on the final document. 

The participants voted, too, on a document which reflected their conversation and was not simply an affirmation of pre-arranged conclusions. Nor will it disappear into the archives, but will form the starting point of practical discussions at the Synod next year. 

The larger challenge that the Synod will pose to bishops who return to their own dioceses will be how to incorporate into their own governance the openness and transparency that was embodied in the Synod. Pope Francis has shown that a style of governance built on control and secrecy can be changed for the better by involving people, by encouraging open conversation and by transparency. Some Bishops may be encouraged, and others feel pressured by his example to explore its possibilities in their local churches. 

It is also hard to see the treatment of the controversial issues of the Synod as a victory of conservative Bishops over Pope Francis. The challenge behind the question that dominated comment before the Synod, whether divorced and remarried