I recently read an interesting article that seeks to examine the politics of the first session of the Synod on the Family and understand the implications of the political aspects of the synod. The author proposes that the Pope is not the problem, a claim that would be met by strong disagreement by many traditionalists and some progressives in the Church.
For traditionalists, the Pope is the problem because he doesn’t spend enough time speaking clearly of the doctrines of the Church and holding the wily progressives at bay in their attempts to remake the Church in the image of secular Enlightenment-era rationalism using the worst sort of backwards thinking. For some progressives, the Pope is the problem because he doesn’t just go ahead and give the green light to same-sex marriages and the ordination of women, foiling those stodgy traditionalists who so often engage in simplistic moralizing without the compassion we expect of Christians while using secular law to impose Church doctrines on the rest of society.
For other progressives, they are sure that either Pope Francis (or another Pope) will do these things in time or that he secretly agrees with them on everything. After all, a guy who’s clearly as “enlightened” as Pope Francis has to agree with them, the “enlightened” progressives, right? Of course, many traditionalists agree with those progressives that Pope Francis secretly agrees with the progressives, that his language is laden with the buzzwords and code words of a Western secular democracy despite his deeply parochial mentality rooted in his life in Argentina and his limited grasp of English.
While I tend to agree with Phil Lawler’s assessment of the problem facing “conservatives” with regard to the Synod on the Family and their views on Pope Francis, I also have a serious problem with the proposals of the “progressives” during the Synod and I don’t blame them for wanting to fight back against those proposals. The large problem I see with the political back and forth at the Synod is not that there was a political divide (though that is problematic). There will always be political maneuvering when the Vatican is involved and so many Bishops are gathered. There will always be an agenda or five at a Synod or a Council, though I hope that the highest priority on the agenda for the participants is to submit their wills to God rather than asking Him to submit to their ideologies.
The large problem I see is that many Catholics who are laudably active in the Church and interested in the affairs of the Church have missed the opportunities provided by the Synod to renew our mission to build family and thereby rebuild our communities. Instead, we have often capitalized on the opportunity to reopen wounds and dig around in them without working toward reconciliation. Sadly, in the West the Synod seems to have been less of a Synod on the Family and more of a Synod on highlighting our contemporary political divisions. The ascendance of politics over the family becomes very clear when we treat the speculation on the political allegiances of Pope Francis and his brother Bishops as the important issue, relegating the problems faced by single parents, women abandoned during a pregnancy, children abandoned by deeply wounded parents, lovely elders aging into nursing homes, and brothers returned from overseas to cope with mental illness on the streets to the back burner of our priorities.
Many “progressives” have insisted that we can fix the problems of the family by changing the rules from the top down, that there is a policy solution to the all too human problems faced by the family, problems that go much deeper than policy can follow. Many “conservatives” have insisted that we can fix the problems of the family by holding fast to those rules from the top down, agreeing that there is a policy solution to our human problems, but that it is to maintain the existing policy. Others recognize that Church policy is very useful and can even be very good where it calls us to live up to the extraordinary standards of authentic Christian morality, but that it cannot solve the deeper problems of the human heart.
Politics, even the politics of the Church, promises what it cannot deliver when it promises the redemption that can only come from an internal renewal, an internal renewal that is sufficient where the external constraints of policy are merely necessary. The broken and beaten down family of the West has some real need of constructive policies, but the greater need is a hand that reaches out from a neighbor to help make the journey toward the internal renewal that will give them the strength to rebuild their families in love and hope. It matters very little whether the hand that reaches out belongs to our political party or shares our ideology; what matters is that the hand is there to help us.
The beauty and the promise of a loving family cannot be actualized by policy, but it can be actualized by those of us who work in small ways to build our family relationships up rather than tearing them down with our addictions, our egotistical thinking, and our fear of reaching out in our vulnerability to break into the broken lives of others and help them carry their crosses.