Answer: There is no clear objective answer; so much depends on one’s ideological or ecclesial perspective.
First of all, let’s discuss what a synod is. Synod is a general word for an ecclesial gathering, and can range in size from a few local priests to as many bishops from around the world as can fit in St. Peter’s. Synod and council, according to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, are synonymous terms. Only when the bishops of the world are gathered under the presidency of the pope is it deemed an ecumenical or general council capable of legislating for the entire Church.
If we leave our description here, it would seem that this Synod is simply a “talk shop”, a manufactured event in which the participants can discuss change without actually changing anything ... much like a session of Congress. It’s not quite that simple or cynical an exercise.
We in the West — especially in America — tend to assume that our concerns are shared by the whole world, or at least that they ought to be, and that the only people who matter are the people who think just like we do. This isn’t the case; what may sound like a splendid idea among American or German Catholics may not fly with Catholics in Estonia, or Burkina Faso, or South Korea.
For as much as has been made of Francis being the first pope from a Third World country, culturally he is in many respects as much a European as were his predecessors. Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has been carrying the standard for divorced and remarried Catholics, is a German of the Germans. The synod allows the pope and Cdl. Kasper to float trial balloons in an arena where the response is more international, and isn’t shaped by the Western media.
This is important to remember because, while the Synod itself may not have power to legislate, Pope Francis certainly does. And a mistake made out of compassion is still a mistake.
During the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI suggested that the Council’s basic text, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, include the statement that the Roman Pontiff “is accountable to the Lord alone.” The Council’s Theological Commission told Pope Paul politely but firmly that that simply wasn’t the case. Any pope, the commission pointed out, is also accountable to God’s revelation, to the fundamental structure of the Church given it by Christ, to the seven sacraments, to the creeds, to the doctrinal definitions of earlier ecumenical councils, and to “other obligations too numerous to mention,” as the commissioners delicately put it. (George Weigel, The Courage to Be Catholic, pp. 117-118)
The power of the keys isn’t the blank check many people think it is. All cynicism to the contrary, Catholic clerics mostly take their vocations seriously, even bishops.
Since the First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility in 1870, only one pope has exercised it: Ven. Pius XII, who defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in Munificentissimus Deus in 1950. And even that wasn’t boldly going where no Christian had gone before; most Catholics and Orthodox have believed the Blessed Virgin Mother was taken bodily into heaven since at least the fourth or fifth century. (Scripture doesn’t record it; but then again, Catholics have never regarded Scripture as the Sole Source of Everything You Need to Know and Believe.)
The clue you need to understand this is the difference between doctrine and discipline. Simply put, doctrine is what the Church teaches; discipline is how the Church teaches it and carries it into action.
Now, much of the Church’s doctrine can't be changed, because God hasn’t changed, and Man’s need for friendship with God hasn’t, either. As well, while we don’t hold with sola scriptura, we do hold Scripture to be divinely inspired; so we can’t just toss out of Scripture or the apostolic tradition whatever displeases our cultural neighbors.
At the same time, we can’t reach people who aren’t sitting in the pews to listen. Pope Francis has made it terribly clear that he wants the Church to be a place of warmth and welcome. But how do you make people feel comfortable in the Church when fulfilling her task — calling the world to repentance — must necessarily make them feel uncomfortable?
So the question is: How far, or to what degree, can the Church change its disciplines on family and sexual matters without compromising its doctrines? Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa quotes Weigel (unfortunately, without a link):
The synod fathers are wrestling with difficult questions. How does the Catholic Church best approach, in a pastoral and charitable way, those who are living in what the Church has no option but to consider, objectively speaking, irregular situations? How does a Church of sinners — which is what all of us Catholics are — call people in those situations to the conversion to which all Christians are constantly called? How can it bring people to see the truth of their situation, and how can it best help them deal with that? These are not simple matters; matters of the heart rarely are.
Many people in what I’ll reluctantly call the “right wing” of the Church fear — and many in the “left wing” hope — that the Synod is the storied “thin edge of the wedge”. While a synod may not be able to enact changes, it can call for and propose changes. These people fear/hope that the “progressive pope” and his buddy +Kasper are using the Synod to give them the justification they want to make the usual progressive laundry list of desired changes in doctrine.
This fear/hope got a big boost on the release of the mid-term relatio post disceptationem (literally, “post-discussion report”), which has passages that appear on the surface to be more open to cohabitation and gay unions.
As John Thavis reports, there has already been plenty of criticism and pushback from synod participants. In particular, “The relatio’s section on homosexuality should make clear that ‘welcoming’ gay people should be done with a certain prudence, ‘so as not to leave the impression that the church has a positive evaluation of this orientation,’ the Vatican summary said. Similar objections were raised to the relatio’s treatment of cohabitating couples.” Nevertheless, as Robert Royal moans despairingly, “the Church has now dug itself into a deep hole.”
From my perspective, the relevant passages (paragraphs 50-52) aren’t exactly the big, wet, sloppy kiss gay activists have been looking for, or that traditionalists have made them out to be.
While the first sentence of paragraph 51 is a triumph of obscurantist psychobabble, the second and third sentences, which essentially say that gay unions aren’t as good as traditional marriages and that nations shouldn’t use financial aid as an ideological crowbar, make it clear that the first sentence is at least meant to be cautionary gibberish. (Here, you decide: “The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension: it appears therefore as an important educative challenge.” After reading it four or five times, I still say: Hanh?) And while paragraph 52 concedes that gay relationships can have an element of agape in them, the authors qualify it by noting that they’re not “denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions”. No, the Vatican’s not going to plant the rainbow flag on the obelisk ... not this year, at any rate.
“These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view,” the relatio insists. At the same time, though, they’re “intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives” the bishops of the Church will have to wrestle with between now and the General Assembly next October. Translation: the current Synod is planning to kick the can down the road. And whatever the shape of the final relatio, we can guess right now that:
- It won’t be as openly laudatory about “irregular” unions as the current document;
- Various progressives will be upset about the walk-back;
- Various traditionalists and conservatives will contend that it didn’t walk back far enough; and
- If next year’s General Assembly discusses family matters at all, they’ll probably treat the Synod’s work like a dead skunk, and start right back from Square 1.
In sum, my opinion is that the Synod on the Family will accomplish jack squat beyond raising, and subsequently dashing, a number of mismanaged expectations. In truth, I don't think the Church can change the discipline much without crossing doctrinal barriers. Not even Cdl. Kasper is calling for a change in dogma, far less Pope Francis.
Then again, at least the bishops are discussing — or starting to discuss — what to do, rather than just standing still and letting the course of events roll over them. If there’s any victory in this for Pope Francis, getting the bishops off their butts is no small accomplishment.