Q. Obviously, a great deal of attention is being paid to the synod in Rome. But what exactly is a synod? Will it change Church teaching?
A. The gathering taking place in Rome right now is the 14th Ordinary Synod of Bishops, gathered to discuss the mission and ministry of the family in the modern world.
Blessed Pope Paul VI established the modern episcopal synod at the close of the Second Vatican Council, in 1965. The synod would be a consultative body of bishops convoked to advise the Holy Father on theological and pastoral issues—an expression of episcopal collegiality, and a means of cross-pollination between a variety of approaches to implementing the Council itself. Since 1965, the synod has gathered to discuss vocations, evangelization, catechesis, scripture, and the sacramental life. It met to discuss the family once before, prior to the 1981 promulgation of Pope John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio.
It’s important to bear in mind that no episcopal synod is a deliberative assembly. The synod’s recommendations carry no official weight; its publications are not acts of sacred magisterium. In an official sense, the synod’s only power is to advise the pope. And at the heart of Catholic ecclesiology is certainty that the Holy Spirit protects the pope from teaching theological error.
A discussion about ministry to families is sorely needed. Family life around the world is disintegrating—ruptured by pornography, contraception, technocracy, economic and social instability, and radical individualism. Families need new kinds of pastoral assistance to live the Gospel faithfully. And all cultures—post-modern Western culture especially—need the witness of joyful and cohesive families united in solidarity, affection, and common cause. All of us need to learn to restore the family to its rightful place as the nucleus of social and political institutions.
If the synod can actually help the Church to strengthen Christian family life and witness, it will do a great deal of good for a great many people.
All of us should pray for the synod, its deliberations, and its leaders. And we should trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church, to reveal the Gospel, and to protect the Church from error.
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