Two upcoming Church synods are causing a bit of concern. The Amazon Synod opened on Sunday 6 October, and will consider a range of issues, including the ordination of married men.
The German bishops’ conference is meanwhile planning their own synod, which they want to be ‘ecclesially binding’. This is the doctrinal equivalent of Wall Street voting itself the right to print money.
On top of this, Pope Francis recently spoke of the potential for schism in the Church, but directed this towards his more vocal American critics.
I would suggest that no one get panicked about any of this, because panicking doesn’t achieve anything – but also because the Church has been here before.
In fact, the Church lives here, right in the middle of messes exactly like this.
The entire history of the Church has been punctuated by untidy and painful councils, synods, and other ecclesial gatherings.
All of these have involved violent clashes, incompetence, disobedience, vested interests trying to outmanoeuvre each other, Machiavellian senior clerics, lost or ambivalent documents, and hidden agendas.
And yet here we are, still going strong after two thousand years.
One of my favourites is the Synod of Whitby in 664 in England, when the Celtic Christian communities were brought into line with the Roman Catholic date of Easter. They didn’t come willingly.
St Bede describes some of the synod exchanges where the Celtic group argued in favour of local periti and their opinions. St Wilfrid replies: “Do you think that those few men, in a corner of the remotest island, are to be preferred before the universal Church of Christ throughout the world?”
At the Council of Nicaea in 325, St Nicholas slapped Arius in the face and called him a heretic. Events at the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 read like an episode of The Sopranos. The iconoclasm council of Nicaea in 787 got very ugly, in and out of session.
In fact, reviewing Church history overall, it’s hard to find any golden age when synodal difficulties were settled with polite conversation, respectful theological exchanges, and peaceful submission to the Magisterium.
This includes Vatican I in 1870, the ultra-polite Victorian era, which still had its share of shouting matches (thank you, Bishop Josip Strossmayer) and was ended by a war.
If you want to talk about ‘synodality’, this is what we’re talking about. Synods and councils are a normal part of Church life, and they don’t always go well.
The post-war Church and synods are rather like the post-war world and war. We haven’t officially had a world war since 1945. And yet at the same time, war has continued everywhere in the world.
In the same way, we haven’t had a Church council since Vatican II, but at the same time, local synods have been meeting all over the world. Like all the past ones, none of these has yet brought the entire Church crashing down.
Some synods do end in schisms, because there will always be groups of people who feel that they might be better off running their own church.
The Amazon synod has some alarming components being built into its mix which have the potential to produce schism. It’s good to remember that the demand to ordain local uneducated, elderly married men is based on dubious and unsubstantiated reports of pastoral abuses.
But of course, this is a synod, so people with an agenda see an opportunity to try to unsettle the Latin Church’s centuries-old discipline of priestly celibacy.
The German synod is rather different. A group of German bishops who have for years publicly indicated their dissatisfaction with Rome are likely to inch a little closer to leaving the Church formally.
But it’s also likely that a modern-day St Wilfrid is going to say to their faces, “Do you think that those few men, in a corner of the remotest island, are to be preferred before the universal Church of Christ throughout the world?”
This is the question all of us must ask ourselves when we see this kind of thing, whether it’s overseas or closer to home.
We have plenty of local, loud, privileged voices in the Church in Australia who would like us to follow their preferred Pied Pipers into the ecclesial wilderness.
Do we prefer these few men (and women), in a corner of the remotest island, before the universal Church of Christ throughout the world?