The Synod of Bishops has ended and the Vatican website has made available—in Italian —the “Relatio”, the report, on the world meeting of bishops (that included priests, assessors from other faiths, and representatives of the laity.) Alarmists had predicted that the synod would end in perilous dissension. Some went even so far as to predict that a schism was in the offing. After all, the history of the Catholic Church records divisions spawned by apparently innocuous disagreements: whether it should be “Father and Son” or “Father through the Son,” on what day Easter should be celebrated, whether a person’s good deeds are creditable to him or are the result of grace at work in him, etc. Things ended well, though, and it remains the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.
Pope Francis’ closing address is as acute as it is pastorally sensitive. What some bishops from one part of the world propose as solicitous and charitable, bishops from another part of the globe consider scandalous, he observed. Those who complain that the teachers of the Church—the Pope and the bishops—are not in touch with reality better pay heed, because there is no surer sign that the pastors of the church are fully immersed in the contexts of the people they serve than the pluralism that manifested itself quite dramatically at the Synod! The Church is fully aware that the source of cohesion that was to be found in lifeworlds within which people thought, lived and acted has been shot through by a plurality of divergent, conflicting world-views, perspectives, schemes and norms.
Phronesis—prudentia: these are the virtues of the post-traditional age. With grand narratives discredited, what remains is for each to respond thoughtfully, responsibly and humanly to the exigencies of circumstances and to the particularities of one’s life. The church remains a community set apart by non-negotiable credal articles, but how these dogmas and canons are understood and lived, these have not been spared the sweep of pluralism. That is the significance of the synod’s invitation to persons in difficult situations—such as divorced and re-married Catholics —to turn to the “internal forum”. The external forum is the sphere of the judicial and the administrative. The internal forum has to do with conscience, with the dispositions of soul, with the particular promptings of human intelligence in response to the concreteness of one’s life-circumstances. It is to me a convincing sign that the Spirit breathed new life into the Church, that the Synodal Fathers responded to the prompting to urge phronesis—prudentia when recourse to overarching dogmas and precepts would otherwise result in complete separation from the communion of Christ’s faithful.
There is one more thing. Propositions are important. The Church has always placed a premium on the careful articulation of what it believes, hence the “symbola fidei” and the “definition” of dogma. And what might seem to be pointless semantic disputes are not pointless at all. Thought is mediated by language and clarifying terms is indeed clarifying thought. But propositions alone do not do justice; propositions alone do not fulfill the precept of charity. Invocation does. Invocation is the language of the ethical, taught Levinas. So does the synod teach. There might be so much that the members of the Church do that, expressed in propositions, would be opposed to what the Church teaches. But the supreme law of charity is that which should set the disciples of the Lord apart, not propositions, no matter how crucial or defining! And because it is law of the most exalted kind, the Church heeds the command. The Synod calls on bishops, priests, laypersons to invite, to invoke, to welcome persons in difficult situations and tangled relations.
There is one common entry in Facebook profiles that never ceases to fascinate me: “In a complicated relationship” or “It’s complicated”. Complicated, perhaps, when one wants to classify, when one is obsessed by status. Important though this juridical preoccupation may be, it is not as important as being charitable, being pastoral, and the language of charity, of respect, of welcome is not the forceful enunciation of propositions, but the respectfulness of invocation and address.
There is an interesting paraphrase of Thomas Aquinas that I owe to Archbishop emeritus Diosdado Talamayan: In the end, only three things remain—faith, hope and charity, and the greatest of these is prudence!