The Synod’s New Tone Isn’t So New

By Sara Knutson

Yesterday saw an explosion of attention toward the Catholic Church as the midway report on the proceedings of this month’s Extraordinary Synod was released.

Given the buzz regarding the report’s strikingly positive tone toward homosexuals and others, the stated reasoning behind the shift in tone has been overlooked, and that’s too bad. It’s a throwback move that may be the most important shift of all.

First, a bit of necessary history: the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, is famous, among other reasons, for its affirmation that elements of truth could be found outside the Catholic Church. Rather than disparaging other denominations and religions, Lumen Gentium praised what they held in common with the Catholic faith, seeing such commonalities as a sign that God meets people where they are and gradually leads them further in faith.

In yesterday’s report, the Synod Fathers referred specifically to this aspect of Lumen Gentium as guiding their reflections on marriage and the family, and they used the same approach while considering irregular and mixed marriages, cohabitation, and same-sex unions.

That is to say, rather than beginning with faults or complications, the bishops began their reflections on these situations by identifying the graces and truths that could be present in each, presenting them as building blocks that could lead people along the path of Christian discipleship.

In their own words:

“The Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.”

This is crucial.

The report itself is only a working document; as Gerard O’Connell points out, it could be significantly amended this very week. Even the final report will be non-binding, serving as a guide for the second portion of the Synod next year.

Consequently, the sound bites that have dominated the news this week could very well shift (although they may not). But the intentional acknowledgement of Lumen Gentium and its influence in the bishops’ approach to marriage and family issues is so fundamental to the report that I think it unlikely to be removed.

If that’s the case, and if such an approach becomes more widely used by the bishops, it could usher in a new era of openness and humility that would re-establish the Catholic Church as a credible moral authority in many people’s eyes. Let’s hope so.

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