Recently lionized by the media for his unconventional stance regarding the institution of marriage and homosexuality, Pope Francis prodded a traditional conference of bishops, priests and clergymen early this October to directly address controversies that have been ongoing topics of sensitivity within the Church. This conference, the Synod of Bishops on the Family, is a two-week gathering of Catholic figureheads that occurs every two years to discuss paramount ecclesiastical concerns. At issue last month were matters of the homestead and domestic sphere, with debates for gay marriage, divorce and unmarried parents, to name a few, surfacing in violent succession. Reports on the proceedings of the synods of bishops are released to the public at the midpoint of each session, but rarely does the content of the report obtain such contentious attention from the social sphere as that of this year’s assembly.
Pope Francis, notorious for his seemingly blasé but laudably tolerant “Who am I to judge?” attitude towards the LGBTQ community, is a game-changer for Roman Catholicism. He has been determinedly refocusing the priorities of the institution ever since he was sworn in last March, rejecting the common luxuries and perks granted to the papacy and steering the attention of the Church away from “culture wars.” Hoping that a more attentive analysis of the relationship between Catholic doctrine and contemporary topics, such as remarriage and contraception, will promote beneficial social change, the Pope is withdrawing from these arguments dubbed as culture wars—gay marriage, abortion, etc.—and reducing the secular progressive vs. non-secular conservative friction that is continuously fetishized by the media. Conservative clergymen and laymen alike are unnerved by the shift in perspective that Francis is bringing to the Vatican, and while many blame news outlets for fabricating the Pope’s liberalism, others are vehement in their opposition of him. Calling the Roman Catholic Church under Francis a “ship without a rudder,” Cardinal Raymond Burke, a former American archbishop of St. Louis, complains that the Pope is straying from the faith and leaving the Church directionless and misguided. Similarly, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput bemoaned the devilish confusion caused by October’s synod of bishops. For right-wing Catholic leaders, the sudden change in the orientation of the Church’s interests is a confusing and dismaying trend, but for those marginalized for decades by close-minded ideology, the events at the Synod of Bishops on the Family were a welcome and promising change.
What’s most impressive about the execution of the Synod is the shrewd selection of the subject of family life. “The Family” is a representation of wide-ranging varieties of social structures, and it is imperative for the survival of the Church that Catholicism be made accessible to a demographic more expansive than that of the traditional nuclear family. As discovered at the ecclesiastical conference, the domestic sphere encompasses gay rights, questions about cohabitating partners, the ability of divorced individuals to receive Communion, and poverty or unemployment. The broad nature of “the family” permitted members of the assembly to delve into and engage in an uninhibited reformative discourse; consequently, within the first week of the synod an overwhelmingly positive conciliatory message for the LGBTQ, divorced and cohabitating communities was issued that went so far as to include the subject line “Welcoming Homosexual Persons.” Americans are shocked by this outlook. The Church and the papacy are now presenting what appears to be a polarized view of once fundamental Catholic principles. Pope Francis understands that the Church must adapt to contemporary society in order to shake the rigid, outdated beliefs of his predecessors and opponents. He is allowing groups previously marginalized by the religion to gain a foothold in the institution, and while this is not entirely substantial, a larger synod of bishops promises exciting developments in the unfolding of the papacy’s new age of progressivism.
—Emily Sayer ’18 is currently undeclared.