We are in the midst of the first ever #synod, a large-scale Vatican conference where bishops talk about stuff and produce documents and don’t pay attention as the rest of the world sends ill-informed tweets about it. Synods are relatively frequent occurrences, but Synod 2014 has a successful hashtag, so good job Vatican for becoming hip and trendy. Unfortunately this makes for queasy-making uncharted territory – dealing with loud reactionary people who move quickly has never been one of the Church’s stronger points, and the Vatican is currently struggling to keep up with the staggering amount of idiotic content that’s been farmed in the past few days across the secular and Catholic internets. Pretty much everything out there so far is stupid/wrong, and by the time the Church catches up to it most of the world will have formed their opinions and stopped paying attention.
As a young educated person who probably likes indie rock music, it is your duty to not be stupid/wrong, so here is some non-misinformation to disseminate across the social media repost-osphere. Not that a site with a slightly offensive Islamist theme is an authority on Catholic theology – but then neither is the Daily Beast or, apparently, 95% of Catholic blogs, so here we go with some **shocking facts** that you probably didn’t know about #Synod14.
1. THE TOPIC OF THE CURRENT SYNOD IS “THE FAMILY.” This is just a normal fact, but if you haven’t been paying attention then you might want to know it. #Synod14 is focused on issues that pertain to the hypothetical creation of babies – marriage, dating, birth control (all Catholics know that birth control leads to babies) – and certain activities that often don’t – premarital cohabitation, hook-up culture, gay people [gasping emoji]. Read the entire relatio – currently the only official document on the synod – to get an actual gist of what’s going on. Pedophilia and abortion seem to be absent from the discussion, but other than that you basically have every Catholic topic that people like to get upset about. So it’s not surprising that this whole thing is a top-click listicle in the making.
2. THEY SPEAK ITALIAN IN THE VATICAN. The Vatican is in Italy. They speak Italian there. When they write press releases – including the synod relatio – they write them in Italian. Sometimes they even write them in Latin to be extra tricky. When you read quotes from Vatican press releases, you are reading a translation. In the case of the relatio, you are reading a hastily completed, **unofficial** English translation. These often suck. So, unless you are fluent in Italian and have a solid knowledge of ecclesiastical terminology – it is sort of a waste of time to form an opinion about wording of the relatio.
3. THE MAJOR THEME OF THE SYNOD IS THE CONCEPT OF “GRADUALISM.” THIS IS NOT RADICAL, REVOLUTIONARY, OR EVEN VERY INTERESTING. As relayed in excellent posts by bloggers Elizabeth Scalia and John Tavis, gradualism is “the idea that Catholics move toward full acceptance of church teachings in steps, and the church needs to accompany them with patience and understanding.” This has been a major concept since Vatican II, but it also kind of the whole point of Christianity. Famous example of gradualism in action include pretty much every saint ever. Gradualism strives for the Good Catholic Life, but recognizes the fact that most people make many egregious mistakes on the way there. Christian theology has always acknowledged sin as necessary reality of human existence, and the Church has accepted that reality and worked with it from the start.
The only shift at present is that the synod is actively applying this philosophy to extramarital sexual relations. The relatio suggests that priests be willing to work with people who are “living in sin” – to encourage them to acknowledge the positive aspects of said life (the “living” part), to turn away from the negative aspects (the “sin” part), to go through the process of Christian Reconciliation, and to eventually participate in full sacramental married Catholic Life (still complete with sin, but ideally a more venial version of it). This has been the official Church policy on sin since always – unfortunately it hasn’t always been actively practiced or adequately publicized. They synod seems to pushing to change that.
4. THE CHURCH HAS ALWAYS BEEN PRETTY DOWN W/ GAY PEOPLE. Common knowledge states that Catholics hate gay people. This is actively not true. The Catechism very clearly states, on the topic of homosexuality – “They must be treated with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (2358). Admittedly the line before that includes the phrase “deeply disordered,” so it’s understandable that the more positive conclusion to the paragraph often gets ignored. But the point being – the Church has, since Vatican II, officially been totally fine with gay people. They aren’t allowed to have premarital sex, but neither is anybody else. They aren’t allowed to get married, but neither are straight people who don’t intend to have children. There are plenty of examples of discrimination against gay people in Catholic communities, and there plenty of straight marriages that get consecrated without the necessary intent, but still – the Church’s theological stance has always been the same. #Synod14’s #controversial par. 50 will hopefully change the focus from “deeply disordered” to “treated with respect,” but there’s no seismic shift at work. Traddies who call this “homoheresy” or “confusing” or a betrayal to traditional Catholicism or anything like that are on some Gamergate-level logic. Liberals who say that this means the Church is about to allow gay marriage aren’t doing much better. Because –
5. GAY CATHOLIC MARRIAGE IS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN. When Pope Francis said “who am I to judge?” about homosexuality, he was not hinting at an Apple-style theological product drop in the near future. When the synod talks about the support of same-sex couple with children, they are not talking about letting anyone get married. This is because, for better or for worse, the definition of marriage in Catholic thought is extremely specific and completely immutable. Marriage is not a fun thing you do with someone because you love them so, so much – it is a fun thing you do because you love someone so, so much and you want to create smaller humans that you will arguably love even more. It’s super spiritual, but it’s also super biological. Homosexual unions can produce a lot of positive things, but one of them is not “a baby.” You can argue about this but actually you can’t because it’s like the definition of mammalian biology. So, yes, Pope Francis and nobody else is in the position to judge the validity of homosexual unions and love, but he *is* in the position to say, “This is not a Catholic marriage via the ‘what a Catholic marriage is’ theorem.”
6. THE ONLY POSSIBLE ACTIVE CHANGE PRESENTED SO FAR IS THE VATICAN POLICY ON DIVORCE. The language of the relatio seems to indicate that the Church, in the spirit of gradualism, might head in the direction of allowing divorced people who have since gotten more serious about Catholicism and are seeking to remarry (or have already remarried outside of the Church) to get/stay married and participate fully in Catholic Mass. In the end, this isn’t especially revolutionary either – remarriage is already allowed via an “annulment” of the previous marriage. An annulment is a document that states – for any number of reasons – that a marriage is not sacramentally valid. Annulments have existed for years, but currently obtaining one seems to mostly depends on whether you are a Republican presidential candidate or not. The synod might change this – either by streamlining the annulment process, or by hypothetically making some sort of policy change. Ultimately, the end result isn’t going to be particularly radical – a Catholic marriage will still depend on confession and reconciliation, and the Vatican isn’t about to start handing out annulments willy-nilly to every gdi who wants to get married in St. Patrick’s.
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TL;dr version – Catholic doctrine doesn’t change. How it gets talked about can, and does. Synod 2014 isn’t going to restructure any theological systems, but it might find some ways to improve relations between those immovable positions and contemporary civilization. This strikes me as mostly unobjectionable. So everyone can probably ctfo a little bit. At least until an official document comes out.