Bishop Bonny looks ahead to the Synod – an ongoing analysis

johan-bonnyBishop Johan Bonny has been making headlines in Catholic media, first in Germany but today also in his native Belgium. In an extensive note the bishop of Antwerp outlines his thoughts and expectations for this autumn’s Synod of Bishops. Various media have presented this as an attack on Popes Paul VI and St. John Paul II and their documents on difficult subjects related to marriage, family and morality. But reality is somewhat different. Bishop Bonny does not exclusively discuss the contents of various magisterial pronouncements, but does offer strong criticism on how they came about, and how they are put it into practice.

In this post, I will summarise the text and offer my opinion here and there. As it is a fairly long text, this post is a work in progress. Expect updates over the coming days.

In the first part of his document, the bishops explains that he sees the development of an ecclesiastical question within the discussion about marriage and family, which he traces back to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on  contraception and sexuality, Humanae vitae. The way in which the Pope developed this text, apparently ignoring the advice of experts he had appointed himself, stands in stark contrast with how the Second Vatican Council went about matters: in strong collegiality which led to a virtually unanimous passing of documents.

This lack of collegiality in such an important matter has led, so the bishop explains, to a gap between the Church’s moral teaching and the moral understanding of the faithful. And we do see this happening: statements, decrees, encyclicals and the like do not play much of a role in the lives of the faithful, even though they can be important for properly living as Catholic faithful. Of course, a perceived lack of collegiality can not be the only explanation for this, as Bishop Bonny admits. I would even go so far as wondering if many faithful are even aware of how documents are developed, at least not in our time.

Among bishops, Curia and Pope, more collegiality can have positive results (and also negative), since we should not be afraid of talking about such important matters. But the Church is no democracy. The very nature of the papacy, of the body of apostles and disciples that Christ established, is at odds with that. The Pope has magisterial primacy, and he must be free to exercise it. But of course it is good to do everything to avoid needless division and even opposition, although that can probably never be rooted out completely.

A new interview, and Pope Francis points out the direction

“The question [of artificial means of birth control] is not that of changing doctrine, but to go into the depths, and ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account people’s situations, and that, which it is possible for people to do.”

francisThank you, Holy Father. Pope Francis said this in a new interview which is published today in Italian newspaper Corriere della sera. It’s what I have been saying all along, and so has – more authoritively – Cardinal Müller, for one. The quote above, which is preceded by papal praise for Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vita (“His genius proved prophetic: he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise [a] ‘brake’ on the culture, to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism”) can be equally applied to the Church’s teachings about sexuality and marriage.

Changing doctrine, even dogma, when it is difficult or seemingly illogical for us to follow, is not the answer. The Church claims the truth, and the truth is not subject to majority opinion. That does not mean that practices are unchangeable, as a casual glance at Church history shows. But, as Pope Francis, indicates, our practice must be based on both the truth expressed in doctrine, the situation in people’s lives and the possibilities these give us. The Church must be creative in that, which means we must all be, but it must be a creativity that makes use of all that is given her, not just a selection that suits us. So, doctrine, reality and possibility, these three dictate the way we must go.