A three-week synod has convened in the Vatican to reconsider how the Roman Catholic Church deals with family issues. The official theme of the conference is “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World.”
The gathering is populated primarily by ordained celibate males. A few heterosexual couples are participating but who cannot vote, a status shared by a few singles, most of whom are women, some of them women religious (who, of course, are also celibate). In other words, virtually all the participants have never lived the sort of life experienced by most of the world’s adult population.
Both the composition of the synod and the inclinations exhibited by Pope Francis suggest that, at the end of three weeks, the Roman Catholic Church will be as judgmental as ever, but will downplay its condemnation. Gays will still be disordered, women will still be the oppressed minority in a church in which the represent the majority of its adherents, and, prevented from using birth control, women will be condemned for aborting unwanted offspring.
But there is another reason that nothing substantial will come of the family synod. Like meetings of Anglican primates, the worthies gathered to discuss family issues represent both Western industrialized nations and nations of the Third World. The Roman Catholic Church, like Anglican churches, is growing fastest in the developing world. As in the Anglican Communion, the greatest repository of conservative sentiment within the Roman Catholic Church is in developing countries. Even if, say, Western participants thought that the condemnation of homosexuality should be done away with, such innovation would be thoroughly unacceptable to conservative non-Western participants. Largely because of this dynamic, the best that can be hoped for from the synod is greater pastoral sensitivity devoid of any doctrinal movement.
The futility of gatherings like the current one exposes the great weakness of a worldwide church or communion in which uniformity is considered indispensable. Over two millennia, Christianity has continued to evolve to remain relevant to changing social contexts. There is no reason to believe that process is at an end, despite self-righteous prattle about “the faith once delivered to the saints.” Moreover, it is perfectly clear that Western and Third World countries represent societies at very different stages of development. To suggest that they are served by identical churches is patently absurd. God may be unchanging, but God’s people are not. A church that serves the needs of a congregation in suburban California will not likely be equally effective in rural Nigeria.
The Roman Catholic Church has backed itself into a corner from which no one can escape until everyone does so. The Anglican Communion has not done this, although some would like it to adopt the same stance as the Roman Church. May God keep our Communion from making that mistake.