Factions, tensions, dissensions?

New Zealand particpants will be sending posts from the Synod on Marriage and the Family in Rome this month.
Here is a post from Bishop Charles Drennan.

I’ve been skim reading a few blogs. Being a first time blogger I wanted to check whether I had the genre right. That’s for you to judge but reading one I was left thinking this seasoned Vaticanista has got it wrong. A good plot makes a good story. But the cast needs to be right too. I don’t believe that the tensions or points of difference at the Synod can be cast as progressive versus conservative – and anyhow, those terms are so overplayed they are almost meaningless.

But deep-seated points of difference there are. In the main they are cultural. While traditional notions of nationalism (even borders) are diminishing the prominence of cultures is rising.

How does this affect the Synod? This last couple of days have been dedicated to circuli minores (small groups). This means the soutanes are off (literally) and the overalls are on (figuratively). We are in sleeves rolled up mode. The small groups are language based. In my group there is a prominent Oz, two Ghanaians, two Americans, four Indians, 2 Poles, and one each from Taiwan, Korean, Thailand, Vietnam, Canada, Kenyan, Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi, Tonga, Dubai, and Scotland.

What do we do? We are laboriously wading our way through the very patchy instrumentum laboris (draft or working document) of the Synod. It is hard work. Lots of listening, thinking, and proposing as we all seek to improve the text. Our suggestions are then submitted to a further group who will then have the unenviable task of turning all 13 groups’ work into an engaging and cohesive text. That text will then be submitted to Francis to do with it as he wishes – publish it, rework it again, store it, or use it as a base for something different, perhaps far shorter.

When the going was tough, I was tempted to think wouldn’t it have been easier if Francis had gathered together a team of theologically informed creative writers and simply delivered us an insightful document into family life today shaped by Christ and our faith? But that would be a cop out; or at least a cop out in regard to how a Synod works.

What became immediately clear in our group – and here’s the benefit of teamwork – was that notwithstanding international input the draft document was in many places very European or Western centric. Here’s the cultural edge. The Africans are saying, look, all this depressive talk about divorce, and hedonism and consumerism and endless other ‘isms is the default position of tired European theologians stuck in dull lecture halls. This simply is not our experience. The woman from Dubai (with adult children in NZ) added, our Churches are overflowing, our marriage preparation courses are booked out months in advance, and we are building new Churches etc. This talk of “crisis of faith” if it is real is your problem not ours. Where’s our voice in this document? So, following the synodal process, out come our red pens and we try to write into the draft a greater depth and breadth of experience and insight in the light of faith.

The “red pen” was in my hand at one stage – meaning I was drafting a modus or amendment – and Cardinal Pell to whose left I was sitting turned to me and said: thank you Bishop Charles for your approved amendment to the text and I would now ask you to present a decipherable version to the Secretary. My handwriting is differently gifted.

For today that’s enough. Alongside the greatly differing cultural experiences of the one universal Church the other emerging main point of difference in the Synod is choice of language. More of that later.

But to end where I started countering some journalistic comments, the overall spirit is one of great unity. There are lots of laughs, deep sharing, and the coffee break is convivial and friendly. Even though the coffee itself is blooming awful. For some godforsaken reason they are using that ghastly long life milk. Maybe I should suggest Fonterra sponsor a few pontifical cows.

Bishop Charles Drennan is Bishop of Palmerston North.