On Oct. 5, bishops from all over the world began to meet with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome to consider the Word of God in the church. This Synod of Bishops, as it is officially called, meets every three years and usually lasts for three weeks. The bishops of the United States elect four of their number to represent our conference at the synod, and I am one of those four.The Word of God is, first of all, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Who Christ is shapes the oral proclamation of the Gospel. Who Christ is also informs the pages of Sacred Scripture, the inspired written witness to what God has done to save us. In Sacred Scripture, God is both the principal author and the principal actor. It is primarily Sacred Scripture as the Word of God that will be the topic of discussion by the bishops assembled for the Synod.
The Word of God in the life of the church
Consideration of Scripture in the church starts with the use of Scripture in the Eucharist and in the other sacraments. The church, the community of faith, is the primary context for understanding and interpreting the Scriptures, books written over many centuries by people of faith and for people of faith. The church never gathers to worship God without hearing the Word of God proclaimed in Holy Scripture. Practically, however, the scriptural renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council has still to have its full effect in the personal and pastoral activities of many Catholics. That is one of the reasons why the pope selected this topic for this synod.
In the first half of the synod, bishops will speak to the topic, one after the other. Each talk is simultaneously translated into the six official languages of the synod. During the second half of the synod, the bishops and other participants meet in linguistic groups to formulate recommendations to be given to the synod and the holy father. These recommendations are voted upon at the end of the synod. The pope receives them and, with the help of the synod council (10 bishops elected by the bishops at the synod), he writes a paper on the topic, usually within a year after the end of the synod. The synod council then begins to prepare the next synod. It’s a system that assures ongoing reflection on major themes in the church’s life.
Such reflection, especially on Holy Scripture, is basic to the teaching ministry of bishops and priests. Their teaching is normative when it is itself faithful to God’s self-revelation as developed and understood in the doctrines of the faith, but they are not the only teachers in the Church. When I was growing up in Chicago, my parents and the sisters in school taught me the commandments of God and of the church and showed how they applied to daily life. I believe that is how most Catholics initially come to know what the church teaches. We are all responsible for faithfully handing on and explaining what our faith tells us through the church.
The Word of God in the social mission of the church
Catholic moral and social doctrines, scripturally based and philosophically elaborated, figure prominently in private and public discussions at election times. The bishops of our country have published “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (http://www.faithfulcitizenship.org/) and the bishops of Illinois have published a companion document “Our Conscience and Our Vote” (http://www.catholicconferenceofillinois.org/). Both documents have been presented in the Catholic New World, and bulletin inserts have been sent to the parishes. These documents synopsize the range of moral issues, and their relative importance, to be taken into account when one decides in conscience how to vote. I would urge every Catholic in the archdiocese to consider how voting is a moral action, one for which we are responsible before God.
Catholic moral teaching and the social doctrine of the church do not fit easily into contemporary social and political life. Some object to the church’s distinguishing intrinsically immoral acts and attitudes, whether abortion or euthanasia, torture or even racism, from acts that can be wrong but are not always so. The difference among these intrinsically immoral acts, of course, is that torture, euthanasia and racism are in various ways discouraged in law and their moral content more settled, whereas abortion is legally permitted throughout the country and, in some circles, is now regarded as a fundamental right. Others want bishops to just skip the theory and draw conclusions about particular candidates. That desire recognizes that the character of candidates also enters into the decision on how to vote. The church, however, is neither loftily removed from society and its politics nor is she engaged as one more political party. This is a necessary and principled position, but it succeeds often in making people on all sides unhappy.
People decide how to vote for many reasons, some of them based in individual or group self-interest rather than in concern for the common good. Much political rhetoric, directly or indirectly, reduces to appeals to self-interest. While the common good is not completely safeguarded by any one candidate or party, the differences on basic issues are important and have to be carefully weighed. Voting responsibly is therefore hard work. In the end, each of us has to explain our choices to the Lord, who is primarily concerned with the common good and calls us to sacrifice ourselves for it.
In the United States today, our economic system is under extreme strain and our political system is often distrusted. Some of those who shape our economic system and political life have acted immorally and irresponsibly. Many people are in danger, especially the poor. The present complex crisis, whose resolution remains uncertain, presents a moment for us to put our lives and our future in the hands of God’s Word made flesh. No economic or political system lasts forever and none is of ultimate importance. When human institutions show their limits and remind us that all things pass, what remains centrally important to every aspect of our lives is Jesus Christ: “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8).
I feel somewhat uneasy leaving the country for three weeks when all of us are anxious about the future, but the synodal topic, the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, is more important than anything else to human survival and eternal happiness. I pray that the synod’s deliberations will help us keep a perspective of faith in the midst of our present personal and societal difficulties. You and those you love are daily in my prayers; please keep me in yours.