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24 October 2014

IN HIS closing address to the synod on the family in Rome, Pope Francis spoke of two temptations in particular: "a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God". This is "the temptation of the so-called, today, 'traditionalists', and also of the intellectuals". Also, "the temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness, that . . . treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the 'do-gooders', of the fearful, and also of the so-called 'progressives and liberals'". Every verdict about the synod has its equal and opposite judgement. The traditionalists were both troubled and triumphant. The radicals (everything is relative) were rampant and routed. The Pope, meanwhile, was careful to praise all who had participated, regardless of their position, for their "faith, pastoral and doctrinal zeal, wisdom, frankness, and courage".

As with all things Roman, the trick is to set aside what was said and, instead, examine the process. What was really radical about this synod was the publication of voting figures for each clause in the final document, the relatio synodi. From this we discover that a significant majority of cardinals and bishops, 104 to 74, voted in favour of "welcoming remarried divorcees to the eucharist in certain specific situations and under very precise conditions". Also that a significant minority, 62 to 118, voted against the watered-down statement about homosexual people, stating that "men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect and sensitivity" - even though this was a direct quotation from the RC catechism. As a consequence of this openness, the RC Church embarks on a year of discussion in preparation for the synod next autumn knowing the stakes. Despite the conservative appointments made by Pope Francis's predecessors, many of whom are still in post, the RC faithful know that a majority of their leaders are in favour of liberalisation. This will have a tremendous influence on the direction of the debate.

As will the stance of Pope Francis. He concluded his remarks with a telling sentence: "Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas, and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families." In other words, preserving the status quo is not good enough. It might be a case of recasting it, finding a new, positive argument for traditional definitions of the family. But whatever this year of debate throws up (Anglicans might be sceptical about the timetable), the Pope expects it to address the many examples of hardship and feelings of injustice which the synod heard about in the course of its deliberations.

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