THE Synod on the Family at the Vatican ended on Saturday, and left intact Roman Catholic doctrine on marriage and homosexuality.
At the same time, it hinted at a more compassionate application of the doctrine, especially in regard to those in irregular marriages, such as after divorce.
The three-week Synod was not expected to embrace homosexuality to any greater degree than at present, and so it proved, rejecting same-sex unions as “not even remotely analogous” to heterosexual marriage.
The 94-paragraph final document does, however, reveal in its tone a desire to show greater welcome and mercy toward people in irregular and difficult situations, among them those whose marriages have failed. It also proposes better support for families in difficulty, particularly when children are involved.
The document was finalised on Friday of last week. Three controversial paragraphs dealing with divorce and remarriage narrowly won approval from some 270 delegates, in once instance gaining the required two-thirds-majority by only one or two votes.
This came only after Synod members had considered dozens of proposed amendments, tabled to change the paragraphs during the drafting stage, followed by about 20 proposed revisions from the cardinals and bishops who examined the draft and who objected to the ambiguity of some of the language used.
In the end, the document proposes that readmission to communion should be considered case by case, “according to the teaching of the Church”.
Priests and bishops should accompany such people on their journey back to full communion with the Church, the document says, explaining that such an “internal forum” can contribute to the “formation of a correct judgment about that which blocks the possibility of a fuller life in the Church and about the steps that can favour and foster that growth”.
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who is president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said that the paragraphs proposed a penitential “pathway” for remarried Catholics who wished to draw closer to God.
He said that the Synod had “quite deliberately set aside the question of admission to the eucharist, because that had become “a yes-no issue.
“The very nature of this is that it’s not as simple as yes-no,” he said. “It’s a pathway, and it is not for me, or for the priest who is doing the accompaniment, to pre-empt or foreclose that pathway.”
He told journalists at the Venerable English College, the seminary in Rome, that “no one will set out on this pathway with the single aim of receiving holy communion, and nobody will be accompanied on this pathway with the single principle that they can’t.”
Cardinal Nichols went on: “You don’t where it goes. I know people who have done this and have come to the conclusion themselves, to a mature, conscious decision, that they should not receive the eucharist because they want to give a witness to the stability of marriage. But it’s their decision.”
Asked about those who decided that it was right to receive the eucharist in similar circumstances, he said: “That is not pre-judged or pre-empted. If anyone wants to walk this way, come, and we will walk with you.”
The conclusion of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops has brought to an end the second phase of a two-year process to examine how the Roman Catholic Church can improve its pastoral response to the crisis of the family in the 21st century.
It follows an “extraordinary synod” held in October last year, and will culminate in a final document written by Pope Francis and issued in the forthcoming Year of Mercy, which he will open on December 8.
Delegates engaged in more than 90 hours of debate, and heard more than 400 speeches. Many of the contributions were forthright, and a leaked letter, sent to the Pope by 13 conservative cardinals, expressed the view that the outcome of the Synod had been rigged.
One commentator, Tom Reese, wrote in the National Catholic Reporter: “Never in my lifetime have I heard of bishops and cardinals being so disrespectful of a pope, challenging his organisation of this Synod, even a few referring to him as a Protestant, and threatening a fractured Church if he goes against their wishes.”
In an apparent response, the Pope also told the delegates that “true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness.”
He said: “The Church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.”