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Rome’s rules

30 October 2015

AND . . . ? During the course of the Synod on the Family, which finished in Rome on Saturday, the Pope celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Synod of Bishops. Speaking the next day, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, remarked that, “in ecclesiastical terms, it’s probably just coming out of its teenage years, and beginning to gain maturity and depth.” The Roman Catholic Church certainly looks a novice in some aspects of synodical government, most notably its ability to develop wider representation and consultation. In its drafting of documents, however, it appears to be a master. This is not to praise the language of the Synod on the Family’s final report. Even taking a clumsy translation into account, the report cobbles together ill-fitting statements and caveats, the mark of multiple authors, betraying a concern for the parts rather than the whole.

The masterful touch is in what it fails to say. After the three paragraphs 84-86 on the subject of divorce and marriage, in which the authors talk about discernment, individual conscience, and “accompanying” couples in their particular relationships, the report stops. And so? The consequences of this new welcoming, integrating approach to couples who have married after one partner has been divorced are not spelt out. May they take communion or may they not? By simply not saying either way, the report’s authors, and the synod members who approved it, have allowed everyone to interpret the result in whichever way they wish. Thus conservatives and reformers are both able to claim victory. The doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage has not been altered; on the other hand, the way is open for it to be circumvented for pastoral reasons.

Of course, the only interpretation that matters will be that of Pope Francis, who is expected to pronounce on how the principles in this report are to be applied. The fact that he will do so at or near the start of his proclaimed “Year of Mercy” must give the reformers encouragement. The mechanism — a streamlined annulment process, in which applications no longer need to be forwarded to Rome — has just been announced. The question remains whether the Pope feels any further steer on the matter of re-admission to communion needs to be given, or whether he is content with this new situation, in which different disciplines are likely to develop in different parts of the world. He might wish to consult an Anglican or two.

Talking of Anglicans, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI experienced at first hand the pain of the divorce in the Christian family. Invited to attend mass in St Peter’s in their clerical robes, they could not, however, receive the sacrament. At the distribution, a member of the secretariat, sitting next to the Bishop of Shrewsbury, turned to him: “I am not going to receive communion today but remain sitting with you in suffering and solidarity. One day, it will happen.” We look forward to the day when the act of accompaniment leads all parties to the goal of unity.

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