THE Vatican Synod on the Family 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: it rejected 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 last Friday. Three controversial paragraphs dealing with marriage after divorce narrowly won approval from about 270 delegates, in one instance passing the required two-thirds-majority mark 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 judgement 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 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 8 December.
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.
A commentator, Thomas 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 organization of this Synod, even a few referring to him as a Protestant and threatening a fractured Church if he goes against their wishes.”
The pro-gay campaigning group the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics said on Monday that it was “encouraged” by the Pope’s closing address to the Synod, and saw in the final report “the beginning of a new era of inclusive pastoral care for and with LGBT people, and their families”. It was critical of aspects of the report, and was “dismayed” that the criminalisation of LGBT people in many countries had not been rejected explicitly. But it welcomed expressions of apology made by Synod members for past harmful and inaccurate language about LGBT people.
Choose love over harsh doctrine, Francis says
IN HIS closing address to the Synod, Pope Francis 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 went on: “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.”
The Synod was “about bearing witness to everyone that, for the Church, the gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would ‘indoctrinate’ it in dead stones to be hurled at others”.
It was also about laying bare “the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.
“It was about making clear that the Church is a Church of the poor in spirit, and of sinners seeking forgiveness, not simply of the righteous and the holy, but rather of those who are righteous and holy precisely when they feel themselves poor sinners.”
The Pope returned to this theme in his homily during the Sunday-morning mass in St Peter’s. In the presence of a large congregation inside the basilica and crowding St Peter’s Square, he expounded the Gospel story of Bartimaeus to the assembled cardinals and bishops.
Speaking of the temptations for those who follow Jesus, he pointed out: “None of the disciples stopped, as Jesus did. They continued to walk, going on as if nothing were happening. If Bartimaeus was blind, they were deaf: his problem was not their problem.
“This can be a danger for us: in the face of constant problems, it is better to move on, instead of letting ourselves be bothered. In this way, just like the disciples, we are with Jesus, but we do not think like him.”
Pastoral path is the way forward
THE Synod on the Family had “quite deliberately set aside the question of admission to the eucharist” for divorced and remarried people, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said at a press conference at the Venerable English College in Rome on Sunday afternoon.
“That had become a ‘yes-no’ issue, and the very nature of this is that it is not as simple as ‘yes-no’: 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.
“So nobody will set off on this pathway with the single aim of being able to receive holy communion, and nobody will be accompanied on this pathway with the single principle that they can’t.”
The present position is, of course, that couples in irregular marriages cannot receive the sacrament, but Cardinal Nichols seemed happy to be interpreted as signalling a more open approach.
Echoing the Pope’s words, he said: “What has been very clear is that this Synod, definitively, in a way that’s quite decisive, has said that what the Church needs with regard to this now is a pastoral pathway.
“Not everything is a matter of doctrine. Not everything is decided by doctrinal disputes. But there is a richness, a tradition of pastoral practice in the Church which we have to recover.”
He talked about pointing the way: upholding the sanctity of marriage, “but also finding concrete ways of putting into practice the mercy that is at the heart of God”.
The document, he said, made it clear that people who were divorced and remarried were not excommunicated, “not external to the Church. . . It’s not a question of welcoming them back into the Church, but of saying ‘You are our brothers and sisters, and the pain that you have gone through is the pain of the Church.’”
He recalled that, at the end of the previous Synod, the Pope had said that the Church faced two temptations: “One was to reduce everything to points of doctrine, and the second was to bandage wounds without first treating them.”
The Cardinal went on: “You don’t know where it goes.” He knew people, he said, who had come to a mature, conscious decision that they should not receive the eucharist, because they wanted to give a witness to the stability of marriage. “But it’s their decision.”
When challenged about what would happen if a couple decided, in all conscience, that it was right to receive the eucharist, however, he said: “It’s very important for this to be understood: that that is not to be prejudged or pre-empted. If anybody wants to walk this way, this path, we will walk with you.”
The crucial words from the Synod, he said, were “accompaniment, discernment, reverential listening — presented as a duty of a priest, not as a weakness”.
Listening and walking together - Tim Thornton reflects on attending the Synod in Rome, plus extracts from its statement
Both progressive, but from different premises - Harriet Baber traces the values of Leftist Americans, who love Pope Francis, but loathe his Roman Catholicism
Machiavellian plotting at the Synod - Dirty tricks were afoot in Rome, says Paul Vallely