Decoding the Vatican

  • Vatican condemns terrorism of Islamic State, rejects war as solution

    The Vatican summit today on the Middle East heard a strong call to protect Christian minorities, but also a strong rejection of war as a solution to the situation in Syria and Iraq.

    Pope Francis denounced what he called “terrorism on a scale that previously was unimaginable.”

    The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was more specific, condemning Islamic State fundamentalists for “unprecedented atrocities.” He also said Muslim leaders have a responsibility to publicly denounce the goals and activities of the so-called Islamic State. More broadly, Parolin said the separation of religion and state was an idea that should be developed in the Muslim world.

    Parolin directly addressed the question of “the use of force to stop aggression and to protect Christians and other groups that are victims of persecution.” He said action to stop unjust aggression was legitimate, but needed to be carried out “in respect of international law.”

    “Nevertheless, it is clearly seen that one cannot entrust the resolution of the problem to a solely military response. The problem needs to be faced more profoundly, starting with the causes that are at its origin and that are exploited by the fundamentalist ideology. As far as the so-called Islamic State is concerned, attention should also be given to the sources that support its terrorist activities through more or less clear political backing, as well as through the illegal commerce of oil and the furnishing of arms and technology,” he said.

    There’s also a very important line in Parolin’s speech aimed at the local church leaders in the Middle East, regarding political arrangements with governing authorities. The leaders of the small Christian flocks, he said, are called on to cooperate with Muslims and act as peace-builders, “without ceding to the temptation of seeking protection or defense by political or military authorities of the day, in order to ‘guarantee’ their own survival.”

    Here are a few other important passages (my translation, and my emphases) of the wide-ranging address by Cardinal Parolin to the one-day meeting of cardinals and patriarchs:

    "We have listened with emotion and great concern to the testimony about unprecedented atrocities perpetrated by more than one party in the region, but in particular by the fundamentalists of the group that calls itself the Islamic State, an entity that violates law and adopts terroristic methods in an effort to expand its power: mass killings, decapitations of persons who think differently, the sale of women, enrollment of children in combat, and destruction of places of worship."

    ...

    "In the concrete case of the so-called Islamic State, a particular responsibility falls on Muslim leaders, not only to distance themselves from the pretension of calling itself 'Islamic State' and forming a caliphate, but also to condemn more generally the killing of a person for religious reasons...."

    "Faced with the present challenges, attention must go to the roots of the problems, recognize also the errors of the past and try to favor a future of peace and development for the region, focusing on the good of the person and the common good. Experience has demonstrated that the choice of war, instead of dialogue and negotiation, multiplies the suffering of the entire population of the Middle East. The way of violence only leads to destruction; the way of peace leads to hope and progress. The first urgent step for the good of the population of Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East is to put down the weapons and to dialogue."

    "In the specific case of violations and abuses committed by the so-called Islamic State, the international community, through the United Nations and the structures established for such emergencies, should take action in order to prevent possible new acts of genocide and to assist the numerous refugees. It seems opportune that the states in the region be directly involved, together with the rest of the international community, in the actions to be undertaken, with the awareness that this is not a matter of protecting a particular religious community or a particular ethnic group, but persons who are part of the human family and whose fundamental rights are being systematically violated."

     

  • A few more thoughts on a synod that hasn't ended

    Looking more broadly on what happened here at the Vatican over the last two weeks, it’s important to keep in mind the short-term vs. long-term results.

    The short-term result making headlines is that in the concluding report, the more conservative members of the Synod of Bishops on the family managed to pull back some of the amazingly open language regarding those living in “irregular” unions, including gays.

    But I think the long-term results are more significant. Chief among them is that Pope Francis clearly placed the church on a new path, toward an evangelizing style that is less focused on doctrine and more willing to invite people in, no matter what their “status.”

    The pope himself reclaimed that ground at the end of the synod, in a talk that described the church as a merciful mother who heals people’s wounds, not an institution that looks down on humanity “from a castle of glass in order to judge or classify people.”

    “The church is not ashamed of the fallen brother and does not pretend not to see him, on the contrary it feels involved and almost obligated to help him back on the path,” the pope said. The church of today, like the church of Jesus, welcomes the sinners and eats with them, he said.

    This was the approach of the synod’s midterm document, which said the church must begin by finding seeds of truth even in relationships and unions that fall short of sacramental marriage. True, that document was watered down last week. But you can’t really take back those things, once you’ve said them – and said them so clearly. These positions may not have been ready for a two-thirds majority vote in the synod, but I bet they would have received a two-thirds approval from the world’s Catholics.

    Reading the final document, I have the impression that the editing and the doctrinal buttressing in this text represents an attempt to salvage a vision of the church that, under this pope, is moving in a different direction. It may be, as German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said, “three steps forward and two steps back,” but that’s not standing in place.

    In view of the synod’s second assembly in October 2015, Pope Francis made sure that everything on the synod’s agenda will be open for discussion by the whole church. He did this by deciding to publish the entire relatio synodi, even those paragraphs which did not obtain a two-thirds vote – which included the proposal to study possible readmission to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. That will be the basis for a new questionnaire sent to local church communities, as well.

    By changing the synod methodology and making sure the assembly’s candid, sometimes contentious discussion was heard around the world, the pope showed he was not afraid of real debate. That, too, was an important long-term result for the synod, which in the past has generally limited itself to bland reformulations of official church teaching.

    The pope sees this as the start of a process. The first phase is over, and some will be disappointed that the synod pulled back on the language of welcome. But this was not the day the music died. The ideas and proposals launched at this synod will be coming back.


  • Synod ends on a cautious note; Pope Francis says church must open its doors

    In a final document, the Synod of Bishops clearly backtracked on a proposed opening to homosexuals. That’s going to be the story line in a lot of newspapers.

    At the same time, the synod retained its call for the church to adopt patient dialogue and accompaniment, and not simply insist on rules, when faced with problematic unions and relationships.

    At the close of the assembly, Pope Francis took the floor and delivered a heartfelt thanks for what was undoubtedly one of the most open and tense sessions in recent Vatican history. The pope said he was glad the disagreements were aired, and that they did not mean the church was divided in an internal battle.

    To many, what will stand out in the synod’s final relatio is the removal of strikingly open language toward homosexuals in a previous draft, which asked whether the church could accept and appreciate the gay sexual orientation, and spoke of “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” in some gay relationships.

    The revised relatio emphasizes the church’s “no” to gay marriage, while saying that “nevertheless, men and women with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and sensitivity.” That modified statement, while approved by most of the bishops, failed to obtain a two-thirds majority, the normal benchmark for consensus in the synod.

    The final document did maintain earlier language that asked pastors to recognize and build on “positive elements” in found in civil marriages and cohabitation, even while holding out the ideal of sacramental marriage.

    But it removed most references to a key concept, the “law of graduality,” which had been proposed to explain how the church must help people accept church teachings in steps and stages, without condemnation.

    On two hotly debated issues related to divorced and remarried Catholics the synod requested deeper study. One section proposed ways to streamline the annulment process. The other proposed a “penitential path” by which divorced and remarried could be readmitted to the sacraments; two numbered paragraphs on that question also failed to get two-thirds approval, though they obtained a majority.

    There were many, many other points made in the document, which touched on the economic and social pressures affecting the family, the need for better marriage preparation, and a renewed style and language in the church’s pastoral response.

    However the synod’s results are characterized, it’s clear the landscape has changed. Pope Francis has pointed the church in a new direction, and the bishops have taken the first cautious steps down that path. Some have gone more willingly than others. Some have registered their objections. But in the end, this assembly launched a process that is destined to move forward, through a year-long period of discussion in dioceses and another, larger synodal meeting in Rome in October 2015.

    The final document of this assembly showed that most of the bishops were with the pope in making evangelization more about dialogue and accompaniment. At the same time, a significant number of these bishops were not ready to completely set aside the church’s traditional doctrinal framework for discussing these issues.

    Compared to the midterm synod document, which I described here as an “earthquake,” the final text is clearly a compromise. Many of the bishops were not comfortable with the dramatic new language that appeared in the midterm report, issued only five days earlier.

    Pope Francis took the microphone at the end of the voting this evening, and said the assembly had been an encounter of joy and beauty, but also had experienced moments of “desolation, tension and temptation.” Among the temptations, he said, were those of a “hostile rigidity” that wanted to close the church inside the letter of the law, expressed today by so-called “traditionalists.” He also warned against a false charity by so-called “liberals and progressives,” as well as the risk of adapting too easily to the spirit of the world.

    All this was part of a constructive process, the pope said, adding that he would have been worried and saddened had there not been these “animated discussions.” He underlined that as pope, it was his role to protect church unity and to remind pastors that their primary duty is to nourish their flock. He added: “The presence of the pope is a guarantee for everyone."

    The pope also returned to his favorite theme of pastoral mercy, saying the church must have “its doors wide open to receive the needy, the repentant, and not only the just or those who think they are perfect!”

    He said the church now has a year to reflect on the ideas proposed by the synod and try to find “concrete solutions” to the many problems faced by families today. His talk received a five-minute ovation in the synod hall.

     

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John Thavis

John Thavis is a journalist, author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He is known in the trade as a “Vaticanista,” a calling that became clear only after a circuitous career path.

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John Thavis was in Rome during the recent papal resignation and conclave, and is available to media for interviews about the pope and the Vatican.

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