Decoding the Vatican

  • Yes, the church will survive an open discussion about the family

    There’s an awful lot of hand-wringing going on about the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which is only a few days into its second and final session.

    We’ve heard warnings that Pope Francis and his “mercy” agenda may be leading the church down the road to schism (over the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics), or confusion (over more welcoming language regarding gay people, cohabitating couples and others), or a “first-world vs. third-world” split, or some type of dangerous pastoral shift that was worked out before the bishops even arrived in Rome and which non-Italian speakers might not even understand when it comes time to approve or disapprove.

    We heard these concerns during last year’s synod session, too, and they have evidently persisted. I think that’s why Pope Francis has taken the floor and tried to reduce some of the hyperventilating that’s going on inside and outside the synod hall.

    He began by encouraging bishops to be open to the Holy Spirit, and not to view their meeting as some kind of Parliament. That the pope felt he had to say this speaks volumes about the kind of political posturing that’s been going on in recent months. One participant said the pope also asked the bishops not to give in to a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” apparently responding to the murmured fears about this synod’s new methodology.

    The pope emphasized that the “deposit of faith” is not a “museum” but a living fountain that must have a connection to people’s lives. He said apostolic courage includes the courage to look critically at the “hardening of hearts” in the church that simply sends people further away from God.

    While insisting that the synod had never contemplated changing basic doctrine about the permanence of marriage, the pope said bishops need to show “evangelical humility.” That means “not pointing fingers at others in order to judge them, but extending them a hand in order to help them up, without ever feeling superior to them.” I think this plays into the pope’s exploration of how the church can restore full sacramental participation for divorced Catholics, among other things.

    Meanwhile, predictions that the synod would be muzzled (allegedly part of the “conspiracy” to shove through a prefabricated outcome) are proving untrue. Bishops are free to talk to reporters, and the Vatican is providing a daily “meet the press” with several bishops each day.

    The fact that these bishops sometimes disagree about important issues has already emerged in the press hall. That has prompted an “oh my God” reaction among some reporters, who apparently believe the church cannot survive an open discussion on these questions.

    I think that’s the kind of melodrama that Pope Francis is trying to move beyond. The tension between mercy and truth is not something this pope created, as readers of the Gospel will recognize.

    Francis believes, correctly I think, that unless the church changes its language and pastoral approach, it will continue to alienate many of the people it is trying to save. He knows this involves a difficult debate, among a hierarchy that was largely put in place by two popes who emphasized doctrinal identity.

    It’s far too early for predictions, but I’ll make some anyway: The synod will not derail, bishops will not pick up their briefcases and march out of the hall, the faithful will not be stunned and disoriented by the outcome. At the end of the month, I think we’ll see a final document that is largely positive about the many contributions given and sacrifices made by families today, recognizing that in the modern age the church needs to also work with “untraditional” families in ways that are more welcoming than judgmental.

    The pope has wisely structured this synod in a way that avoids up-and-down votes on specific final proposals. I think he probably realizes that reaching a consensus on issues like divorced and remarried Catholics, or replacing the “living in sin” language the church has used to define some relationships, will take more time. I expect some of these questions will be handed to commissions for quiet advancement in the months to come.


  • Opening synod, Pope Francis aims for balancing point

    Pope Francis tried to set the tone of the Synod of Bishops on the Family in his opening Mass today. It was a tone of balance between preaching truth and practicing mercy.

    The pope’s point was that the church can and must do both, that there is no contradiction between the church as a doctrinal teacher and the church as a pastoral “field hospital.”

    In one of his homily’s key passages, he first quoted Pope Benedict XVI in saying, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.” Then, explaining why the church must be a bridge and not a roadblock to people who fall, he quoted Pope John Paul II, who said that those who err must be “understood and loved.”

    By drawing on both his predecessors, I think Pope Francis was doing a little bridge-building himself, between the liberal and rigorist wings of the more than 270 bishops who will participate in the three-week long synod.

    Here is how the pope described the church’s mission in today’s world. On the one hand, truth:

    To carry out her mission in fidelity to her Master as a voice crying out in the desert, in defending faithful love and encouraging the many families which live married life as an experience which reveals of God’s love; in defending the sacredness of life, of every life; in defending the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously.

    And mercy:

    To carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.

    Not surprisingly, the pope did not focus on hot-button issues like divorce, gay marriage and cohabitation, topics that became lightning rods in last year’s synod debate. Instead, he emphasized the spiritual and material afflictions – including loneliness and selfishness – that are harming family life around the globe.

    Today we experience the paradox of a globalized world filled with luxurious mansions and skyscrapers, but a lessening of the warmth of homes and families; many ambitious plans and projects, but little time to enjoy them; many sophisticated means of entertainment, but a deep and growing interior emptiness; many pleasures, but few loves; many liberties, but little freedom.

    I think of the elderly, abandoned even by their loved ones and children; widows and widowers; the many men and women left by their spouses; all those who feel alone, misunderstood and unheard; migrants and refugees fleeing from war and persecution; and those many young people who are victims of the culture of consumerism, the culture of waste, the throwaway culture.

    In describing the contemporary culture, the pope seemed to strike some notes of criticism that sounded familiar to those (like me) who heard many such homilies from John Paul II and Benedict. Lasting and fruitful love, Pope Francis said, is “increasingly looked down upon, viewed as a quaint relic of the past.”

    “It would seem that the most advanced societies are the very ones which have the lowest birth-rates and the highest percentages of abortion, divorce, suicide, and social and environmental pollution.”

    I expect this is the kind of message we’ll hear from the synod, too. The more unsettled part of the debate, however, is pastoral language and practice regarding those who don’t align perfectly with church teaching, including Catholics who practice birth control, couples who live together outside of marriage, divorced and remarried Catholics, and gay couples.

  • On eve of synod, a Vatican official comes out as gay

    If the Vatican wanted to bury the question of homosexuality during the Synod of Bishops that begins tomorrow, those plans were upset today when a longtime official of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation came out as gay.

    Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa did not come out quietly, either. He held a press conference (at which he hugged his partner), gave interviews and announced that a book on his experience is imminent.

    Saying he was “happy and proud” to be gay, Charamsa said his (soon to be former) workplace at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was homophobic and paranoid. He said he was asking Pope Francis to change the Catholic catechism, which calls homosexuality “disordered.”

    That gay priests work at the Vatican will come as no surprise to those who have read my book, “The Vatican Diaries.” But this kind of public revelation represents a real challenge to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude that reigns there.

    Keep in mind that for church officials, there are two kinds of public admission here. First is Charamsa’s sexual orientation. The second, and probably more serious in the eyes of the Vatican, is that the priest is in a sexual relationship, violating the promise of celibacy he made when he was ordained.

    Most objectionable of all, for the Vatican, was the publicity he sought out, with the expressed desire to influence the outcome of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which begins Sunday.

    A Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said there was no way Charamsa could continue in his position at the CDF. Lombardi saw it as a move to manipulate the synod.

    “The decision to make such a pointed statement on the eve of the opening of the synod appears very serious and irresponsible, since it aims to subject the synod assembly to undue media pressure,” the spokesman said.

    For his part, Charamsa said in an interview that he wanted the synod to take note: “I would like to tell the Synod that homosexual love is a kind of family love, a love that needs the family. Everyone – gays, lesbians and transsexuals included – foster in their hearts a desire for love and family.”

    The Synod of Bishops is discussing the family, and at its first session last fall homosexuality became one of the hot-button issues that quickly drew the attention of bishops and the media.

    This month’s session will feature a more controlled, point-by-point discussion of family issues, with less public reporting on the proceedings.

    Charamsa called Pope Francis “fantastic” for his emphasis on dialogue. The pope recently met with a former student who is gay, along with the man’s partner.

    The pope, however, has also made it clear that he opposes outside efforts to manipulate the debate during the Synod of Bishops.

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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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