Decoding the Vatican

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  • Final synod document leaves door open for pastoral changes

    I suppose it’s inevitable that the end of the Synod on the Family brings a “who won?” moment, at least for reporters.

    The better question is probably “what really happened?” However one assesses the outcome, it helps to remember the objectives of this assembly and its limitations.

    -- First of all, Pope Francis wanted a brutally honest debate, and he got that in spades. True, at times this led to open disagreement and even some disagreeableness among the participants (duly noted by the pope in his stunning final speech), but that’s better than the non-engagement of previous synods.

    It’s not necessarily a bad thing for the pope – and for the Catholic faithful and the outside world – to see the fault lines evident in these discussions.

    -- It was also clear that the bishops agree on many fundamentals, including what Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn called “the great ‘yes’ to the family,” despite all the changes and challenges of the modern age. As Schonborn put it, the family’s nucleus remains a man and a woman in a faithful relationship that is open to life, but with recognition that modern families also assume other forms.

    -- The synod was not designed to resolve definitively the many pastoral uncertainties regarding the family. So it’s not surprising that it ended with more ambiguity than answers on certain controversial matters, including the emblematic issue of whether to allow Communion for the divorced and remarried. It must be said that the proposal by Cardinal Walter Kasper for a “penitential path” back to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried found no traction at this synod.

    However, the final report did leave the door open for a case-by-case approach to that question. It did so by adopting a suggestion made by German bishops, which cited Pope John Paul II’s 1981 document on marriage and the family, Familiaris Consortio, on the need for pastors to pay special attention to individual situations:

    Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.

    Cardinal Schonborn referred to this point today and said, “This is not about black and white, or a simple yes or no, it’s about discerning.” The relevant paragraph of the synod document, which obtained the necessary 2/3 majority by the barest of margins, supported that possibility of individual accompaniment, which could look at culpability on a case-by-case basis, and theoretically open the way to Communion for some.

    -- The synod’s final document was distinctly more positive in tone and language than similar documents of previous eras. For example, on the particular point of couples living together outside of marriage, the document preserved the more open approach that was introduced at last year’s assembly. It said there were many reasons for cohabitation and for civil marriage, which should not simply be read as a rejection of sacramental marriage; instead, the church should look for the good elements in these relationships and build on them.

    -- The final document produced little new on the much-debated topics of birth control, homosexuality and sexuality in marriage. That will disappoint those who were hoping for a fresher look at these issues.

    -- There were signs that bishops are beginning to consider how the “healthy decentralization” envisioned by Pope Francis might function. That doesn’t mean simply throwing the hot-button issues to bishops’ conferences, which no one was proposing. But the synod heard a suggestion, for example, for ritual adaptation to accommodate the stages of traditional African marriage – with the African bishops guiding the discussion. After many years of Rome emphasizing the limits of inculturation, this seems to be a time for new exploration of diversity in the church. Pope Francis, in fact, highlighted this possibility in his final synod speech.

    -- This synod was more about process and less about results. Even the final document, with all its amendments and vote tallying, seemed less an ending than a phase in a much longer path – one that began with a global consultation with Catholics, and that will continue under the pope’s guidance.

    Brother Hervé Janson, a synod member, said at today’s press briefing: “As the pope said, the synod is a moment when the church must walk together, not just the bishops, but the people of God…. Everyone needs to listen to each other.”

    -- Relatedly, despite ridiculous assertions of a conspiracy to “rig” the synod, which some bishops initially seem to have believed, by the end of the assembly virtually everyone was praising the new methodology, which allowed for much freer discussion in small groups.

    -- There seemed to be keen recognition, at least by some, that a missing element in the synod’s debate was theological expertise. That’s a shortcoming that is not easily solved. Many participants appeared to approach the church’s teaching from an ideological point of view, with a defensive mentality about doctrine. Several of the questions under debate cried out for deeper reflection and less posturing, and I hope the pope finds a way to make that happen.

    -- There’s no doubt that the pope will keep the “mercy” theme front and center – perhaps in formal study commissions, in initiatives to mark the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy or even in future synods. But he is unlikely to make abrupt pastoral changes on his own. He knows that he needs bishops on board if his vision is going to progress past papal homilies, and begin to transform pastoral policies at the local level.

  • Closing synod, pope says church must practice mercy not condemnation

    Pope Francis closed the Synod on the Family with a ringing call for the church to practice mercy toward struggling and broken families, and to avoid using church doctrine as “stones to be hurled at others.”

    In a final address to the more than 300 synod participants, the pope also noted that the discussion during the three-week-long assembly was open but not always charitable. At times, he said, the synod had to rise above “conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints.”

    The pope’s address came shortly after a vote on a final document that backed away from some controversial pastoral proposals, but left the door open for further development of certain questions, including that of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

    It was a remarkable speech, one that left no doubt about Francis' priorities. Rather than touch on specific proposals, the pope gave a broader vision of what, in his view, the synod had highlighted.

    “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,” he said.

    The synod, he said, was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the problems and uncertainties facing families today, but studying them carefully and fearlessly “without burying our heads in the sand.” He reaffirmed the church's teaching of marriage as a permanent union between a man and a woman, calling the family the "fundamental basis of society and human life."

    The pope then said what the synod was about, emphasizing the listening and dialogue of bishops form diverse social and religious situations:

    "It was about showing the vitality of the Catholic Church, which is not afraid to stir dulled consciences or to soil her hands with lively and frank discussions about the family."

    "It 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."

    The pope said the 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. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy."

    The pope emphasized that, apart from defined dogmas, it is difficult to make uniform policies for every church community on every continent, because of the diversity of pastoral situations. What is normal for a bishop on one continent can be “considered strange and almost scandalous” for a bishop from another, he said.

    At that point in his speech, the pope clearly pointed the way to greater appreciation and freedom for local innovation and adaptations, sometimes called inculturation of the faith, which he said “does not weaken true values” and their ability to transform cultures.

    The pope also spoke about the need to update the church’s language when it evangelizes, saying the beauty of Christianity is “at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible.” That was a key theme of the synod deliberations. 

    He said the church is committed to defending the family against "all ideological and individualistic assaults." But he said that should be done without "demonizing others."




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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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