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  • Open talk, frank debate at the Vatican -- from way back

    The archbishop minced no words in criticizing the draft document:

    I must speak plainly. This document is going to dash the hopes of everyone who has been awaiting it. Its authors do not seem to realize even to whom the message should be directed. Here is an example of their way of writing: “Christians,” they say, “are ready to engage in a dialogue with all men of good will.” But surely this is a pointless thing to say.

    We must protect the authority of the teaching Church. It is of no avail to talk about a college of bishops if specialists in articles, books and speeches contradict and pour scorn on what a body of bishops teaches.

    No, this is not a leaked intervention from the recent Synod of Bishops on the family. It's one of many speeches delivered during the Second Vatican Council, and which are now being published on Catholic News Service's fascinating blog "Vatican II: 50 Years Ago Today."

    Just as at the recent synod, it's apparent that candid and critical talk flowed freely during Vatican II, especially when it came time to revise the proposed documents. The quotes above came from a speech delivered by Archbishop John C. Heenan of Westminster, England, on the schema of the Church in the modern world.

    At one point, Archbishop Heenan zeroed in on an issue that was making waves throughout the Catholic world:

    Everyone knows that doctors all over the world are busily trying to produce a satisfactory contraceptive pill. This special kind of pill is to be a panacea to solve all sexual problems between husbands and wives. Neither the treatise itself nor the supplements hesitate to prophesy that such a pill is just around the corner. Meanwhile, it is said, married couples and they alone must decide what is right and wrong. Everyone must be his own judge. But, the document adds, the couple must act according to the teaching of the Church. But this is precisely what married people want to be told — what is now the teaching of the Church? To this question our document gives no reply. For that very reason it could provide an argument from our silence to theologians after the council who wish to attack sound doctrine.

    Heenan was among a group of conservative council fathers who worried that the church's "opening to the world" was making too many doctrinal concessions. Today, that same debate continues...

  • 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.

  • Synod's "message" thanks families for witness of faith in face of problems

    The Synod of Bishops today issued its final “message,” a three-page text that warned of crises in the modern family, including “failures” and problematic new relationships, and encouraged Christians to remain faithful to the authentic family values of the church.

    The message made a point of thanking Christian families for their daily witness of "fidelity, faith, hope and love."

    It also said the church must “be a house with doors always open to welcome everyone.” But the text avoided any detailed discussion of some of the hot-button issues at this synod, including the law of graduality, outreach to cohabitating couples, homosexuality, and readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments.

    Those issues will be taken up in greater detail in the synod’s final relatio, which was scheduled to be voted upon Saturday evening.

    The synod’s message, approved overwhelmingly, outlined a series of problems afflicting modern families. Some were directly tied to attitudes and behavior by spouses and family members: “enfeebled faith,” indifference to true values, individualism, impatience and an unwillingness to make sacrifices.

    "We recognize the great challenge to remain faithful in conjugal love," it said. It spoke of stress and impoverishment of relationships, and crises in marriage that are dealt with in haste and without forgiveness.

     “Failures give rise to new relationships, new couples, new civil unions and new marriages, creating family situations which are complex and problematic, where the Christian choice is not obvious,” it said.

    The message also spoke of external pressures on the family, including economic difficulties like unemployment, the “brutality of war and oppression,” violence and exploitation against women, and human trafficking. In what could be read as a reference to sex abuse scandals in the church, it cited children "abused by those who ought to have protected them and fostered their development."

    “We call on governments and international organizations to promote the rights of the family for the common good,” it said.

    The message said the “authentic encounter” in marriage is between a man and a woman, realized in the sacrament of marriage, exhibiting a love that is also expressed in fertility. “In this light conjugal love, which is unique and indissoluble, endures despite many difficulties. It is one of the most beautiful of all miracles and the most common,” it said.

    "This journey is sometimes a mountainous trek with hardships and falls. God is always there to accompany us," the message said.


  • A synod text that explains why the church as 'field hospital' is more than a poetic image

    As the Synod of Bishops winds down, several participants are choosing to publish the texts of their speeches to the assembly. Among them are Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, the director of the journal La Civiltà Cattolica, who is considered a close collaborator of Pope Francis.

    Spadaro’s talk not only strongly defended the pope’s new pastoral directions, but did so in language aimed at convincing the more traditional-minded critics in the synod hall – who have certainly let their voices be heard.

    Pope Francis has listened to the proceedings in silence, but Spadaro’s text certainly reflect the pope’s thinking on some key issues. Among other things, Spadaro called for a reconsideration of the church’s pastoral response on homosexuality.

    Spadaro makes six points, and I’ll summarize them here:

    1. The church must never use the family as an ideological weapon, but respond to the needs of real people who are living in complex, fragile situations. The church’s traditional ways of talking about the family are no longer understood by many people today, and that poses a challenge for pastors.

    2. Pope Francis’ vision of the church as a “field hospital” is more than a poetic image – it is an ecclesial model, the opposite of a “besieged fortress.” The main battlefield today is people’ inability to truly love, and to move beyond their own individualistic interests. The church’s first concern must be to avoid closing its doors to these people.

    3. Some see the church and its truths as a permanent lighthouse shining on people’s lives. But a lighthouse stays in one place, and is incapable of reaching people who have moved away from church teaching. The better image is a torch or lamp capable of accompanying and consoling families in all their forms, “no matter how ambiguous, difficult and many-sided.”

    4. The church’s pastoral response on homosexuality need careful reconsideration, especially because it impacts the church’s mission with young people. “We always need to be aware that the attitude we express toward situations that we define as ‘disordered’ and ‘irregular’ among couples will determine how younger generations of children approach the church,” he said. The very question of homosexuality, he added, may deserve better attention from the church, with greater focus on listening and discernment, rather than considering it solely in terms of “disorder.”

    5. The sacraments are meant for healing, and when it comes to situations like divorced and remarried Catholics, the church needs to ask itself whether it can simply exclude such couples from the sacrament of reconciliation. In other words, he said, in light of God’s mercy can there really be any “radically irretrievable” situations? The answer is no.

    6. In general, the church’s doctrinal patrimony needs to be seen in the light of the modern human condition. That means aiming above all at the salvation of each person, helping him or her grow as much as possible in faith.

    One note: Father Spadaro spoke about readmission of divorced and remarried to the sacrament of reconciliation, not Communion. The one implies the other, but supporters of the idea are now underlining the confession aspect. Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has argued in favor of such an opening, put it this way in an interview today with Corriere della Sera: “Under the current discipline, these people (divorced and remarried without an annulment) can confess but cannot receive absolution. A person who has an abortion yes, those who divorced and remarried no.”

  • A modest proposal as the synod winds down

    The Synod of Bishops has entered the crucial, final 48 hours of its assembly, a time to produce results and deliver them to the pope and to the world.

    From the outside, this synod is looking more and more like an amazingly candid exchange of ideas, with two different pastoral perspectives locked in a line-by-line, word-by-word debate over the final text.

    The perspective emphasizing mercy, welcome and accompaniment was expressed in Monday’s remarkable midterm relatio, which proposed, among other things, that modern evangelization should begin by finding “positive elements” in unions and relationships that the church had always considered sinful or “irregular.” This is Pope Francis’ line, and I’m sure he would like to see it endorsed by this synod.

    The critical reaction has been unusually blunt, by Vatican standards. The small-group reports released yesterday went beyond fine-tuning – some groups proposed what would amount to a recasting of the entire document in a more doctrinal mold. (We need to remember, however, that these reports deal only with proposed changes, so there may well be a greater-than-apparent level of consensus on much of the relatio.)

    I would love to hear what Pope Francis thinks of the proceedings so far. It may be an exaggeration to say that his pastoral agenda is at stake, but it’s hard not to see this synod as an evaluation of his first 18 months in office. At one point in the synod, one bishop told the pope that not even he had the right to change divine law. That’s a measure of the resistance that has surfaced here.

    I’m sure Francis knew he was taking a risk with this synod. This is a pope who has chosen to practice real collegiality and “synodality” with a world episcopate largely appointed by two quite conservative predecessors.

    The rumblings about the pope’s “who am I to judge” approach have come into the open here – not in direct criticism of the pontiff, of course, but in criticism of a text that very much reflected his ideas about evangelization. I think many bishops see this as a chance to reclaim the narrative that has dominated in the Catholic Church over the last 40 years, a narrative built around Catholic identity, doctrinal clarity and countercultural witness.

    I’m not sure that’s possible, no matter what the final document says. With the midterm relatio, the genie was let out of the bottle. The critics are now trying to put it back in, but we have a pope who seems quite determined.

    In the past, synods of bishops have tended to “blanderize” innovative proposals, and final documents have broken little new ground. This time around, I think, such an approach would be seen as running away from the questions. I’m not sure the synod can really express a consensus on all the controversial issues – but I’m not sure it has to.

    My modest proposal is that if the synod cannot substantially agree on all these matters – on the proposed shift in language, evangelizing methods and sacramental rules – it can simply say so. Despite the tradition of voting on a result, this synod doesn’t need to deliver conclusions. In view of the fact that there’s supposed to be a year-long reflection on these themes in the wider church, followed by another synodal assembly in Rome, maybe this synod can simply say, “These are tough questions. We don’t have all the answers yet. And we’re willing to listen to the faithful.”

  • The African factor and consensus-building at the synod

    As this session of the Synod of Bishops moves toward its conclusion, the heated discussion inside the hall has highlighted a fault line that runs through Africa.

    Two interviews over the last 24 hours outline the issue.

    (UPDATE below, Pope names South African Cardinal Napier to commission preparing final synod relatio.)

    (SECOND UPDATE: Cardinal Kasper has now denied making the remarks reported below, and says he is "shocked" that they are being attributed to him. The link to the news agency Zenit's article now gives an error message; apparently they've removed the article. This raises serious issues about manipulation of information at this synod, especially considering that Cardinal Mueller issued a similar denial today about calling the midterm relatio "shameful," which had also been reported. If these are invented interviews, accreditation needs to be pulled.)

    (THIRD UPDATE: Tape shows +Kasper did talk to reporter about Africa. I can only assume he was "shocked" to see his rather fragmentary phrases turned into a cardinal-disses-Africa meme.)

    German Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke to the news agency Zenit about the synod’s effort to reach out to gay people in a new and more open fashion, and said that bishops in Africa and Muslim countries have a very different point of view.

    “The problem, as well, is that there are different problems of different continents and different cultures. Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects,” Kasper said.

    Kasper went on to suggest that while African bishops may have their qualms, they “mustn’t tell us too much what to do.” In other words, their view should not hold the rest of the synod back, and a more welcoming language to gay people should not be blocked simply because it wouldn't play well in Africa.

    His remarks have caught the attention of conservative critics, who have suggested a tone of condescension and even racism in the German cardinal’s remarks. The interview was obviously conducted on the fly, and I won’t dissect it (that was done here by Grant Gallicho), but I think Kasper was simply stating a fact, not necessarily trying to muzzle the Africans.

    This morning, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera carried an interview with Bishop Nicolas Djomo Lola of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who reacted to the midterm relatio’s call to find “positive elements” in irregular and gay unions as a step toward evangelization.

    “No bishop and no church in the world is saying that homosexuality is a good thing,” Bishop Djomo said.

    He laid out the argument often made by African bishops: that the continent is being re-colonized by Western aid and financial organizations, which “make aid to poor countries conditional on attitudes toward homosexuality. They even impose this line: if you want aid, they say, you have to accept gender ideology and gay marriage. And that’s no good.”

    All this sounds very familiar to my ears. Similar points have been made in previous synods, when African opposition has been used to neutralize calls for a new pastoral perspective. In particular, at the 2009 special synod on Africa, many bishops warned that the African sense of family was threatened by Western ideas about divorce, homosexuality and gender identity.

    The fault line in this synod goes beyond sexuality, I think. Africans may well feel that the midterm relatio gave short shrift to some big concerns on their continent, including war, poverty and economic exploitation. I would guess that African participants are also miffed that the commission named to consider revisions for the final relatio did not include an African.

    UPDATE: The Vatican announced today that the pope has named an African, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, who had distanced himself from much of the midterm relatio, to the preparation commission of the final document. Also named was an Australian, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne.

    This synod is clearly a test of Pope Francis’ new pastoral directions, but it’s also a test of his consensus-building skills, and the African question is not going to be an easy one to resolve.

  • Synod group reports want more doctrinal context, 'prophetic' language in final document

    Reports from the 10 discussion groups of the Synod of Bishops are in, and many of them reflect serious challenges to a midterm report that only three days ago seemed to launch a new chapter of outreach to cohabitating, divorced and gay couples.

    These reports, taken as a whole, represent a real test for Pope Francis’ Gospel of “mercy,” because they not only articulate the desire for doctrinal qualifications in the synod’s document but also critique what one group called the “search for a facile populism that silences and muffles” what the church teaches about marriage and the family.

    More than one person here read that “facile populism” line as perhaps directed in part at Pope Francis himself.

    The reports were presented on the synod floor after four days of discussion, along with several hundred proposed amendments to the midterm relatio. Granted, these reports reflect a process designed to improve the relatio, so we should expect to see questions and requests for clarification, not ringing endorsements of the text, much of which seems to be supported by the majority.

    Some of the reports, in places, did echo some of the relatio’s language – for example on using new language and a more invitational tone.

    But the challenges are not small ones. Several groups, for example, proposed a rewriting of the relatio’s second section, which was the part that caught everyone’s attention with its argument that the church should, for example, accept the reality of civil marriage and cohabitation and build on the positive values that may be shown in such unions.

    More specifically, on the “law of graduality,” the principle that the church should reach out, value and accompany those who don’t fully accept its teachings, two groups said the concept cannot be applied in these situations. Several other groups questioned its application.

    Others took issue with the relatio’s attempt to take Vatican II's search for "positive elements" outside the church's structures and apply that principle to irregular unions outside of sacramental marriage. The chief promoter of that "hermeneutical key" was Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, a man whose long experience and experience in drafting the current catechism should make him an influential figure at the synod. It is telling, however, that Schonborn's own discussion group actually took a vote and failed to get majority backing for that approach.

    Almost all the groups expressed the desire that the final synod document present a more positive image of sacramental marriage, explicitly express the church’s teachings, and rediscover the church’s “prophetic” voice in criticizing modern threats to the traditional family.

    One group said its members were divided on the issue of language. Some felt it was “indispensable” for the synod to state its teaching on marriage, the family and sexuality “without hesitating to employ the categories of ‘sin’, ‘adultery’ and ‘conversion’ regarding situations that objectively contrast with the Gospel.” Others recommended more encouraging and less judgmental language as a key to evangelization today.

    On the question of readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, there were mixed opinions expressed in the reports, with some endorsing the possibility, some rejecting it and others calling for deeper study. Less was said in these reports about streamlining the annulment process, an idea that still apparently had strong synod support, although one group objected to the idea of an "administrative" process of annulment carried out by local bishops.

    The reports took issue with they called an over-emphasis on positive elements outside of marriage. One English-language group said that “where the relatio appeared to be suggesting that sex outside of marriage may be permissible, or that cohabitation may be permissible, we have attempted to show why such lifestyles do not lead to human fulfillment.”

    As for the “seeds of truth and goodness” the midterm relatio said might be found in irregular unions, this group said the synod must emphasize that such “seeds” are found in the persons involved, not in their relationships. “We believe that if we imply that certain lifestyles are acceptable, then concerned and worried parents could very easily say, ‘Why are we trying so very hard to encourage our sons and daughters to live the Gospel and embrace church teaching?’” the report said.

    More than one group said there was a risk of misunderstanding in the midterm document’s section on “welcoming homosexual persons.” A French-speaking group said that while discrimination against homosexuals should be denounced, “that doesn't mean the church should legitimize homosexual practices and, even less, recognize so-called homosexual ‘marriage.’” A second French group made a similar point, saying that to “pastorally accompany a person doesn't mean to validate either a form of sexuality or a style of life.” A Spanish-language group said the term “homosexual persons” seemed to use sexuality as the key to their identity, and that it would be more accurate to speak of “persons with homosexual tendencies.”

    One English-language report said the church must welcome “without judgment or condemnation” those who live in irregular unions, but in a way that doesn't weaken sacramental marriage or “leave the impression that all unions are equal.” Another group spoke of welcoming such people, but also of leading them to “conversion” and the sacrament of marriage.


  • Yes, this synod really is big news

    The Synod of Bishops has become a dynamic event, with sharp debate over new pastoral directions in the Catholic Church. That’s to the credit of Pope Francis, who demanded honest and open discussion, but it may also present him with a dilemma.

    Will the synod conclude with a clear endorsement of the pope’s call for a more merciful, patient style of evangelization, building on – as stated in the synod’s midterm relatio – the “positive elements” that can be found even in relationships and unions the church considers “irregular”?

    Or will it adjust and qualify that document with the kind of doctrinal declarations aimed at reassuring Catholics – and above all, some of the bishops – that there’s no change in fundamental church teaching?

    The answer depends partly on the sentiments of the nearly 200 participating bishops, and partly on how tightly the pope pulls the reins of the synod. At this point, a watered-down synod document might broaden the consensus in the synod hall, but would likely be seen as less-then-enthusiastic support for the pope’s pastoral agenda.

    Sectors of the Catholic commentariat are now trying to downplay the synod’s midterm relatio and, not surprisingly, blame the press for pumping up expectations for change.

    (UPDATE: See below, Archbishop Kurtz says pope was right to make synod on family a year-long process)

    Did the media overreact when the relatio was read aloud on Monday? I don’t think so. The media recognized in the text a profoundly new pastoral approach to a whole range of marriage and family issues, and in particular a welcoming tone regarding homosexuals. The bishops in the hall recognized the same thing, and not all of them were pleased. That’s why the synod hall quickly lit up like a pinball machine with questions and calls for clarification.

    As for the weight of this relatio, some things need to be said. I have covered synods of bishops for 30 years, and the midterm relatio is always where the ideas expressed in synod speeches begin to gel. All last week, in fact, reporters at the Vatican were told not to put too much stock in individual synod statements or daily summaries – it would be the midterm relatio that would distinguish the really important themes.

    Of course, it’s not an encyclical – no one said it was. Of course, it doesn't change doctrine – everyone knew that. Of course there can be modifications – that was reported. But up to now, it’s the most authoritative text coming out of this very important assembly. And unlike previous assemblies (which have used the relatio as a jumping-off point to write final “propositions”), this synod’s relatio will be the main document going forward, even with possible revisions.

    As for objections by some bishops to the text, I have no doubt they are real. But when it was presented to reporters Monday by some of its authors, reporters were repeatedly assured that it accurately reflected the main themes of the synod. And after the relatio was read aloud, there was strong applause in the synod hall. We shall see just how strong the objections really are only when we see the final, revised text.

    I think the alarm being expressed in some church circles over the synod’s direction reflects similar unease over some of Pope Francis’ statements during his first 18 months. When the pope said last year: “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will – well, who am I to judge him?” we heard the same kind of reaction: “no news here,” “the church is not changing its doctrine” and “pay no attention to those newspaper articles.” By now, it should be clear that the pope is proposing a paradigm shift in the church’s style of evangelizing, one that favors outreach and dialogue over doctrinal identity, and he wants the Synod of Bishops on board. This is news, and it deserves attention by anyone interested in the Catholic Church.

    UPDATE: At today’s synod briefing, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, described the midterm relatio as “a wonderful working document” and said the small groups would be proposing amendments to give greater emphasis to the positive values of sacramental marriage.

    Archbishop Kurtz outlined three potential areas of improvement to the text: highlighting the witness of “sacrificial, loving families today,” making sure that “all our words are truly welcoming,” and making sure the synod’s pastoral outlook is grounded in Scripture and church teaching.

    The archbishop also said it was clear from the synod’s proceedings that Pope Francis was wise to make this a year-long process, leading up to another synodal assembly in 2015, because “I think we would not be ready at the end of this week to give thoughtful, meaningful and enduring pastoral direction.”

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