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  • Cardinal Napier has praise for synod process, Pope Francis' leadership


              Cardinal Wilfrid Napier

    South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier has made himself a protagonist of the Synod on the Family, so his appearance at today’s Vatican press briefing stirred interest among reporters.

    Cardinal Napier’s “bottom line” judgment on this session of the synod: it’s been far more pastoral than prophetic. I don’t think he necessarily meant that in a good way.

    “When we look at the problems we’ve been studying during these three weeks, there are two possibilities. One is to look at it from the pastoral point of view, when you're trying to reach out to people and minister to them. The other one, which I would say has been de-emphasized during this time, and even during the synod last year, is the prophetic, where like John the Baptist you say: ‘You’ve got to repent, and these are the sins’ and you name them,” the cardinal said.

    “This has certainly been a very much more pastoral synod, looking at how can the church be a servant and minister to those people in difficult situations. There’s been a lot of emphasis on using language that doesn’t offend – politically correct language, if you like. I’m not sure that’s the best way to be prophetic. It’s certainly a way of trying to be more pastoral.”

    As for the modified synod process, which had come under fire from several conservative bishops, Cardinal Napier said he was satisfied that diverse points of view had been fairly heard. Napier was reportedly one of 13 cardinals who signed a letter to Pope Francis at the start of the synod, questioning whether the new procedures were aimed at reaching foregone conclusions that would weaken church teaching.

    But with the synod drawing to a close, Napier told reporters that the new process was “very helpful,” because it gave participants more discussion time in small groups. In general, he said, African bishops are coming out of the synod with a “sense of optimism” and appreciation for “the witness of Pope Francis and the way he is leading the church.”

    Like several other bishops at the synod, Napier said there was a deep need for better preparation for marriage among Catholic laity. Having listened to reports, especially in Western countries, about the many marriages ending in divorce, Napier said African bishops “don't want the same thing to happen to us.”

    Marriage preparation, however, should not merely be a course that lasts a few weeks or months, but a longer process that looks at how marriage should be discerned as a “vocation,” on a par with the priesthood or religious life, he said.

    On the issue of cohabitation, however, Napier argued that more leniency should be granted couples in Africa, for whom, he said, living together before marriage is often more a “step” in the marriage process than a rejection of matrimony or a trial marriage. “Cohabitation in our case is pro-marriage, not against marriage,” he said.

    “In regard to the traditional African marriage custom, first of all it’s not a marriage between two individuals but between two families. So there’s a whole process of negotiation,” he said.

    When a dowry is established by the bride’s family, the cardinal said, often it may take a young man a very long time, perhaps years, to raise the money to cover it. “In the meantime, the families could agree that at a certain point they would start living together as husband and wife, even though the marriage is not yet concluded,” he said.

    The cardinal said the term “cohabitation” doesn't really fit that African experience. In the West, he said, couples may also live together for economic or other reasons, but it’s not the same. He added that it was up to African bishops to make sure that “that particular custom does get incorporated into the sacrament of matrimony.”

    That, of course, would be a major change. The same issue was discussed at the African synod, held at the Vatican in 1994, and there’s been no significant action on it since. But Napier said he thought that “with Pope Francis’ lead,” African bishops will have a new impetus for studying the issue.

    It sounds to me like Cardinal Napier is eager to explore the opening toward more local decision-making that Pope Francis raised during his speech last weekend, when he spoke of a more "synodal" and collegial exercise of authority in the church.

    According to the U.S. bishops, almost half the couples who come in for marriage preparation courses in local parishes are cohabitating. The rates of cohabitation across Africa are generally much lower, but studies indicate they are increasing in some countries, both as a prelude to marriage and an alternative to marriage.

    Cardinal Napier said a separate and dramatic problem for African families is the high number of single-parent families and  “child-headed households,” in families where HIV-AIDS has left both parents dead.

     

  • Synod's lack of consensus may still leave doors open for Pope Francis


           Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge

    It’s apparent from today’s Vatican briefing that the Synod of Bishops on the Family is not going to resolve many of the hotly debated issues taken up in the course of the two sessions last year and this year.

    The synod participants told reporters that it was unrealistic to think the assembly could reach a consensus on questions like divorced and remarried Catholics, or proposed changes in language on moral issues.

    That effectively means that the follow-up will largely be left to Pope Francis, who can proceed in specific directions and at his own pace. The synod will not give the pope a mandate on the tougher questions, but it will give him an idea of where the world’s episcopate stands on his “mercy” agenda of pastoral outreach.

    I expect the language of the synod’s final document to reflect the disagreements, but also to leave the doors open for development – and I don’t expect Pope Francis to shy away from that task, especially during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

    Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane summed up the situation today when asked about where the synod was going on three issues: Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation and homosexuality.

    “The indications are that there will be no substantial change on church teaching on those three issues that you first mentioned. I have no crystal ball, but on the basis of the discussions we had in the small group this morning and on Friday afternoon, there is no groundswell of support for the change of church teaching.,” Coleridge said. “But my hope is that we will move toward, without actually accomplishing at this synod, a genuinely new pastoral approach. At the heart of this I think there has to be a whole new language.”

    There may be no change in church teaching, but more and more, the synod seems to be focusing on case-by-case treatment of some pastoral situations. Frequently, the role of the individual conscience comes into play. That’s also a perennial area of debate, of course, and a word from the pope on this subject might be helpful. Instead of giving the church another summing-up document on the family in the wake of the synod, perhaps Pope Francis should consider issuing a magisterial document on the relationship between the judgment of conscience, the church’s teaching authority and pastoral realities.

    As the synod entered its final week, there were some other interesting developments:

    -- Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, one of 10 papally appointed members of a commission that will write the synod’s final document, was sharply critical of bishops who have suggested the assembly has somehow been manipulated.

    In an interview with America magazine, Wuerl was asked about cardinals and bishops who have expressed anxiety over the synod’s process. Others have warned about the direction of the debate on issues including Communion for divorced Catholics.

    Here is a key part of Cardinal Wuerl’s interview:

    Cardinal Wuerl: Now there are some bishops whose position is that we shouldn’t be discussing any of this anyway. They were the ones at the last synod that were giving interviews, and denouncing and claiming there were intrigues and manipulation. That, I think, falls on them. I don’t see it with a foundation in reality. I just think that these are people who have their own position and they just want to articulate that, and they have taken to saying that somehow the Holy Father and the synod structure are trying to manipulate all of the bishops. I just find that does not correspond to what I see, to what I experience, and what I’ve experienced over the years in dealing with synods.

    Q: How do you interpret these people who seem to imply that the pope is somehow manipulating the synod? It seems almost like a vote of no-confidence in Pope Francis.

    Cardinal Wuerl: I don’t know what would bring people to say the things that they are saying because we are all hearing the pope, and the pope is saying nothing that contradicts the teaching of the church. He’s encouraging us to be open, to be merciful, to be kind, to be compassionate, but he keeps saying that you cannot change the teaching of the church.

    I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope. I wonder if that isn’t part of it.

    -- Meanwhile, German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who had been one of the strongest voices against a proposals to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, appeared to indicate a measure of openness to that possibility in “extreme individual cases.”

    According to Vatican Radio, the cardinal reportedly spoke in an interview with a German magazine, and cited the 1981 papal document Familiaris Consortio, which said divorced and remarried Catholics could not receive Communion but also referred to possible exceptions in the “realm of conscience.”

    “It is possible to think further in this direction,” Cardinal Mueller said.

    Familiaris Consortio said in part:

    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 Walter Kasper, who last year outlined a possible “penitential path” to reception of the sacraments by divorced Catholics, said he still hoped that a majority at this synod would approve such an approach. He spoke in an interview published today by the Italian church agency SIR:

    "I hope in an opening, in a majority in favor of Communion for divorced, with a process of integration in parishes and in the life of the church. We see many families in irregular situations, but they too are children of God. They too need the bread of life, because the Eucharist is not for the ‘excellent’ but for sinners, and we are all sinners: we say this every time at the consecration. It’s probable that for a final document a little more time is needed, but I hope that the pope may say something already at the end of the (synod’s) work, after having received all the reports."


  • Papal adviser: At stake in synod is relationship between church and world


             Father Antonio Spadaro addresses the Synod of Bishops

    The Synod of Bishops on the Family marks a dramatic and delicate moment, in which “the relationship between the church and the world is at stake.”

    So says a close papal adviser, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, in an interview today with Vatican Radio. Father Spadaro is director of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica and was a papal appointee to the synod.

    Spadaro described the synod’s three-week session as a lively and effective debate over problems, language and ways of approaching family issues that vary in different parts of the world. Because the synod really does represent global diversity, sometimes there are tensions and conflicts, he said.

    “Therefore this is a very delicate moment, in which one understands that the relationship between the church and the world is at stake. This truly is at stake in this synod: to see how the church should live in relation with the reality of today, which has great challenges and great changes, but which, I repeat, is very different in the diverse places of the earth,” he said.

    Spadaro returned to a theme raised by Pope Francis the previous day, that the church and the synod must begin by listening to its people.

    “One cannot enlighten reality without first having heard it,” Spadaro said. “The human being is not an element extraneous to the Gospel. The Gospel is not an abstract doctrine that strikes people from the outside like a stone. It must be incarnated in lived lives, in experiences. Sometimes (this process) can be adversarial and sometimes peaceful.”

    Spadaro said the theme of mercy that Pope Francis has emphasized throughout his pontificate and the synod will continue in a follow-up phase during the Holy Year of Mercy that begins Dec. 8.

    “And it won't end there. It needs to be understood that we are experiencing an ecclesial process of great dimensions. For this reason, it shouldn't surprise people that there are moments of fatigue, impasse, difficulties and tensions. But there is also the joy of constructing history together,” he said.

    Father Spadaro was reminded that some synod bishops are uneasy with the emphasis on mercy, and say people also need to rediscover a sense of sin.

    “The Gospel proclamation, that the Lord has died for us, has died for me, is not the proclamation of sin,” Spadaro said. “The proclamation of the Gospel is that of mercy: in the light of the mercy of the Lord’s forgiveness, I understand my sin, I comprehend my sin.”

    “If there is no perception of a merciful God, the sense of sin is merely a sense of guilt, which is often useless,” he said.

    Spadaro said truth and mercy are never in contradiction in the Gospel, and so any attempt to place doctrine and pastoral practices at odds makes no sense.

    “The doctrine of the Gospel is mercy. That is to say, the teaching of the Lord is the teaching of mercy. Everything else follows from this,” he said.


  • Pope says synod is a 'listening' event; as guarantor of unity, pope has last word

    In the middle of one of the most contentious synods in modern times, Pope Francis laid out a vision of a church that is “synodal” bottom to top – listening first to the people of God and last to the pope as the supreme guarantor of unity.

    The pope’s speech at the Vatican marking the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops came after talks by several other church leaders. The most significant was that of Austrian Cardinal Christophe Schonborn, who said synod participants need to go beyond theological debate and above all be attentive to how God is acting in the church and in the world.

    The pope’s address received a standing ovation from some 300 bishops and others who were attending the October Synod on the Family. His key points are here:

    -- A synodal church is a listening church. Listening begins with the “people of God,” who as a whole cannot err in matters of belief. That’s why the Synod on the Family was preceded by a worldwide consultation with local Catholic churches.

    “The ‘sensus fidei’ (sense of the faith) makes it impossible to rigidly separate between the ‘teaching church’ and the ‘learning church,’ because even the flock has a ‘nose’ for discerning the new roads the Lord is opening for the church,” the pope said.

    -- The synod itself should be a time of “mutual listening” between the people of God, the bishops and the pope. But the pope’s role is unique.

    “The synodal path culminates in listening to the bishop of Rome, who is called to pronounce as ‘pastor and teacher of all Christians,’ not on the basis of his personal convictions but as the supreme witness of the faith of the whole church, the guarantor of the church’s obedience to and conformity to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Tradition of the church,” he said.

    -- In a synodal church, the hierarchy is, in a sense, flipped over like an inverted pyramid: those with the “highest” positions are at the bottom, in service to the rest. That means being in touch with the everyday problems of the people.

    The pope said the church has only partially understood how regional and national bishops’ conferences should function in this synodal understanding of the church. But he said it’s clear that a “healthy decentralization is needed,” because the pope cannot substitute for local bishops in dealing with all local problems.

    -- The role of the pope and the concept of papal primacy still need to be fully developed.

    “The pope does not stand alone above the church, but inside it as a baptized person among the baptized, and inside the episcopal college as a bishop among bishops, called at the same time, as the successor of the Apostle Peter, to guide the church of Rome which presides in love over all the churches,” he said.

    In his speech, Cardinal Schonborn evoked the Council of Jerusalem as a model for modern-day synods, recalling that the debate at that early church encounter was also heated and at times bitter. That council decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to observe the Mosaic law of the Jews, laying the foundation for the church’s wider missionary expansion.

    Theological debate was important at Jerusalem, Cardinal Schonborn said, but in the end, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, those kinds of arguments were not decisive. Instead, it was St. Peter who took the floor and said his missionary experience told him that God was calling Gentiles to the faith, and that the bishops should not be “putting God to the test” by placing an unreasonable burden on them.

    Schonborn said that lesson – that listening to people’s experience is more important than abstract theorizing – should be remembered in modern synods.

    He added that, just as in the time of the early church, synods today should have the church’s missionary dynamism as the priority. Bishops should favor direct witness of human experience, realizing that their task is not to win a theological debate but to “discern the will of God.”

     

    Here is a provisional English translation of the pope's address today. (Note: This text does not contain the 32 footnotes in the original.)

    Pope Francis’ Address at Commemorative Ceremony for the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops

    October 17, 2015

    Paul VI Audience Hall – Vatican City

    [Working translation prepared by Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB,

    English language media attaché, Holy See Press Office]

    Your Beatitudes, Eminences, Excellencies, Brothers and Sisters,

    As the XIV Ordinary General Assembly is underway, it is a joy for me to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops and to praise and honor the Lord for the Synod of Bishops. From the Second Vatican Council up to the current Synod on the Family, we have gradually learned of the necessity and beauty of “walking together.”

    On this happy occasion I would like to extend a cordial greeting to His Eminence Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops along with the Undersecretary, His Excellency Archbishop Fabio Fabene, the Officials, the Consultors and other collaborators in the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. Together with them, I greet and thank the Synod Fathers and other participants in this Synod gathered here this morning in this hall.

    At this time we also want to remember those who, over the course of the last 50 years, have worked in the service of the Synod, starting from the successive General Secretaries: Cardinals Władysław Rubin, Jozef Tomko, Jan Pieter Schotte and Archbishop Nikola Eterovic. I take this opportunity to express my deepest, heartfelt gratitude to those – both living and deceased – who made such generous and competent contributions to the activities of the Synod of Bishops.

    From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome I intended to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council. For Blessed Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops was meant to keep alive the image of the Ecumenical Council and to reflect the conciliar spirit and method. The same Pontiff desired that the synodal organism "over time would be greatly improved." Twenty years later, St. John Paul II would echo those sentiments when he stated that "perhaps this tool can be further improved. Perhaps the collegial pastoral responsibility can find even find a fuller expression in the Synod.” Finally, in 2006, Benedict XVI approved some changes to the Ordo Synodi Episcoporum, especially in light of the provisions of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, promulgated in meantime.

    We must continue on this path. The world in which we live and that we are called to love and serve even with its contradictions, demands from the Church the strengthening of synergies in all areas of her mission. And it is precisely on this way of synodality where we find the pathway that God expects from the Church of the third millennium.

    In a certain sense, what the Lord asks of us is already contained in the word "synod." Walking together – Laity, Pastors, the Bishop of Rome – is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice. After reiterating that People of God is comprised of all the baptized who are called to "be a spiritual edifice and a holy priesthood," the Second Vatican Council proclaims that "the whole body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief and manifests this reality in the supernatural sense of faith of the whole people, when 'from the bishops to the last of the lay faithful' show thier total agreement in matters of faith and morals."

    In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium I stressed that "the people of God is holy because this anointing makes [the people] infallible "in matters of belief”, adding that "each baptized person, no matter what their function is in the Church and whatever educational level of faith, is an active subject of evangelization and it would be inappropriate to think of a framework of evangelization carried out by qualified actors in which the rest of the faithful People were only recepients of their actions. The sensus fidei prevents rigid separation between “Ecclesia” (Church) and the Church teaching, and learning (Ecclesia docens discens), since even the Flock has an "instinct" to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.

    It was this conviction that guided me when I desired that God's people would be consulted in the preparation of the two-phased synod on the family. Certainly, a consultation like this would never be able to hear the entire sensus fidei (sense of the faith). But how would we ever be able to speak about the family without engaging families, listening to their joys and their hopes, their sorrows and their anguish? Through the answers to the two questionnaires sent to the particular Churches, we had the opportunity to at least hear some of the people on those issues that closely affect them and about which they have much to say.

    A synodal church is a listening church, knowing that listening "is more than feeling.” It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. Faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: we are one in listening to others; and all are listening to the Holy Spirit, the "Spirit of truth" (Jn 14:17), to know what the Spirit "is saying to the Churches" (Rev 2:7).

    The Synod of Bishops is the convergence point of this dynamic of listening conducted at all levels of church life. The synodal process starts by listening to the people, who “even participate in the prophetic office of Christ", according to a principle dear to the Church of the first millennium: "Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari debet" [what concerns all needs to be debated by all]. The path of the Synod continues by listening to the pastors. Through the Synod Fathers, the bishops act as true stewards, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, who must be able to carefully distinguish from that which flows from frequently changing public opinion.

    On the eve of the Synod of last year I stated: "First of all, let us ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of listeining for the Synod Fathers, so that with the Spirit, we might be able to hear the cry of the people and listen to the people until we breathe the will to which God calls us.”

    Finally, the synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called upon to pronounce as "pastor and teacher of all Christians," not based on his personal convictions but as a supreme witness of “totius fides Ecclesiae” (the whole faith of the Church), of the guarantor of obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Tradition of the Church.

    The fact that the Synod always act, cum Petro et sub Petro - therefore not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro – this is not a restriction of freedom, but a guarantee of unity. In fact the Pope, by the will of the Lord, is "the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops as much as of the multitude of the faithful." To this is connected the concept of “ierarchica communio” (hierarchical communio) used by Vatican II: the Bishops being united with the Bishop of Rome by the bond of episcopal communion (cum Petro) and at the same time hierarchically subjected to him as head of the college (sub Petro).

    As a constitutive dimension of the Church, synodality gives us the more appropriate interpretive framework to understand the hierarchical ministry. If we understand as St. John Chrysostom did, that “church and synod are synonymous,” since the Church means nothing other than the common journey of the Flock of God along the paths of history towards the encounter of Christ Lord, then we understand that within the Church, no one can be raised up higher than the others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person be “lowered " in order to serve his or her brothers and sisters along the way.

    Jesus founded the Church by placing at its head the Apostolic College, in which the apostle Peter is the "rock" (cfr. Mt 16:18), the one who will confirm his brothers in the faith (cfr. Lk 22: 32). But in this church, as in an inverted pyramid, the summit is located below the base. For those who exercise this authority are called "ministers" because, according to the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. It is in serving the people of God that each Bishop becomes for that portion of the flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi, (vicar of that Jesus who at the Last Supper stooped to wash the feet of the Apostles (cfr. Jn 13: 1-15 ). And in a similar manner, the Successor of Peter is none other than the servus servorum Dei (Servant of the servants of God).

    Let us never forget this! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of the service, the only power is the power of the cross, in the words of the Master: “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their leaders oppress them. It shall not be so among you: but whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave" (Mt 20:25-27). “It shall not be so among you:” in this expression we touch the heart of the mystery of the Church and receive the necessary light to understand hierarchical service.

    In a Synodal Church, the Synod of Bishops is only the most obvious manifestation of a dynamism of communion that inspires all ecclesial decisions. The first level of exercize of synodality is realized in the particolar (local) Churches. After having recalled the noble institution of the diocesan Synod, in which priests and laity are called to collaborate with the Bishop for the good of the whole ecclesial community, the Code of Canon Law devotes ample space to those that are usually called “bodies of communion” in the local Church: the Council of Priests, the College of Consultors, the Chapter of Canons and the Pastoral Council. Only to the extent that these organizations are connected with those on the ground, and begin with the people and their everyday problems, can a Synodal Church begin to take shape: even when they may proceed with fatigue, they must be understood as occasions of listening and sharing.

    The second level is that of Ecclesiastical Provinces and Regions, of Particular (local Councils) and in a special way, Episcopal Conferences. We must reflect on realizing even more through these bodies – the intermediary aspects of collegiality – perhaps by integrating and updating some aspects of early church order. The hope of the Council that such bodies would help increase the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized. As I have said, “In a Church Synod it is not appropriate for the Pope to replace the local Episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that lie ahead in their territories. In this sense, I feel the need to proceed in a healthy "decentralization."

    The last level is that of the universal Church. Here the Synod of Bishops, representing the Catholic episcopate, becomes an expression of episcopal collegiality inside a church that is synodal. It manifests the affective collegiality, which may well become in some circumstances "effective," joining the Bishops among themselves and with the Pope in the solicitude for the People God.

    The commitment to build a Synodal Church to which all are called – each with his or her role entrusted to them by the Lord is loaded with ecumenical implications. For this reason, talking recently to a delegation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I reiterated the conviction that "careful consideration of how to articulate in the Church's life the principle of collegiality and the service of the one who presides offers a significant contribution to the progress of relations between our Churches."

    I am convinced that in a synodal Church, the exercise of the Petrine primacy will receive greater light. The Pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but inside it as one baptized among the baptized, and within the College of Bishops as Bishop among Bishops; as one called at the same time as Successor of Peter – to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.

    While I reiterate the need and urgency to think of " a conversion of the papacy,” I gladly repeat the words of my predecessor Pope John Paul II: "As Bishop of Rome I know well [...] that the full and visible communion of all the communities in which, by virtue of God's faithfulness, his Spirit dwells, is the ardent desire of Christ. I am convinced that you have in this regard a special responsibility, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made ​​of me to find a form of exercise of the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”

    Our gaze extends also to humanity. A synodal church is like a banner lifted up among the nations (cfr. Is 11:12) in a world that even though invites participation, solidarity and transparency in public administration – often hands over the destiny of entire populations into the greedy hands of restricted groups of the powerful. As a Church that “walks together" with men and women, sharing the hardships of history, let us cultivate the dream that the rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and the exercize of authority, even now will be able to help civil society to be founded on justice and fraternity, generating a more beautiful and worthy world for mankind and for the generations that will come after us.

     

  • Synod hears call to re-examine teachings on sexuality, birth control

    The question of birth control, sometimes described as the "elephant in the room" at the Synod of Bishops on the Family, was the focus of a bluntly worded talk by a lay auditor at the Vatican assembly.

    The auditor, Sharron Cole from New Zealand, told the synod that the teaching of the encyclical Humanae Vitae has been largely ignored by Catholic couples. This has led to a "paralyzed" pastoral situation that requires a fresh discussion -- not by clergy alone, who have shown inadequate understanding of sexuality and psychology in the way they have dealt with clerical sexual abuse, she said.

    "The time is now for this synod to propose that the Church re-examine its teaching on marriage and sexuality, and its understanding of responsible parenthood, in a dialogue of laity and bishops together," Cole said.

    Cole was one of few people to talk at the synod about Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical that declared it immoral for married couples to use artificial birth control. The encyclical allowed for natural methods of spacing births, and Cole said that as a former board member of a natural family planning organization, she found that this method worked for motivated couples.

    But for many couples, she added, the natural method is not practicable. The teaching that artificial contraception is intrinsically wrong has provoked "massive dissent," she noted, with Catholics essentially making their own decision in conscience.

    "The response of the Church to this unsatisfactory situation has been for better catechesis or to ignore the dissent. This 'paralyzed status quo' cannot continue," Cole said.

    "The matter must be discussed afresh but lay people will not be content to leave it to clergy alone. Too many in authority responded to clergy sexual abuse in a way which demonstrated that they lacked the expertise in sexuality and psychology to make good decisions, with the result they became complicit in perpetuating enormous harm, harm done to lay people," she said.

    "It will take not more catechesis but rather listening with deep empathy to restore the credibility of the Church in matters of sexual ethics," she said.

  • Communion for divorced Catholics returns as emblematic synod issue

    Bishops attending the Synod of Bishops on the Family are returning to the issue that has always been the lightning rod of this and last year’s assemblies: whether a new path can be found to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

    We’ve heard cautions (from bishops and Pope Francis) about over-focusing on this question, as if there aren't a hundred other important matters affecting modern families. Yet in many ways it encapsulates a key theme of this synod and the pontificate of Francis: reaching out in a spirit of mercy to those who are suffering, who have fallen or who feel alienated from the church’s doctrinal rules, and recognizing that the Eucharist is a healing sacrament and not a reward for the perfect.

    The essential problem, it should be noted, is that Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment of their first marriage are required by the church to live “as brother and sister” (no sexual relations) in their second marriage in order to receive absolution in Confession and Holy Communion. Many see that as an unrealistic requirement and an undue burden on a marriage.

    At today’s briefing, reporters were told that many of the short speeches over the last day or two have explored this issue from a variety of directions. Some have returned to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s suggestion last year of a “penitential path” for divorced Catholics, which would allow local pastors to guide a person or a couple through a process of reflection and examination of conscience, culminating in absolution for sins and reception of Communion.

    Some bishops have emphasized that such an approach should be personalized, and should not simply be made available on a general basis. Some believe any change in policy would cause confusion about the church’s teachings on marriage, while others said that if the church truly follows the teaching of Jesus it cannot permanently exclude a set of people from the sacraments.

    Clearly, many synod participants are still not on board with the entire idea of creating a new path to Communion. At today’s briefing, for example, Bishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, said the bishops of Poland have excluded the idea of Communion for divorced Catholics. He said there were many other ways in which such Catholics can participate in the life of the church. That has been a common refrain in other synod speeches.

    On the other hand, Mexican Archbishop Carlos Aguilar Retes, who also spoke to journalists, seemed more open to the penitential proposal, saying it would lead those Catholics to recognize their past mistakes and “begin a new path.”

    Those in favor of the proposal often cite the painful spiritual side of the church’s current policy. One bishop took the floor and, in what was described as an emotionally charged moment, told how a child making his first Communion took the host and broke off a piece to give to his father who, because he was divorced, could not receive it directly.

    Archbishop Retes also made an important point when he said it was not up to the synod to make any decisions regarding divorced Catholics – that will be up to the pope.

    In fact, as this synodal assembly begins to wind down, one has the impression that it will be left to Pope Francis to provide closure on the important and most controversial questions. My impression is that this session may be advancing the discussion somewhat, but in large part it seems a replay of the different views on doctrine and pastoral mercy that were so evident at last year’s session.

     

  • Pope denounces scandals … but which ones?

    Pope Francis today made a brief, impromptu request for people to forgive the “recent scandals both in Rome and in the Vatican.” The problem in interpreting his remarks was that there are several scandals to choose from.

    The gay official of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation who recently came out with his partner, saying the climate at his workplace was homophobic? Accusations of sexual impropriety made by a group of Catholics against priests and an official of the Carmelite religious order in Rome? The resignation of Rome’s leftist mayor, Ignazio Marino, following press reports that the pope was unhappy with the mayor’s action on a number of issues?

    The accusations of sexual abuse against a Vatican diplomat, who was found dead in his Vatican residence in late August before he could stand trial? Or this week’s leak of a “Letter of 13” cardinals to the pope, contesting the direction and methods of the current Synod of Bishops on the Family, which was followed by a series of confusing denials and clarifications?

    “Jesus is realistic and it is inevitable that scandals occur,” the pope said at the start of his general audience in St. Peter’s Square. “But woe to the person who causes scandal. Before I start this catechesis, I'd like to ask you for forgiveness, in the name of the church, for the scandals that have occurred both in Rome and in the Vatican in recent times.”

    Perhaps it’s likely that the pope had sexual abuse in mind. After his off-the-cuff remarks, he spoke in his regular audience talk about the place of children in the family. Every child trusts that he or she will be loved, the pope said, and “when that promise is broken, the result is a ‘scandal’ which Jesus condemns.”

    But beyond sexual abuse, there is growing concern at the Vatican over the multiplication of scandals and a return of the “Vatileaks” syndrome – a climate of revelations, suspicion and rumors of a “gay lobby” that helped convince Pope Benedict XVI to resign in 2013. The most notorious chapter, played out in 2012, was the systematic leaking of papal documents to an Italian journalist by Benedict’s butler.

    I wrote yesterday that the developments at the synod, in particular, were reminiscent of the final days of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. Today, in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, veteran Vatican analyst Massimo Franco suggested that the recent scandals were part of an attempt by opponents of Pope Francis to “recreate the climate of Vatileaks.”

    “It makes one think of an operation that’s been planned for some time, and which aims at delegitimizing not the synod but the two years of the Argentine pope,” Franco wrote. “It describes an episcopate in the grip of chaos and fratricidal conflicts, as if it were the Curial version of the Italian Parliament. It pushes everything back to the time of thirty months ago, as if during this time nothing or little had changed.”

    It was Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who first evoked the “Vatileaks” scandal. Mueller refused to confirm reports that he was one of the signatories of the letter critiquing some aspects of the synod, but he condemned the publication of a version of the text, saying: “The scandal is that a private letter to the pope has been published. It is a new Vatileaks.”


  • A ploy that will boomerang

    As the smoke clears, somewhat, over the “Letter of the 13” cardinals to Pope Francis regarding the Synod of Bishops, a couple of things stand out.

    First is that some synod participants – a small minority, it appears – don’t trust the synodal process as modified by Pope Francis to be fair or collegial. They chose to raise the issue in a private letter rather than on the floor of the synod; that set a political dynamic in motion, one that was easily exploited.

    Second, despite Pope Francis’ reform efforts at the Vatican, the culture of leaks, manipulation and power struggles is still very much alive in Rome. Indeed, at times this week the clock seemed to have turned back to the final days of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, when petty scandals and internal conflicts became such an embarrassment to the church.

    We still don’t know exactly what the letter said, but by most accounts it included objections to the process by which the synod’s conclusions will be expressed, specifically the role of a 10-member writing commission appointed by the pope. The suggestion that Francis cannot be trusted to select an unbiased editorial group and to guide the synod to an honest conclusion is rather astonishing.

    The letter also warned that a synod that was intended to reinforce the church’s teachings on the dignity of marriage and family could end up being dominated by the issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

    Maybe Pope Francis does not believe that raising these issues is out of line. After all, he has said repeatedly that he wants to hear directly from those who disagree with him. And the pope, in fact, appeared to respond to the letter-writers in two ways: by having the synod’s secretary-general explain the procedural details more fully, and by saying himself that the synod would not change church doctrine on marriage, and was far from a single-issue discussion on divorced Catholics.

    The pope also pointedly cautioned against what he called a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” by which I can only suppose he meant the eagerness to embrace the rumors that this synod has been “rigged” from the start.

    In effect, I think the pope neutralized these objections with his unexpected words to the synod, which came a day after the “Letter of the 13” was hand-delivered to him.

    And that’s precisely when the move to “leak” the letter – or a version of it – was made, clearly an attempt to make it look like the pope was facing an internal revolt. The wheels began falling off this maneuver almost immediately, when several cardinals denied having signed the letter and others said the content was mistakenly reported.

    Today, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said the leak was a “disruption” to the synod that was not intended by the signatories, and that a very positive atmosphere reigns at the synod.

    My reading of all this is that the ploy has backfired. I suspect most synod participants are not amused at this rather obvious attempt to pre-emptively discredit the synod’s outcome.

     

  • 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.


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