The Blog

Everything listed under: Synod of Bishops

  • Pope's document opens door to pastoral flexibility on family issues

    Pope Francis’ document on the family avoids issuing directives or a “final word” on debatable questions. Instead, it argues for pastoral flexibility and recognition of the complex relationship between the human conscience, sin and the state of grace.

    That alone makes this text remarkable. Rather than announcing new practices or decisions from Rome, the pope is opening a discussion that involves bishops, priests, theologians and lay Catholics.

    Titled “Amoris Laetitia, on Love and the Family,” the 260-page document reflects on the results of the Synod of Bishops, convened in two sessions in 2014 and 2015.  Read More...

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

    Pope Francis closed the Synod on the Family with a ringing call for the church to practice mercy toward struggling and broken families, and to avoid using church doctrine as “stones to be hurled at others.”In a final address to the more than 300 synod participants, the pope also noted that the discussion during the three-week-long assembly was open but not always charitable. At times, he said, the synod had to rise above “conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints.”The pope’s address came shor...  Read More...

  • Final synod document leaves door open for pastoral changes

    I suppose it’s inevitable that the end of the Synod on the Family brings a “who won?” moment, at least for reporters.The better question is probably “what really happened?” However one assesses the outcome, it helps to remember the objectives of this assembly and its limitations.-- First of all, Pope Francis wanted a brutally honest debate, and he got that in spades. True, at times this led to open disagreement and even some disagreeableness among the participants (duly noted by the pope in his ...  Read More...

  • The collegiality paradox facing Pope Francis

    Synod of Bishops

    The Synod of Bishops on the Family has highlighted what I call the “paradox of collegiality” for Pope Francis.

    The pope clearly wants to share his governing authority with bishops, giving them a bigger voice in decision-making in Rome and more latitude in their home dioceses. He also wants them on board as he shifts the church’s missionary approach to a more “merciful” and invitational style, less focused on doctrinal rules.  Read More...

  • German bishops may point way forward as synod draws to close

                               German Cardinal Reinhard Marx

    It’s increasingly clear that the German bishops are leading the way forward from the Synod on the Family, with proposals worthy of reflection and development by Pope Francis.

    Unlike most of the synod’s 13 language groups, the German-speaking participants have approached their task with a fairly clear sense of mission: find a consensus, where possible, and indicate some potential new directions.

    With only three days to go in this second synod assembly, reading through many of the group reports might lead one to despair of any real agreement on the tougher questions being raised: Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, pastoral policies for cohabitating couples, language (less condemnatory vs. denunciation of sin), and outreach to homosexuals.

    The reports indicated a widespread split in positions on these questions – and not much more than that. From the outside, at least, it seems like this synod was a three-week round of infighting and restatement of positions, but with very little openness to reflection and change.  Read More...

  • 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 should be 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 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.

  • 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 synod's 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Vatican asks for pre-synod consultations that avoid strictly 'doctrinal' approach

    It looks like Synod 2015 may be as interesting as Synod 2014.

    A Vatican preparatory document for next year’s second session of the Synod of Bishops on the family is seeking wide input from the faithful, posing 46 questions and asking that bishops conferences do not answer them with strictly “doctrinal” formulations.

    The document, released Dec. 9 at the Vatican, said the pre-synod consultation should involve every level of the church, including academic institutions, lay movements and other associations.

    UPDATE: English version now available here.

    It said that in preparing for the second synodal session, bishops should remember that Pope Francis has called for a pastoral approach that reflects the “culture of encounter” and goes outside the church’s usual environment, in order to act as a “field hospital” of mercy.

    The questions touch on a number of controversial issues discussed during the synod’s first meeting last October, including sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, church teaching on homosexuality and birth control.

    The document explicitly asked bishops to show “proper realism” in seeking answers to the questions, avoiding an approach that “is merely one of applying doctrine, and that does not respect the conclusions of the extraordinary synodal assembly, and would lead their reflection away from the path that has already been traced.”


  • Pope Francis on Cardinal Burke, the synod, Curia reform and more

    Pope Francis has a new interview out, addressing controversies over the recent Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Raymond Burke and plans to reform the Roman Curia.

    On Cardinal Burke, the pope said his recent departure from a Vatican tribunal should not be seen as punishment for the cardinal’s outspoken remarks during the October synod. The pope said he needed a “smart American” to serve as patron of the Knights of Malta, and that Burke thanked him for the reassignment.

    One of the most interesting passages in the interview came when the pope defended efforts to relax restrictions on divorced and remarried Catholics – a contested issue at the recent synod. The pope said the question goes beyond reception of Communion; it also touches on their other potential roles in the church, including that of godparents. Right now, these people seem to be de facto excommunicated, he said.

    Pope Francis was interviewed by Argentine journalist Elisabetta Piqué, whose book Francis: Life and Revolution is one of the best biographies of the pontiff. The full texts can be read at the site of the Argentine newspaper La Nacion in four parts focusing on key topics: the Roman Curia and Cardinal Burke, the synod on the family, the church and politics in Argentina and the recent decision to change the commander of the Swiss Guards. (The first two parts are available in English and Spanish.)

    Here are some highlights.

    On resistance to his ideas surfacing among other church leaders:

    Resistance is now evident. And that is a good sign for me, getting the resistance out into the open, no stealthy mumbling when there is disagreement. It´s healthy to get things out into the open, it's very healthy. … It all seems normal to me, if there were no difference of opinions, that wouldn't be normal.

    On Cardinal Burke:

    One day Cardinal Burke asked me what he would be doing as he had still not been confirmed in his position, in the legal sector, but rather had been confirmed "donec alitur provideatur." And I answered, "Give me some time because we are thinking of a legal restructuring of the G9." I told him nothing had been done about it yet and that it was being considered. After that the issue of the Order of Malta cropped up and we needed a smart American who would know how to get around and I thought of him for that position. I suggested this to him long before the synod. I said to him, "This will take place after the synod because I want you to participate in the synod as dicastery head." As the chaplain of Malta he wouldn't have been able to be present. He thanked me in very good terms and accepted my offer, I even think he liked it. Because he is a man that gets around a lot, he does a lot of travelling and would surely be busy there. It is therefore not true that I removed him because of how he had behaved in the synod.

    On changes in the Roman Curia, the pope said economic reforms were well underway and that the Vatican bank was now “operating beautifully, we did quite a good job there.” But he said the streamlining of other Vatican agencies will probably not be completed in 2015:

    No, it´s a slow process. The other day we got together with the Dicastery heads and submitted the proposal of joining Laypersons, Family, Justice and Peace Dicasteries. We discussed it all, each one of us said what he thought. Now it will be forwarded back to the G9. You know, reforming the Curia will take a long time, this is the most complex part.

    The head of a dicastery such as the Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith, the liturgical dicastery or the new dicastery encompassing Laymen, Family and Justice and Peace will always be a cardinal. This is best because dicasteries are very close to the Pope. But dicastery secretaries do not necessarily have to be bishops because a problem we have is when we have to change a bishop-secretary, where do we send him? We need to find a dioceses, but sometimes they are not fit for one, they´re good at the other job.

    The pope warned against misinterpreting what the recent Synod of Bishops said on homosexuals:

    Nobody mentioned homosexual marriage at the synod, it did not cross our minds. What we did talk about was of how a family with a homosexual child, whether a son or a daughter, goes about educating that child, how the family bears up, how to help that family to deal with that somewhat unusual situation. That is to say, the synod addressed the family and the homosexual persons in relation to their families, because we come across this reality all the time in the confessional: a father and a mother whose son or daughter is in that situation. This happened to me several times in Buenos Aires. We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter.

    On divorced and remarried Catholics:

    In the case of divorcees who have remarried, we posed the question, what do we do with them? What door can we allow them to open? This was a pastoral concern: will we allow them to go to Communion? Communion alone is no solution. The solution is integration. They have not been excommunicated, true. But they cannot be godfathers to any child being baptized, mass readings are not for divorcees, they cannot give communion, they cannot teach Sunday school, there are about seven things that they cannot do, I have the list over there. Come on! If I disclose any of this it will seem that they have been excommunicated in fact! Thus, let us open the doors a bit more. Why cant they be godfathers and godmothers? "No, no, no, what testimony will they be giving their godson?" The testimony of a man and a woman saying "my dear, I made a mistake, I was wrong here, but I believe our Lord loves me, I want to follow God, I was not defeated by sin, I want to move on." Anything more Christian than that? And what if one of the political crooks among us, corrupt people, are chosen to be somebody's godfather. If they are properly wedded by the Church, would we accept them? What kind of testimony will they give to their godson? A testimony of corruption? Things need to change, our standards need to change.

  • 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.”


  • And now, the aftershocks...

    The synod’s ground-breaking relatio yesterday, which displayed a new pastoral tone and remarkable openness to cohabitating, divorced and gay couples, was met by praise in many quarters but also by a series of objections and criticisms, both inside and outside the synod hall.

    Today’s synod bulletin summarizes the reaction among synod participants during a two-hour debate yesterday. On one hand, it said, there was acclaim for the way the document managed to accurately reflect the speeches at the assembly and its general theme of “welcoming” as a key to evangelization. The synod should have the “watchful gaze of the pastor who devotes his life for his sheep, without a priori judgment,” was how the Vatican summarized the favorable reviews.

    As for the objections, they were many – although it is hard to say how much support each criticism has among the nearly 200 bishops present. Here is a sample of the criticisms, according to the Vatican summary:

    -- The document should talk more about families that faithfully follow church teachings, thanking them for their witness to the Gospel, instead of focusing so much on “imperfect family situations.” The synod should offer a clear message that “indissoluble, happy marriage, faithful forever, is beautiful, possible and present in society,” the summary said. Some urged greater treatment of the missionary role of the family.

    -- The relatio’s section on homosexuality should make clear that “welcoming” gay people should be done with a certain prudence, “so as not to leave the impression that the church has a positive evaluation of this orientation,” the Vatican summary said. Similar objections were raised to the relatio’s treatment of cohabitating couples.

    -- Some bishops objected that the document’s words on the principle of “graduality” needs clarification and a deeper reflection, because it could generate confusion.

    -- It was said that the concept of sin needs better mention in the relatio, as well as some reference to Jesus’ “prophetic tone,” in order to avoid giving the impression that the church is conforming to the mentality of the modern world.

    -- Doubts were raised about how a streamlining of annulment procedures would work, with some pointing out the risk of overloading local bishops with work if a less cumbersome procedure relies on a bishop’s direct involvement.

    -- Greater attention was requested for polygamy, which only received a passing mention in the text. The same was said of pornography, with some bishops saying online porn represents a real risk for modern families.

    -- Some bishops said the section on openness to life should be more ample and more hard-hitting on the issues of abortion and surrogate motherhood.

    -- The synod heard a call for greater attention to the theme of women, including the protection of women and women’s role in transmitting life and the faith.

    -- One suggestion was that the synod make explicit mention of the role of grandparents and elders as a resource in the modern family.

    Meanwhile, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, told Vatican Radio that the synod mid-term relatio was unacceptable to many bishops, and should focus more on “good, normal, ordinary” families.

    U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Vatican's highest tribunal, said the relatio contained confusing and erroneous language, and should be “set aside completely” in favor of a new document that reflects church teaching.

    Whether these objections are reflected in the synod’s final document, which goes directly to the pope, remains to be seen. The synod’s discussion groups are meeting this week, and among their tasks is to propose revisions to the text.

    These revisions will be presented to the group writing the synod’s final relatio, but it is not yet clear whether they will be voting on each proposal.

    UPDATE: At today’s briefing for reporters, the Vatican spokesman and two synod participants seemed to be doing everything possible to downplay expectations raised by the relatio, emphasizing that it remains a “work in progress.”

    Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa said the relatio did not accurately reflect all of the synod debate, and that the text did not express some things in a "helpful" way, although he was not specific about which points he thought may have been mistaken or distorted.

    It’s difficult to say what Napier meant, exactly. At one point he seemed to come very close to disowning the text, and at another he said the relatio basically represented what was said in the synod hall.

    Napier said the discussion in his group, which he moderates, showed support for “reorganizing the material in a way that’s going to be much more positive” so that when next year’s synodal assembly comes around “we’ll be building on positives and not simply on negatives.”

    Napier said the fact that the midterm relatio was released (as it always is at synods) and became a big media story (inaccurate stories, in his view) has left many synod fathers upset, because it limits their ability to make modifications. “We are now working from a position that is virtually irredeemable. The message has gone out, ‘This is what the synod is saying, this is what the Catholic Church is saying.’ And it's not what we're saying at all.” Again, he was not specific.

    Napier said of the relatio itself: “I don’t think anyone is saying there is a gross misrepresentation of the church’s teachings in the document. The media may have gone further than the document.”

    Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, also a group moderator, said the relatio was considered “substantially positive” in its pastoral approach, but needing improvement in “contextualizing” some of its statements, particularly on doctrinal matters. For example, he said, the relatio mentioned the words of Christ regarding marriage, but did not develop it.

    The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said that most of the comments by synod participants expressed appreciation for the relatio, and then made suggestions for improvement.


  • A pastoral earthquake at the synod

    In pastoral terms, the document published today by the Synod of Bishops represents an earthquake, the “big one” that hit after months of smaller tremors.

    The relatio post disceptationem read aloud in the synod hall, while defending fundamental doctrine, calls for the church to build on positive values in unions that the church has always considered “irregular,” including cohabitating couples, second marriages undertaken without annulments and even homosexual unions.

    Regarding homosexuals, it went so far as to pose the question whether the church could accept and value their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine.

    (See UPDATE below, calls for clarification already coming from some synod participants.)

    While defending the traditional teachings that reject divorce and gay marriage, the synod said the modern church must focus more on the “positive elements” in such relationships, rather than their shortcomings, and open a patient and merciful dialogue with the people involved. The ultimate aim, it said, is to use these “seeds” of goodness to bring people more fully into the church.

    It summed up the pastoral challenge for the church in this way:

    "It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy."

    The document clearly reflects Pope Francis' desire to adopt a more merciful pastoral approach on marriage and family issues. It is subject to revisions by the bishops this week, and in its final form will be used as part of a church-wide reflection leading to the second synod session in October 2015.

    The relatio emphasized the “principle of graduality” – the idea that Catholics move toward full acceptance of church teachings in steps, and the church needs to accompany them with patience and understanding. And it emphasized the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which leads the church to recognize positive elements even in the “imperfect forms” found outside of sacramental marriage.

    The relatio said a “new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation.” Where such unions demonstrate stability, deep affection and parental responsibility, they should be considered a starting point for a dialogue that could eventually lead to sacramental marriage, it said.

    It cited situations of couples who choose to live together without marriage for economic or cultural reasons, or those in Africa who enter into traditional marriages in “stages,” and said that in response the church must keep its “doors always wide open.”

    “In such unions, it is possible to grasp authentic family values or at least the wish for them. Pastoral accompaniment should always start from these positive aspects,” it said.

    In dealing with broken families, couples who have separated or divorced, the relatio said the church must avoid an “all or nothing” approach, and instead engage in patient dialogue with such families in a spirit of respect and love.

    On the question of Communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment, the document left the question open for further theological study and reflection by the church as a whole, especially on the links between the sacrament of marriage and the Eucharist. It noted that some synod participants were against admission of divorced Catholics to the sacraments, while others foresaw Communion as a possibility, perhaps after a “penitential path” carried out under church guidance.

    In dealing with divorced and remarried Catholics, it said, the church must avoid discriminatory language. For the church, reaching out to divorced Catholics does not represent a “weakening of its faith” or a weakening of the indissolubility of marriage, but rather an exercise of charity.

    The relatio also cited the many calls in the synod for a speeding up and streamlining of the annulment procedures, including the possibility of an “administrative” decision of nullity made by local bishops without the need for a tribunal process. The pope has already named a commission to explore those possibilities.

    In a section titled “Welcoming homosexuals,” the relatio clearly rejected gay marriage but stated:

    “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

    "Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners," it said. 

    Naturally, the synod framed its “opening” to irregular unions in the context of evangelization – leading people to the Gospel – and nowhere in the text is there a suggestion that basic church teachings are up for debate.

    The first part of the relatio presents, in fact, a rather severe diagnosis of the ills that affect the modern family, citing in particular the dangers of an “exasperated individualism” that seems to have replaced family cohesion. Other families are struggling with economic troubles, violence and social upheaval, it said.

    In dealing with these problems and failures, it said, the church needs to open a process of “conversion,” not merely announcing a set of rules but putting forward values, recognizing the opportunities to evangelize but also the cultural limits.

    On the question of birth control, the synod’s relatio had little new to say. Openness to life is an essential part of married love, it said, and it suggested a deeper reading of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical that condemned contraception, as well as better promotion of natural family planning methods of birth regulation.

    Here, as elsewhere, the text said the church needs to use a “realistic language” that begins with listening to people, and can lead them to acknowledge the “beauty and truth of an unconditional opening to life.” It added, however, that the church also needs to "respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control."

    The relatio said that in caring for “wounded families,” what rang out in the synod was the need for “courageous pastoral choices” and new pastoral paths that begin with the situation of the suffering couples or families, recognizing that, often, their situations are more endured than freely chosen.

    It called for improvement of marriage preparation for Catholics, saying programs should better involve the church community as a whole. The church also needs to design pastoral accompaniment for couples in the early years of married life, using experienced couples as a resource, it said.

    It made a particular point of inviting local Catholic communities around the world to continue the synod’s discussion and offer their perspectives, in view of the synod’s follow-up session on the same theme, which will take place in Rome Oct. 4-25, 2015.

    UPDATE: The relatio has already occasioned some pushback. Following its presentation in the synod hall, 41 bishops spoke about the content, and several pressed for clarifications on specific points:

    -- Some asked whether, in the section on homosexuality, there shouldn’t be a mention of the teaching that “some unions are disordered,” a reference to the phrase the church has used to describe homosexual relations. That information came from Cardinal Peter Erdo, the primary author of the relatio, who spoke to reporters at a Vatican press conference.

    -- Sources said other bishops questioned the analogy the relatio drew between the principle of finding “elements of sanctification and of truth outside” outside the visible structure of the church, expressed in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, and the broader idea that positive elements can be found not only in sacramental marriage but also in irregular unions.

    -- At least one bishop asked what happened to the concept of sin. The word “sin” appears only rarely in the 5,000-word relatio.

    At the press conference, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines emphasized that this text was not the final version and said with a smile, “So the drama continues.”

    A TRANSLATION ISSUE: Some people are taking issue with the English version of the relatio (a translation of the original Italian text that was put out by the Vatican press office but which is not “official”) and its treatment of the homosexuality issue. Specifically, this line: “Are our communities capable of providing that (a welcoming home for homosexuals), accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

    The Italian text uses the verb valutare, which can mean a lot of things -- to value, appreciate, consider, evaluate or judge. The English translators decided on “valuing.” I think “appreciating” would also fit. Given the context of the sentence (“welcoming” and “accepting”), I don’t think translating the word as “evaluating” or "judging" would make much sense. In any case, the sentence has apparently already caused some fireworks in the synod hall, so it will be interesting to see if it survives the revision process.



  • Archbishop Martin says church needs to deal better with the 'gray areas' of pastoral life

                    Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

    Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin had some interesting things to say at today’s press briefing for the Synod of Bishops on the family. Archbishop Martin was present at the 1980 synod on the family (and at synods after that), and he reflected on what has changed – notably, the very open debate at this session, and the willingness to look at new approaches.

    “On some of the subjects, the theological debate has been going on for years, and I don't expect this synod is going to bring that to a conclusion. But this synod cannot simply repeat what was said twenty years ago. It has to find new language, to show that there can be development of doctrine, and that there has been a willingness to listen to what emerged in the questionnaires that went out and what emerged in the synod itself,” he said.

    Archbishop Martin said that in general, there’s a movement away from seeing the church’s teaching on marriage as something that is “taught” to people, and a better understanding that the church itself learns through the experience of the sacramental marriages of its faithful. Catechesis is essential, he said, but the church also has to recognize that while many couples could not explain the theology of marriage and the family, they “understand it, and live it.”

    The synod heard a lot about truth and mercy, and Martin said it was important to find real ways of bringing the two together. Because of the strong canonical tradition in the Catholic Church, he said, “we’re not good at dealing with exceptions.” He said we have both “rigorism” and “laxism” in the church, but “most people fall in the gray areas between those two, and we have to exercise our pastoral responsibilities in the gray areas, not falling into either extreme.”

    Martin also explained a crucial procedural difference in this synod: The small-group discussions next week will not be bringing forward “propositions” to fold into a final document. Instead, they will be fine-tuning the relatio, to be presented Monday, that sums up the discussion so far. What the bishops send to the pope at the end of next week will be in effect a “working document” for the next phases of the synod: a year-long period of reflection and discussion, followed by another assembly in Rome in October 2015.

    As a side note, Valerie Duval-Poujol, who represented the World Baptist Alliance at the synod, offered evidence that the “Francis factor” was alive and well among the non-Catholic attendees and the lay auditors invited to the synod: One couple invited the pope to attend the wedding of their child, and another told him their children say the pope is “really cool.”


  • Pope Francis makes an important move at the synod

    UPDATE: This post is amended to reflect the fact that the six papal nominees will be helping write the synod's final relatio, which will be handed to the pope at the end of the assembly.

    The Vatican just announced that Pope Francis has named six additional prelates to help write the final relatio for the Synod of Bishops. At the risk of oversimplifying, they all seem to be on the pope’s wavelength when it comes to promoting pastoral mercy.

    They will assist Cardinal Peter Erdo, the primary drafter of the relatio, and two other synod officials, in the task of summing up the spirited synod debate in a document that will form the basis for future discussion.

    Sources in Rome view the relatio as the key document going forward, and there is particular interest in how it treats some of the more controversial issues at the synod, including proposals to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments.

    The papal appointees to the drafting group are:

    Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.
    Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C.
    Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and one of the pope’s top theological advisors.
    Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Mexico, president of CELAM, the Latin American bishops’ council.
    Archbishop Peter Kang U-Il of South Korea.
    Father Adolfo Nicolás Pachón of Spain, superior general of the Jesuit order.


  • 'Penitential path' for divorced and remarried gets synod hearing

    Last February, at Pope Francis’ invitation, Cardinal Walter Kasper outlined a possible way for the church to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion. He called it a “penitential path” that would, in effect, recognize the Eucharist as a healing sacrament for those most in need.

    During the current Synod of Bishops, the proposal seemed to have disappeared – until last night, when several bishops expressed support for the idea and outlined how it might work. It was envisioned as an in-depth examination of conscience, with guided reflection on how the person’s divorce may have harmed others, including the original spouse and children.

    Repentance and the sacrament of reconciliation is presumed, and some proposed that the church might design a detailed procedure, an ordo penitentium, to structure the process. Others compared it to a jubilee year of penitence, which would culminate in re-admission to Communion in a formal service with the local church community.

    Among those who spoke strongly in favor of such an approach was Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, whose parents divorced when he was a teenager.

    Those defending the church’s current policy, which prohibits divorced and civilly remarried Catholics from receiving Communion (unless they live in sexual abstinence), also weighed in last night. But sources told me they were not in the majority.

    We shall see how the synod’s revised relatio, a summary document to be released on Monday, treats the topic. That document is supposed to reflect the synod’s closed-door discussion so far. At the end of next week, the bishops will pull together a working document for the next phase of this synod, a year-long period of reflection followed by another assembly in Rome in October 2015. It will also issue a message to the world.

    As the synod moved toward the end of its first week, it was easy to get lost in the details: possible canon law modifications on annulments, fine-tuning church language on irregular unions, back and forth over the doctrinal dimensions of church teaching on marriage and the limits of reform.

    These details are important, and are being carefully sifted as the final statements are being written. But sometimes the tone of synod interventions are just as important as the debating points.

    This morning’s session began with an opening reflection from Bishop Arnold Orowae of Papua New Guinea, a talk that, in its simplicity and elegance, captured the spirit of Pope Francis’ pastoral agenda and his hopes for the synod itself.

    Bishop Orowae said the rediscovery of the “joy of the Gospel,” the title of Pope Francis’ major document, was the key to family well-being and evangelization today. He credited the pope with “igniting a flame that is spreading throughout the world” with the fundamental message that faith in God and imitation of Christ leads to acts of charity.

    The healthy Christian home, the bishop said, is marked above all by happiness. He acknowledged challenges for modern families, but said families are at their best when tackling problems. It helps, he said, when families read Scripture and try to make it part of their daily life.

    Bishop Orowae spoke not of what the church tells families and expects them to do, but about how grateful the church is for the many Catholic families who teach their children well and set examples that other families can imitate. This is evangelization, he said.

    Here’s an idea for the synod: Just take Orowae’s one-page sermon and issued it as the assembly’s final “message” to the world.

    On the other hand, we also continue to see at this synod the “report card” approach, an attempt to gauge how families are measuring up – or falling short – of the church’s teachings. French Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, introducing the debate last night, spoke about how ill-prepared many families feel in educating their children in Gospel values.

    Given that families teach best by witness, he identified three elements that make education of children more difficult today: same-sex unions, single-parent families and the phenomenon of street children. Parents in other “irregular” situations pose particular difficulties for Christian education, especially when they don’t agree with some church teachings, he said.

    Although Cardinal Vingt-Trois said such couples must be approached with respect, he framed the issue as a problem that is essentially solved by adhesion to the Magisterium.

    That is also the approach reflected in many of the “testimonies” delivered by married Catholic couples at the synod. Last night, Olivier and Xristilla Roussy, a French couple with seven children, told the synod that living according to the church’s teaching on birth control was not only possible, but had made their marriage stronger and happier.

    The couple said Xristilla had tried the birth control pill for a while, but found it left her in a bad mood. They practiced natural family planning with mixed results – on one occasion, “unable to contain our desire” during a fertile period, they had a child nine months later. But they welcomed that child with joy, they said.

    For the most part, the couples chosen to address the synod have been from Catholic lay movements, often involved directly in marriage spirituality programs. They have endorsed church teachings, saying sexuality should reflect the “plan of God” and not the consumerist and selfish model of the world. No one doubts their sincerity, but perhaps the synod might have invited some other voices as well.

    An Australian couple, Ran and Mavis Pirola, were the exception to the rule when they told the synod the story of friends who had welcomed a son’s gay partner to a Christmas gathering, and suggested the church should show the same welcoming attitude.

    Cardinal Raymond Burke, the head of the Apostolic Signature who has become the “Dr. No” of this synod, has now voiced his objections to that approach in an interview with the U.S.-based Lifesite News.

    “If homosexual relations are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are … then what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living in a disordered relationship with another person?” Burke said.

    Burke said Catholics should not give children the impression that such relationships are alright, “by seeming to condone gravely sinful acts on the part of a family member.”


  • A top Vatican canonist argues for pastoral flexibility

           Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio

    It sounds like the Synod of Bishops on the family has let loose with some of the “frank and open” talk encouraged by Pope Francis. Over the last two days, reports from the inside speak of spirited, impassioned at even at times confrontational discussion, with bishops answering bishops directly on the synod floor.

    In its discussion of “irregular” and difficult family situations, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said there were two general lines of argument: one emphasizing a need to defend the church’s traditional teachings, and the other focusing more on finding pastoral solutions for estranged Catholics.

    That’s not surprising, and Lombardi said it was impossible to say which group held the upper hand at this point in the assembly. We may have a better sense of where this is going at the end of next week, when concluding documents are issued at the close of the synod’s first phase.

    But meantime, some very interesting comments came today from an unlikely source. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, reviewed with reporters some of the pastoral options that are being proposed for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.

    He noted the suggestion that the church should look into the Orthodox Church practice of accepting, to some degree, second and third marriages, and said it deserved study. But he foresaw problems, and did not appear at all convinced that the Catholic Church would go down that road.

    Instead Coccopalmerio favored streamlining the annulment process. He is a key member of a commission recently named by Pope Francis to study that very issue.

    Coccopalmerio said one of more intriguing ideas was to establish an “administrative” procedure whereby a local bishop, after careful consideration based largely on the credibility of the couple, could simply declare a marriage annulled – thus avoiding the sometimes lengthy and costly treatment by marriage tribunals. Care would be needed to ensure this procedure did not become superficial, but he said he was “very much in favor” of this approach. It was significant that such an endorsement came from the Vatican’s top canon law official.

    Then Coccopalmerio explained why he thought something had to be done to address the needs of Catholics in irregular unions. He said he agreed with Pope Francis’ view – that “yes we have to protect the doctrine, but we also have to begin with the situations of real people, and give them a response. These are people with urgent problems, and they need our help.”

    Coccopalmerio cited the Scripture accounts of what Jesus said about the law of the Sabbath, and why doing good in urgent situations was sometimes more important than abiding by the rules. In modern situations, too, pastors are faced with either doing nothing – because we have our rules – or finding a creative response, he said.

    The cardinal said he had expressed his view on this issue during the synod. He described the situation of a woman who married a man who had been unjustly abandoned by his first wife, helping him raise his three children and sharing a life together.

    “And now we say: ‘Abandon this union or we won’t give you Communion.’ But she thinks, ‘I cannot abandon this union, or abandon this man, or leave these children without a mother,’” Coccopalmerio said. He said that in these types of situations, the church’s pastors cannot simply throw their hands up and cite the rules – they have to do something.

    “If the synod is thinking along those lines, it's already a big result,” he said.

    A more severe argument was reportedly made by U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican’s highest tribunal. Burke has been a strong critic of proposals to find a less rigorous way to readmit divorced and remarried to the sacraments.

    According to the Italian magazine Il Regno, Burke gave a talk at last night’s session that offered three “no’s”: no to any doctrinal change; no to any change in church law; and no to any change in pastoral practice. The magazine said his brief talk was met in the synod hall with icy silence. Apparently the bishops recognized that these three “no’s” were, in essence, a “no” to Pope Francis and his calls for pastoral mercy.


  • Two colorful cardinals, two takes on the synod

    It was soundbite city in Rome last night, as two participants in the Synod of Bishops offered somewhat different takes on how mercy, language and doctrine apply to family and marriage issues.

    Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Australian Cardinal George Pell talked at a Rome launch of Crux, the Boston Globe’s online project that focuses on Catholic news. Both have a reputation for speaking their minds.

    Guess who said this:

    “The thing I’ve taken from the first three days is the level of trouble we’re in, right around the world, with marriage and the family. There are very, very few societies where the trend is running in the direction of strengthened family life.”

    And who said this:

    “Even thought there is this gritty realism, and complete and utter bluntness about the challenges we’ve got, you don’t detect much hand-wringing, and you don’t detect much pessimism or gloom. … There’s not a sense of panic.”

     The first quote, of course, came from Pell, who considers himself a “realist” willing to say things that, as he put it, might be “ecclesiastically incorrect.”

    The second was from Dolan, who realizes that sounding upbeat is a prime requisite when church leaders meet the press.

    Cardinal Pell, who has been among the cardinals who publicly criticized Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to find a way to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, also had this to say:

    “As Christians, we follow Jesus. I might have hoped Jesus would have been a little bit softer on divorce. But he wasn’t, and I’m sticking with him.” That line brought applause from a mostly clerical crowd at North American College, where the event was held.

    Cardinal Dolan, while saying that the church cannot soften or dilute its teachings, declared that mercy is already front and center for most bishops. “The bishops are speaking with immense love and tenderness about their people, especially about their broken people. It moves them, it moves us, when we see people who are outside the church.”


  • Church doctrine on family can develop, papal advisor says

       Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez

    When Pope Francis called for frank and open talk at the Synod of Bishops, he was encouraging bishops to speak up “without fear that Cardinal Mueller will come after you,” one of the pope’s closest associates said today.

    The humorous aside – well, I think it was humorous – came from Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, who is reputedly one of the pope’s top theological advisors.

    Archbishop Fernandez was addressing reporters on the synod’s third day, and he said the pope’s call for an honest exchange was necessary if the assembly wanted to be productive.

    The reference to Cardinal Gerhard Mueller prompted chuckles in the press room. Mueller, head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, has been among those sharply criticizing a proposal by Cardinal Walter Kasper that the synod find a way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

    Fernandez also addressed what has become a common refrain at the synod – that the assembly had no intention of changing doctrine, but simply looking at pastoral practices.

    “When it’s said that this is a ‘pastoral’ synod, it doesn’t at all mean that one cannot deepen the doctrine,” he said. “We need to develop the doctrine on the family much more. If we came here only to repeat what we’ve always said, the church wouldn't grow.”

    He pointed to the issue of slavery, which was accepted in past centuries by the church, as an example of where teaching changed “because there was a development in doctrine – and that continues to happen.” You can't say doctrine developed in the past, but no longer does, he added.

    Fernandez said the synod needs to proceed by looking not only at the truths of its faith, which should be defended, but also at the pastoral realities, which can sometimes be messy.

    As pastors, he said, bishops need to reach out and help people even when they do not fully accept church teaching – when “perfection is not possible,” as Pope Francis put it in his document Evangelii Gaudium.

    Archbishop Fernandez is said to have worked closely with Pope Francis on that document, and his briefing in the press room today certainly seemed to reflect the pope’s point of view.


  • Cutback of information makes this synod harder to read

    Getting a read on any Synod of Bishops is not easy, at least from the outside. This synod is proving especially difficult for reporters because of the lack of raw material provided to the media.

    Granted, it’s only Day 3 of the synod, which is discussing marriage and family issues. But already, more than 100 short speeches have been given on the synod floor. No texts or summaries have been published, unlike previous years, except for the opening working document and a few talks delivered by lay couples who are attending as auditors.

    Moreover, the Vatican press briefings, while checklisting some of the themes raised by bishops, are carefully avoiding detailed accounts of the interventions and the reactions in the hall. No names are named – we are not being told who said what.

    The impression of the synod so far is unclear and fragmented, with opinions and points of emphasis all over the map. We are told one moment of a call for “empathy and tenderness” in presenting church teachings, and then of the need for “severe” preparation for married couples.

    We are told the synod appreciates the input of Catholics in surveys conducted ahead of the assembly, and then warned that these surveys must not be seen as public opinion polls.

    We are told the church must dispense the “medicine of mercy” to couples and families, but that it must continue to proclaim firmly the truths about marriage as a permanent union between a man and a woman.

    We are told that the high rates of unmarried couples who live together represent a crisis for the church, and that cohabitation also can reflect positive values and be a pastoral opportunity and a seed to be nurtured.

    Again, it’s early in the synod, and I’m hoping the synod briefers will find a way to describe how and if consensus is building on specific issues.

    There are a few themes that seem to be emerging as important ones:

    -- Recognizing the “law of graduality,” which acknowledges that the Christian path toward holiness develops in steps and stages, and that immediate acceptance of church teachings (like the rejection of birth control) may be an unrealistic expectation.

    -- The church’s language on marriage and family issues should be welcoming and invitational, not absolute and off-putting.

    -- The annulment process needs to be simplified. There’s a strong case being made that many modern marriages may be invalid because couples lack the proper level of faith and understanding of the sacrament.

    -- Despite social changes, the nuclear family is not outdated and remains the ideal for societies around the world. In this sense, the synod seems reluctant to entertain the notion that the changing configuration of families may bring positive values and new opportunities.

    -- That no change in doctrine will be considered at this synod. We’ve already heard this proclaimed several times, though I’m not sure what it means. Doctrine develops in the church, just as people’s understanding of Scripture and revelation develop. I expect this point will be taken up more fully on the synod floor – but it’s too bad we on the outside may not hear much about it.

    By giving journalists only a drip of information, the Vatican is clearly trying to give bishops the freedom to talk frankly and openly. It is also trying not to feed the media’s tendency to proclaim winners and losers, as if this were a legislative process with up and down votes.

    This synod will unfold in two phases, with a second session in October 2015. I think Pope Francis wants to bring about important changes – yes, including new pastoral policies for divorced and remarried Catholics – and he’ll need that time for new ideas to take root and find acceptance. In that regard, making the synod’s deliberations more confidential may make tactical sense.

    But it also gives the impression that the church is still afraid to face these questions openly – and air internal differences publicly. At a synod on issues that directly affect the lives of millions of families, that’s hard to understand.


  • Church needs to drop harsh language on marriage and family, synod is told

    As the Synod of Bishops entered its second day, more than one participant zeroed in on the negative language the Catholic Church sometimes uses when it discusses marriage and family issues.

    In particular, one bishop said, terms like “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered” or “contraceptive mentality” do nothing to draw people closer to church teaching. It’s a form of labeling that can turn people off, he said.

    The point emerged during a briefing for journalists that identified some of the topics discussed during the synod, but without identifying the speakers. In some cases, a few lines of the unnamed participants’ talks were quoted.

    According to Father Tom Rosica, one of the briefers at the Vatican press office, a strong argument was made for the church to adopt more positive, hopeful language about marriage and the family.

    “Living in sin” is sometimes used to describe cohabitating couples, while “intrinsically disordered” is the used by the Catechism of the Catholic Church to describe homosexual acts. Many Vatican officials have criticized what they call a “contraceptive mentality” in modern culture, a phrase used in Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1981 document on the family, Familiaris Consortio.

    Father Rosica, quoting one synod participant, said the church needs to work to find a language that embodies its theology and invites people to embrace it. To many people, the participant said, marriage seems to be “filtered in harsh language through the church.” The challenge is to make that language loving and appealing, he said.

    The synod’s discussion touched on a variety of other topics. According to English Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who also addressed reporters, one point that seemed to be developing was the call to respect the “law of graduality” – the idea that a Christian’s moral development takes place gradually, in a “stepping stones” fashion, and not necessarily in an immediate embrace of doctrine.

    Nichols said that in this perspective, individuals are encouraged to take one step at a time in understanding and accepting the church’s teachings. At the same time, Nichols noted, Pope John Paul II stated in Familiaris Consortio that the “law of graduality” did not imply a “graduality of the law.”

    Another point mentioned during the synod’s first sessions was that while the family is still considered the basic unit of society, the church has to be sensitive to non-traditional forms of family, including those that, by choice or not, are without children.

    The Vatican press office later released a two-page written summary of synodal talks, listing some of the themes raised by participants:

    -- A need to develop a longer program of accompaniment for married couples, and not just a brief marriage preparation course that ends with the ceremony. The preparation for engaged couples needs to be “long, personalized and even severe, without fear of seeing the number of church weddings decrease. Otherwise, there’s the risk of clogging up the tribunals with marriage cases.”

    -- Couples who have divorced or are in irregular unions need the “medicine of mercy,” but they want above all to be loved and welcomed, even more than “rapid pastoral solutions.” Regarding the possibility of Communion for Catholics who divorced and remarried without an annulment, the point was made that the Eucharist is “not the sacrament of the perfect, but of those on a pathway.”

    -- At least one synod participant took aim at the influence of the mass media, and the widespread presentation of “ideologies contrary to church doctrine on marriage and the family.”


  • Cardinal Marx says German bishops back Kasper proposals on divorced and remarried Catholics

                 German Cardinal Reinhard Marx

    Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich said a strong majority of German bishops supported Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to find a way to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, and that he intended to raise the issue at the Synod of Bishops.

    Speaking at the close of the synod’s first day, Cardinal Marx also said it was crucial for the synod’s debate on family issues to be an “open discussion” that extends beyond the synod hall and involves the wider society.

    Marx, who is president of the German bishops’ conference, made his remarks in a meeting with journalists. Synod participants have been told that their official speeches during the assembly should not be published, but that they were free to give interviews.

    The synod’s opening summary document, read at the start of the first session, downplayed Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to find a “penitential path” that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Rather than dwelling on the reception of the sacraments, the synod document emphasized proposals to streamline procedures to make annulments easier to obtain.

    Cardinal Kasper’s suggestions have been highly criticized by some Vatican cardinals, who say they could undermine the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Cardinal Marx said, however, that Cardinal Kasper’s ideas had the support of the great majority of bishops in Germany.

    Marx also expressed some reservations about seeking the pastoral solution for divorced Catholics in a simplified annulment process. Determining whether a marriage was valid will never be easy, he said. He asked how the church could possibly grant annulments to couples married 20 or 30 years. And if annulments are conceded because the level of faith was not adequate at the time of marriage, he said, how many annulments would the church have to give?

    More generally, Cardinal Marx said, if the church starts granting numerous annulments it could weaken its overall message about the sacrament of marriage.


  • Synod of Bishops hears plain talk from Australian couple

    This morning, Pope Francis called for open and honest discussion at the Synod of Bishops. This evening, the bishops heard it loud and clear from an Australian married couple, who urged the church to learn from the sometimes “messy” lives of modern families.

    Ron and Mavis Pirola of Sydney were the first of several couples to address the synod as “auditors.” They don’t have a vote in the proceedings, but they do have a voice – and they delivered a message that contrasted with the ecclesial-speak of the synod’s official documents.

    Ron Pirola told the synod that his 55-year happy marriage began when he looked across a room and saw a beautiful young woman. Their attraction, he said, was basically sexual and a longing to be intimate with each other. He went on to call marriage a “sexual sacrament with its fullest expression in sexual intercourse.”

    The arrival of their four children filled them with joy but also brought nights when, as parents, they would lie awake wondering what went wrong.

    Although practicing Catholics, Pirola said, the couple only occasionally looked at church documents for guidance, and “they seemed to be from another planet with difficult language and not terribly relevant to our own experiences.”

    He suggested that to have a greater impact, the church should learn from families. For one thing, the church wants to uphold truth while expressing compassion and mercy – something families try to do all the time, he said:

    “Take homosexuality as an example. Friends of ours were planning their Christmas family gathering when their gay son said he wanted to bring his partner home too. They fully believed in the Church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family. Their response could be summed up in three words, ‘He is our son’.

    What a model of evangelization for parishes as they respond to similar situations in their neighborhood!”

    Pirola cited other parents they know who face deep challenges – a divorced woman who remains faithful to the church, a widow who cares for a disabled son. Like the families depicted in the Bible, modern families have lives that are “chaotic and full of messy dramas,” but they deserve to be listened to and treated as co-responsible for the church’s action by clergy, he said.

    He said the church can also learn a lesson about effective transmission of values from parents who have struggled with their children:

    “A high respect for authority, parental, religious or secular, has long gone. So their parents learn to enter into the lives of their children, to share their values and hopes for them and also to learn from them in turn. This process of entering into the lives of our other persons and learning from them as well as sharing with them is at the heart of evangelization.”


  • Synod kicks off with a papal call for candor

              Pope Francis at the Synod of Bishops

    Pope Francis convened the working phase of the Synod of Bishops on the family with a strong call for frank discussion, saying bishops should not feel afraid to disagree openly but respectfully – even with the pope.

    His brief talk Monday was followed by the reading of a revised synod working document that downplayed a topic at the center of fierce debate in recent weeks: the possibility of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

    The pope sat at a dais in the Vatican’s synod hall before about 180 bishops and some 70 other participants at the start of the two-week-long assembly. He said “synodality” means talking clearly and listening with humility.

    Francis recalled that after last February’s meeting of cardinals on synod themes, one participant wrote to him and lamented that some cardinals were afraid to say what they thought, because they disagreed with the pope.

    “That’s no good. That’s not synodality. We need to say what we feel and at the same time listen and welcome with an open heart what our brothers are saying,” the pope told the assembly.

    But if Francis seemed to be calling for candor, the text of the revised working document or relatio, prepared by Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, went out of its way to defuse a growing and public disagreement over the situation of Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.

    Cardinal Walter Kasper, invoking Pope Francis’ theme of pastoral mercy, has said the church needs to search for a way to give Communion to such Catholics. Other cardinals, including the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, have pounced on Kasper’s suggestion, saying it would be tantamount to disavowing the indissolubility of marriage.

    Cardinal Erdo’s relatio treated the situation of divorced Catholics at length, but without explicitly mentioning the issue of Communion. Indeed, he said, "it would be misleading to concentrate only on the reception of the sacraments" in discussing the issue.

    Erdo emphasized that the synod was not in any sense challenging the permanence of marriage. He mentioned, as a matter needing further study, the practice of some Orthodox Churches in recognizing second marriages, but said this study needs to avoid “any questionable interpretations and conclusions.”

    In another section of his text, Erdo said that pastoral mercy cannot go against the remands of the marriage bond, and that “a second marriage recognized by the church is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive.”

    It remains to be seen whether Cardinal Kasper’s proposal receives more attention from this synod. But judging by today’s opening summary text, which is supposed to set directions for the discussion, the synod planners clearly do not want this very controversial issue to take over the assembly. I think they also wanted to reassure the doctrinal conservatives who have spoken out against Kasper’s ideas that what’s up for discussion are pastoral policies, and not established church teaching.

    What was striking about Cardinal Erdo’s text was that it took almost for granted that streamlining the annulment process would go forward. He said there was a “broad consensus” for simplifying annulment procedures, and even suggested the church might institute an administrative, “extra-judicial” process in which a local bishop could annul a marriage. That in itself would be a remarkable change, and the pope has already named a commission to study these possibilities.

    What Erdo had to say about cohabitation was also interesting, and unusually positive by Vatican standards. Some couples, he said, choose to live together without marriage in relationships that are marked by stability, deep affection and parental responsibility. He said the church should see these relationship as an opportunity and “a seed to be nurtured” toward the sacrament of marriage.

    The opening relatio made two points about homosexuality. It said gay men and women should not be discriminated against. But it said most Catholics still reject the idea of gay marriage. What most Catholics appear to want, it said, was a change in culturally conditioned traditional roles and discrimination against women, but without denying the differences between the sexes and their “complementarity.”

    In general, the relatio tried to strike a balance between alarm at the erosion of marriage and traditional family values, and confidence that the family “is not an outdated model.”

    “The family is fast becoming the last welcoming human reality in a world determined almost exclusively by finance and technology. A new culture of the family can be the starting point for a renewed human civilization,” it said.


  • The synod and birth control

    In recent months, I’ve often been asked whether the October Synod of Bishops on the family will be looking at the issue of birth control.

    There are so many other important questions on the synod’s agenda, including the real-life struggles of families that face separation, poverty and violence, that one hesitates to focus on a doctrinal issue like contraception.

    Yet it’s a logical question. Birth control is arguably the biggest and best example of the disconnect that exists between the Catholic Church’s official teaching on marriage and actual practice by Catholic couples.

    The church teaching, proclaimed in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, says the use of contraceptive methods is intrinsically evil. Yet surveys in many countries, including the United States, show that the vast majority of Catholics have used contraceptive birth control and believe it to be morally acceptable.

    Synod planners have declared that ignorance or rejection of church teaching on marriage and the family represents a major challenge to pastors, one that needs to be discussed at the October assembly in Rome.

    But don’t look for birth control to be a big part of that discussion.

    The synod’s working document, which will be the basis for discussion when the synod opens Oct. 5, frames the issue in the traditional Vatican perspective: If only people understood our arguments, they could accept our teachings. Many of the Catholic faithful, the document states, have no knowledge of the relevant church documents or a poor understanding of the “Christian anthropology” that underlies the teaching on birth control.

    If the working document sets the tone, we can expect to hear much during this synod about the need for better catechesis, better preaching, better training of priests and a renewal of language that makes concepts like “natural law” more comprehensible to the average Catholic.

    What we won’t hear, I think, is any suggestion that the church should revisit the teaching against contraception. Nor is there likely to be much clamor for a closer look at a related, crucial issue: the exercise of papal teaching authority, which, as seen in Humanae Vitae and subsequent declarations, has become increasingly authoritarian and less collegial.

    The synod, in other words, does not appear eager to probe too deeply into why most Catholic couples reject this fundamental teaching, and whether the experience of these Catholics might offer fresh insight into the church’s understanding of natural moral law. This is surely one of the elephants in the room: the relationship between the magisterium, the church’s teaching authority, and the sensus fidelium, the instinct that enables the faithful to recognize authentic Christian doctrine and reject what is false.

    In reviewing pre-synod survey results from dioceses, the synod’s working document was forced to acknowledge that “for many Catholics, the concept of ‘responsible parenthood’ encompasses the shared responsibility in conscience to choose the most appropriate method of birth control.” In response, the document says the church should make Humanae Vitae better known, explain natural family planning more effectively, and offer better pre-marriage preparation and “instructional courses on love in general.”

    Pope Francis, while calling the teaching on birth control “prophetic,” has indicated some space for discussion when it comes to pastoral practice. Francis pointed out in an interview last spring that even Pope Paul VI, who wrote Humanae Vitae, recommended to confessors “much mercy and attention to concrete situations.”

    “The issue is not changing the doctrine, but going deeper and making sure that pastoral action takes into account that which is possible for people to do. This, too, will be discussed in the synod,” Pope Francis said.

    Given the outcry from doctrinal conservatives every time “freedom of conscience” is invoked on unpopular church teachings, it’s hard to imagine this kind of discussion gaining much traction in Rome. Maybe the synod will surprise us.


  • War of words heats up as Vatican counts down to synod

            Cardinal Walter Kasper

    Journalists often exaggerate conflict at the Vatican. But it’s no exaggeration to say that sharp battle lines are being drawn for the October Synod of Bishops, in particular on the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

    This week saw several leading cardinals and Vatican officials weigh in on the “No” side, with the imminent publication of two new books on the topic. Among them were two leading Roman Curia officials – German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Australian Cardinal George Pell, head of the Vatican’s new Secretariat for the Economy.

    Specifically, they took issue with Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was selected by Pope Francis to address the world’s cardinals last February. Kasper proposed that the church find ways to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, arguing that the Eucharist should be a spiritual “life raft” for those who need it most.

    There are two ways of looking at these developments. For some, it’s part of the open and lively debate that Pope Francis desired when he chose the synod’s theme (the family) and called for a more merciful and pastoral approach on the issue of divorced Catholics.

    Others see it as pre-emptive strike by doctrinal hardliners, an attempt to mark certain options as off-limits even before the bishops arrive in Rome to begin deliberations. Their argument is not that the church shouldn’t admit divorced and remarried to Communion, but that it cannot do so without breaking with the teachings of Christ and the church.

    As Cardinal Müller put it, a sacramental marriage is indissoluble, and Catholics whose “state of life contradicts the indissolubility of sacramental marriage” cannot be admitted to the Eucharist.

    Pre-emptive strikes are not new for the Synod of Bishops. In 1985, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger came out with a book-length interview on the state of the church that framed much of the discussion for that year’s extraordinary on the aftermath of Vatican II.

    But by Vatican standards, this kind of open verbal warfare is unprecedented. Two comments by Cardinal Kasper, reported today in the Italian press, take it to a whole new level.

    In an interview with the newspaper La Stampa, Kasper said he was blindsided by publication of the new books. “I was surprised. I learned about it only today from journalists – they were sent the text, not me. In all my academic life I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

    And in an interview with another newspaper, Il Mattino, Kasper went farther, saying his critics appeared to want a “doctrinal war” at the synod, and that the target was not himself but “probably” Pope Francis.

    “They claim to know on their own what the truth is. But Catholic doctrine is not a closed system, it is a living system that develops, as Vatican II taught us. They want to crystalize the truth in certain formulas,” Kasper was quoted as saying.

    He added: “None of my cardinal brothers have spoken with me. I, on the other hand, have spoken twice with the Holy Father. I arranged everything with him. He was in agreement. What else can a cardinal do, other than stand with the pope? I am not the target, the target is someone else.”

    Asked if the target was Pope Francis, Cardinal Kasper replied: "Probably yes."


  • Courage, creativity urged as cardinals begin talks on family issues

                      Cardinal Walter Kasper

    Pope Francis this morning opened a two-day discussion of cardinals on the family, saying the church’s pastoral response to modern problems must be marked by intelligence, courage and love.

    Here’s the key quote from the pope’s talk to about 150 cardinals gathered at the Vatican:

    Our reflections must keep before us the beauty of the family and marriage, the greatness of this human reality which is so simple and yet so rich, consisting of joys and hopes, of struggles and sufferings, as is the whole of life. We will seek to deepen the theology of the family and discern the pastoral practices which our present situation requires.

    May we do so thoughtfully and without falling into “casuistry”, because this would inevitably diminish the quality of our work. Today, the family is looked down upon and mistreated. We are called to acknowledge how beautiful, true and good it is to start a family, to be a family today; and how indispensable the family is for the life of the world and for the future of humanity. We are called to make known God’s magnificent plan for the family and to help spouses joyfully experience this plan in their lives, as we accompany them amidst so many difficulties, including with a pastoral approach that is intelligent, courageous and full of love.

    That last phrase about a courageous and compassionate pastoral policy was added extemporaneously by the pope.

    Briefing reporters afterward, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said that in referring to “casuistry,” the pope meant that the cardinals should not “fragment” their discussion by focusing on particular situations over a more general vision.

    Lombardi also summarized some key points made by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who delivered a two-hour-long address to introduce the themes of the discussion. Kasper spoke about the need to connect God’s design for the family in the order of creation to the reality of the family today. On one hand, the church has to be able to transmit the joy and the positive values of the family to society, and in this sense the family should be a privileged means of evangelizing, he said.

    But the cardinal said the church also needs to look closely at the tensions faced by modern families, including alienation between men and women, and problems faced by women and mothers.

    Cardinal Kasper said a key concept in their reflections on the family should be the “law of graduality,” which recognizes that people come to accept the church’s teachings in a process of spiritual growth and maturation. He noted that this does not mean “graduality of the law,” but it requires time and patient accompaniment.

    The cardinal said the church’s pastoral task today was not simply to repeat: “The doctrine of the church is this,” but to return to the roots of the doctrine, which is the Gospel, and find creative pastoral approaches that respond to new problems.

    Father Lombardi said Cardinal Kasper spoke about the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics, citing the need to find a solution that took into account both pastoral compassion and church law. The cardinal indicated that a penitential period with the sacrament of Reconciliation was a possible path toward a solution for such difficult situations.

    The cardinals’ discussion comes eight months ahead of a Synod of Bishops on the Family. Their meeting was closed-door, and there were no plans to publish Cardinal Kasper’s text, Lombardi said.