Yes, this synod really is big news

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.”

10 comments (Add your own)

1. Paul Ben wrote:
You know how it works, in politics and in religion and everywhere. If you want to make a radical change, don't announce it and don't make it formal, rather nudge it and let time do the change gradually. I can give you many example from politics to the Vatican II (Communion in the hand, Obama's "transformation of America" for example).

Wed, October 15, 2014 @ 5:04 AM

2. Christopher wrote:

This is more of a personal note about the reaction from what I expect is the most important demographic in the Church. The college students and 20/30 year olds are totally enjoying and appreciative of what Pope Francis and most of the Synod is trying to do. We have 4 children in this age group and are supporting several regional and national efforts to bring music and mission back to the Church. The reason is simple 80% of the 20 and 30 year olds leave the Church and now they are not coming back when they have children as they did in past generations.

My concern is that many of the Bishops although they mean well are just too insulated from real life to really reach the young people of the Church and World in this time of incredible worldwide change. The Bishops are just too slow and they don't give the appearance of really listening to the younger generation. The negativity and response is troubling. I am confident that God will allow Pope Francis and other leaders to carry the day. Maybe assigning brother Bishops like Cardinal Burke and others to new duties serving the Poor on the streets of Rome would be a good way to wake them up to the reality and pains of life in this world.

Some background on my wife Jeffie and me you may find interesting. We are a faithful Catholic Christian family that has used NFP and knows the blessings and challenges of embracing the Catholic Faith in the midst of modern society. We love the Church but see it is quickly losing its connection to the world around it. In addition we run an organic farm in Charlotte NC that is 75% carbon neutral and serves as a place for people to learn about their Faith and to develop ways to addres the more challenging issues of life. We have 4 wonderful children and lots of friends in the 20 and 30 year old age group so we host concerts and other events to allow them to experience the living Catholic Christian Faith. In my regular job I am a national leader in the massive transition from coal fired electric power to more renewable forms of energy. This ties in with our combined callings of family, work and ministry.

Thank you so much for keeping the Catholic world informed about the Vatican during this time of change under the leadership of Pope Francis. We will pray for your important work for Christ and His Church!

Kind Regards,

Chris Hardin

Wed, October 15, 2014 @ 8:03 AM

3. Joe Veneroso wrote:
That even such a preliminary document could engender widespread and impassioned debate from all sides is, in and of itself, proof of a new era dawning in the Church. Thanks for the clarity from your years of experience with synods.

Wed, October 15, 2014 @ 8:36 AM

4. Oswald Sobrino wrote:

Wed, October 15, 2014 @ 9:02 AM

5. Ruta wrote:
John- thank you once again for your reporting. And Christopher - many thanks for your sharing. All the best!

Wed, October 15, 2014 @ 11:37 AM

6. John London wrote:
In response to Chris from Charlotte, I too have children in their 20's (in nearby Raleigh). My daughter's large Newman group at college were very happy with Pope Benedict XI's initiatives to return some of the splendor/beauty of Gregorian Chant and such to the ordinary form of the Mass. They prayed at abortion clinics and worked in soup kitchens. Her friends went off to be school teachers, IT professionals, bankers and seminarians (and remain practicing Catholics). Post-graduation, my children are still weekly Mass attenders, volunteer their time in the community and plan on raising their future families in the church. I share this only because the prevailing narrative in the blogosphere at the moment seems to be that all was stale before Pope Francis and that is not the universal experience.

Wed, October 15, 2014 @ 1:29 PM

7. Christian wrote:
I personally have had no issue with the Pope's statements on homosexuality and don't see them contradicting anything said by Benedict or JPII. This relatio, however, asks
"Are our communities capable of providing (a welcoming home), accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"
The catechism calls the homosexual "inclination" or orientation "objectively disordered". I'm not sure why we would "value" this disordered orientation, unless in the sense of the homosexual individual bringing good out of his suffering...

Wed, October 15, 2014 @ 3:04 PM

8. Gregg Williams wrote:
Change is always difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to identify the needed elements. Within the document that was produced (work in progress or completed version it doesn't matter) there will be much to commend itself, but also much to point to and wonder if it is beyond the scope of what should be done. The more conservative elements within the Synod of Bishops will naturally be a bit hesitant about changes that have to do with deeply embedded traditional ways of describing and dealing with issues, particularly the family, homosexuality, and the sacrament. It isn't hatred and bigotry to try and maintain a consistency in the overall magisterium, but I feel that in an evolving world, it is important to reevaluate the sources of such traditions, and if it is nothing more than tradition itself, then change in tone and approach may well be warranted. I have no doubt that the final version will contain the necessary ingredients for further progress in outreach and message, but won't be as forceful as the initial draft is. The dialogue that this draft is creating is a wonderful development, and will bring a breath of fresh air to the Church, and also within the Curia.

Wed, October 15, 2014 @ 4:53 PM

9. Fred Semendy wrote:
I am extremely happy that Our Pope is leading us in a compassionate, merciful and true pastoral way forward. May God bless him and all the Bishops of the Synod.

Wed, October 15, 2014 @ 8:36 PM

10. Padre wrote:
I find the Synod refreshing in that there is an open and honest dialog. These are real issues that revolve around loving God and Neighbor. The question of homosexual families was raised over 20 years ago and now catholic children of catholic same sex parents are now in high school, college and in the work force. This allows them (some of whom worship in my parish) to be able to breathe a little better knowing that there is a glimmer of hope that their own parents are indeed welcome and that the challenge out to the community is to welcome them as well. I appreciate doctrine, liturgy and the code of canon law - these represent our faith. I sometimes wince when we use the Catechism as any thing other than a basic set of guidelines as it feels like a misuse of the catechism. This is a guide for catechists - those who are trained in the history of our faith and know how to gather resources and documents that can help understand fully what the catechism states. Understanding the catechism is important and helpful in transmission of the faith. Just be cautious not to use it as a type of Bible or a complete set of doctrines. God love you all for the discussion - it's not a change - it's not a debate - it's simply a loving discussion. Especially thanks for the reporting!

Thu, October 16, 2014 @ 11:38 AM

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