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  • John Thavis

A pastoral earthquake at the synod

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

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 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.

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