- John Thavis
Final synod document leaves door open for pastoral changes
Updated: Feb 19, 2020
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 stunning final speech), but that’s better than the non-engagement of previous synods.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing for the pope – and for the Catholic faithful and the outside world – to see the fault lines evident in these discussions.
— It was also clear that the bishops agree on many fundamentals, including what Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn called “the great ‘yes’ to the family,” despite all the changes and challenges of the modern age. As Schonborn put it, the family’s nucleus remains a man and a woman in a faithful relationship that is open to life, but with recognition that modern families also assume other forms.
— The synod was not designed to resolve definitively the many pastoral uncertainties regarding the family. So it’s not surprising that it ended with more ambiguity than answers on certain controversial matters, including the emblematic issue of whether to allow Communion for the divorced and remarried. It must be said that the proposal by Cardinal Walter Kasper for a “penitential path” back to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried found no traction at this synod.
However, the final report did leave the door open for a case-by-case approach to that question. It did so by adopting a suggestion made by German bishops, which cited Pope John Paul II’s 1981 document on marriage and the family, Familiaris Consortio, on the need for pastors to pay special attention to individual situations:
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 Schonborn referred to this point today and said, “This is not about black and white, or a simple yes or no, it’s about discerning.” The relevant paragraph of the synod document, which obtained the necessary 2/3 majority by the barest of margins, supported that possibility of individual accompaniment, which could look at culpability on a case-by-case basis, and theoretically open the way to Communion for some.
— The synod’s final document was distinctly more positive in tone and language than similar documents of previous eras. For example, on the particular point of couples living together outside of marriage, the document preserved the more open approach that was introduced at last year’s assembly. It said there were many reasons for cohabitation and for civil marriage, which should not simply be read as a rejection of sacramental marriage; instead, the church should look for the good elements in these relationships and build on them.
— The final document produced little new on the much-debated topics of birth control, homosexuality and sexuality in marriage. That will disappoint those who were hoping for a fresher look at these issues.
— There were signs that bishops are beginning to consider how the “healthy decentralization” envisioned by Pope Francis might function. That doesn’t mean simply throwing the hot-button issues to bishops’ conferences, which no one was proposing. But the synod heard a suggestion, for example, for ritual adaptation to accommodate the stages of traditional African marriage – with the African bishops guiding the discussion. After many years of Rome emphasizing the limits of inculturation, this seems to be a time for new exploration of diversity in the church. Pope Francis, in fact, highlighted this possibility in his final synod speech.
— This synod was more about process and less about results. Even the final document, with all its amendments and vote tallying, seemed less an ending than a phase in a much longer path – one that began with a global consultation with Catholics, and that will continue under the pope’s guidance.
Brother Hervé Janson, a synod member, said at today’s press briefing: “As the pope said, the synod is a moment when the church must walk together, not just the bishops, but the people of God…. Everyone needs to listen to each other.”
— Relatedly, despite ridiculous assertions of a conspiracy to “rig” the synod, which some bishops initially seem to have believed, by the end of the assembly virtually everyone was praising the new methodology, which allowed for much freer discussion in small groups.
— There seemed to be keen recognition, at least by some, that a missing element in the synod’s debate was theological expertise. That’s a shortcoming that is not easily solved. Many participants appeared to approach the church’s teaching from an ideological point of view, with a defensive mentality about doctrine. Several of the questions under debate cried out for deeper reflection and less posturing, and I hope the pope finds a way to make that happen.
— There’s no doubt that the pope will keep the “mercy” theme front and center – perhaps in formal study commissions, in initiatives to mark the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy or even in future synods. But he is unlikely to make abrupt pastoral changes on his own. He knows that he needs bishops on board if his vision is going to progress past papal homilies, and begin to transform pastoral policies at the local level.