• John Thavis

Synod ends on a cautious note; Pope Francis says church must open its doors

Updated: Apr 16

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.

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