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  • John Thavis

Synod group reports want more doctrinal context, 'prophetic' language in final document

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

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.

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