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  • John Thavis

Synod kicks off with a papal call for candor

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Pope Francis convened the working phase of the Synod of Bishops on the family with a strong call for frank discussion, saying bishops should not feel afraid to disagree openly but respectfully – even with the pope.

His brief talk Monday was followed by the reading of a revised synod working document that downplayed a topic at the center of fierce debate in recent weeks: the possibility of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

The pope sat at a dais in the Vatican’s synod hall before about 180 bishops and some 70 other participants at the start of the two-week-long assembly. He said “synodality” means talking clearly and listening with humility.

Francis recalled that after last February’s meeting of cardinals on synod themes, one participant wrote to him and lamented that some cardinals were afraid to say what they thought, because they disagreed with the pope.

“That’s no good. That’s not synodality. We need to say what we feel and at the same time listen and welcome with an open heart what our brothers are saying,” the pope told the assembly.

But if Francis seemed to be calling for candor, the text of the revised working document or relatio, prepared by Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, went out of its way to defuse a growing and public disagreement over the situation of Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, invoking Pope Francis’ theme of pastoral mercy, has said the church needs to search for a way to give Communion to such Catholics. Other cardinals, including the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, have pounced on Kasper’s suggestion, saying it would be tantamount to disavowing the indissolubility of marriage.

Cardinal Erdo’s relatio treated the situation of divorced Catholics at length, but without explicitly mentioning the issue of Communion. Indeed, he said, “it would be misleading to concentrate only on the reception of the sacraments” in discussing the issue.

Erdo emphasized that the synod was not in any sense challenging the permanence of marriage. He mentioned, as a matter needing further study, the practice of some Orthodox Churches in recognizing second marriages, but said this study needs to avoid “any questionable interpretations and conclusions.”

In another section of his text, Erdo said that pastoral mercy cannot go against the remands of the marriage bond, and that “a second marriage recognized by the church is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive.”

It remains to be seen whether Cardinal Kasper’s proposal receives more attention from this synod. But judging by today’s opening summary text, which is supposed to set directions for the discussion, the synod planners clearly do not want this very controversial issue to take over the assembly. I think they also wanted to reassure the doctrinal conservatives who have spoken out against Kasper’s ideas that what’s up for discussion are pastoral policies, and not established church teaching.

What was striking about Cardinal Erdo’s text was that it took almost for granted that streamlining the annulment process would go forward. He said there was a “broad consensus” for simplifying annulment procedures, and even suggested the church might institute an administrative, “extra-judicial” process in which a local bishop could annul a marriage. That in itself would be a remarkable change, and the pope has already named a commission to study these possibilities.

What Erdo had to say about cohabitation was also interesting, and unusually positive by Vatican standards. Some couples, he said, choose to live together without marriage in relationships that are marked by stability, deep affection and parental responsibility. He said the church should see these relationship as an opportunity and “a seed to be nurtured” toward the sacrament of marriage.

The opening relatio made two points about homosexuality. It said gay men and women should not be discriminated against. But it said most Catholics still reject the idea of gay marriage. What most Catholics appear to want, it said, was a change in culturally conditioned traditional roles and discrimination against women, but without denying the differences between the sexes and their “complementarity.”

In general, the relatio tried to strike a balance between alarm at the erosion of marriage and traditional family values, and confidence that the family “is not an outdated model.”

“The family is fast becoming the last welcoming human reality in a world determined almost exclusively by finance and technology. A new culture of the family can be the starting point for a renewed human civilization,” it said.

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