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  • John Thavis

Yes, this synod really is big news

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

The Synod of Bishops has become a dynamic event, with sharp debate over new pastoral directions in the Catholic Church. That’s to the credit of Pope Francis, who demanded honest and open discussion, but it may also present him with a dilemma.

Will the synod conclude with a clear endorsement of the pope’s call for a more merciful, patient style of evangelization, building on – as stated in the synod’s midterm relatio – the “positive elements” that can be found even in relationships and unions the church considers “irregular”?

Or will it adjust and qualify that document with the kind of doctrinal declarations aimed at reassuring Catholics – and above all, some of the bishops – that there’s no change in fundamental church teaching?

The answer depends partly on the sentiments of the nearly 200 participating bishops, and partly on how tightly the pope pulls the reins of the synod. At this point, a watered-down synod document might broaden the consensus in the synod hall, but would likely be seen as less-then-enthusiastic support for the pope’s pastoral agenda.

Sectors of the Catholic commentariat are now trying to downplay the synod’s midterm relatio and, not surprisingly, blame the press for pumping up expectations for change.

(UPDATE: See below, Archbishop Kurtz says pope was right to make synod on family a year-long process)

Did the media overreact when the relatio was read aloud on Monday? I don’t think so.

The media recognized in the text a profoundly new pastoral approach to a whole range of marriage and family issues, and in particular a welcoming tone regarding homosexuals. The bishops in the hall recognized the same thing, and not all of them were pleased. That’s why the synod hall quickly lit up like a pinball machine with questions and calls for clarification.

As for the weight of this relatio, some things need to be said. I have covered synods of bishops for 30 years, and the midterm relatio is always where the ideas expressed in synod speeches begin to gel. All last week, in fact, reporters at the Vatican were told not to put too much stock in individual synod statements or daily summaries – it would be the midterm relatio that would distinguish the really important themes.

Of course, it’s not an encyclical – no one said it was. Of course, it doesn’t change doctrine – everyone knew that. Of course there can be modifications – that was reported. But up to now, it’s the most authoritative text coming out of this very important assembly. And unlike previous assemblies (which have used the relatio as a jumping-off point to write final “propositions”), this synod’s relatio will be the main document going forward, even with possible revisions.

As for objections by some bishops to the text, I have no doubt they are real. But when it was presented to reporters Monday by some of its authors, reporters were repeatedly assured that it accurately reflected the main themes of the synod. And after the relatio was read aloud, there was strong applause in the synod hall. We shall see just how strong the objections really are only when we see the final, revised text.

I think the alarm being expressed in some church circles over the synod’s direction reflects similar unease over some of Pope Francis’ statements during his first 18 months. When the pope said last year: “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will – well, who am I to judge him?” we heard the same kind of reaction: “no news here,” “the church is not changing its doctrine” and “pay no attention to those newspaper articles.” By now, it should be clear that the pope is proposing a paradigm shift in the church’s style of evangelizing, one that favors outreach and dialogue over doctrinal identity, and he wants the Synod of Bishops on board. This is news, and it deserves attention by anyone interested in the Catholic Church.

UPDATE: At today’s synod briefing, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, described the midterm relatio as “a wonderful working document” and said the small groups would be proposing amendments to give greater emphasis to the positive values of sacramental marriage.

Archbishop Kurtz outlined three potential areas of improvement to the text: highlighting the witness of “sacrificial, loving families today,” making sure that “all our words are truly welcoming,” and making sure the synod’s pastoral outlook is grounded in Scripture and church teaching.

The archbishop also said it was clear from the synod’s proceedings that Pope Francis was wise to make this a year-long process, leading up to another synodal assembly in 2015, because “I think we would not be ready at the end of this week to give thoughtful, meaningful and enduring pastoral direction.”

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