VATICAN CITY — An emphasis on finding a new language on issues relating to the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family figured highly at the opening discussions of the synod of the family, along with concerns over its new methodology and debate over how the Church should engage modern culture.
And Pope Francis again addressed the synod today, making two key points: First, Catholic doctrine on marriage was “not called into question” at the previous synod, and Church doctrine is “still valid.” But he also stressed that the synod must “not be influenced by one single subject” and instead take account of the wide range of issues raised.
The Holy Father also underlined the “importance of the small groups,” where most of the work will be done. He said the discussions in those small groups will be “constructive, extremely positive and important.”
The Pope said that the three formal documents of the previous synod — his two speeches and the final report — were in “perfect continuity” with each other and show a continuity to this year’s gathering as well.
A total of 72 synod fathers had taken the floor by Tuesday at lunchtime, most of them from Europe (26), followed by Africa (12), Latin America (10), Asia and Oceania (8) and the Middle East (6). The discussions covered a “wide range” of issues, according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, opened this morning’s session by explaining the changes to the synod’s methodology and providing guidance for the many synod fathers who are attending their first synod. As well as explaining the work of the small groups, whose first session began this afternoon, Cardinal Baldisseri also discussed the commission of 10 members tasked with preparing the final report and monitoring the three-week meeting.
Father Lombardi said Cardinal Baldisseri explained the role of the commission members, chosen by Pope Francis on Sept. 7, who will base their draft report on a collection of proposals and incorporate the contents of the synod’s instrumentum laboris, or working document.
Some have criticized the commission for including Cardinal Baldisseri and Archbishop Bruno Forte, special secretary of the synod. Both bishops were accused of pushing an agenda at the extraordinary synod of 2014 that critics said would weaken Church teaching. Some of the commission’s other members also hold views that critics say run contrary to established Church doctrine, including support for Cardinal Walter Kasper’s highly controversial proposal for readmitting civilly remarried Catholics to Communion.
But it also emerged today that synod fathers are unsure about the new methodology, which Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, president of the Canadian bishops’ conference, said is “raising a lot of questions.” He told reporters today that propositions are traditionally given at the end of a synod to vote on, but this time “we already have a text — we have the instrumentum laboris of last year’s synod.” He said that “some bishops are having difficulty adjusting to this novelty” and are asking if this is “a good way to work.”
Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, the English language attaché for the synod, reported on the talks, though as with all the language relators, it wasn’t clear how many people had made a specific point or if the press were receiving a full and balanced picture of what went on in the synod hall. That’s because, as with last year, the names of who said what in the hall are not being revealed.
Father Rosica said themes of poverty, employment, migration, war and the “massive refugee problem” were all topics for discussion. He also said there was a call to end “exclusionary language” and that the Church should “embrace reality as it is and not be afraid of new and complex situations.”
The role of the priest was mentioned as indispensable to couples, along with the formation of the priest, which is “absolutely necessary” if there is to be a renewal of preparation for marriage. There was also talk of the need for a new catechesis for marriage and “new language to speak to people of our time.”
Father Rosica spoke of the need for a pastoral approach to those preparing for marriage and that “we deal with the people as they are and lead them forward.”
As at last year’s extraordinary synod, Father Rosica spoke about synod fathers who called for a renewal of language, saying that a “close link” was made with the Jubilee of Mercy beginning on Dec. 8, which requires a “new form of language in public and in private.”
Discussions of Other Issues
Father Rosica then focused on “homosexuals or gay persons,” saying “we don’t pity gay persons, but we recognize them for who they are — they are our sons and daughters and brothers and neighbors and colleagues.”
According to Father Rosica, there was also talk during the jubilee year of “reopening or reinstituting form three of the sacrament of reconciliation, which involves general absolution.” The proposal is a controversial one, as the form is only usually used in times of “grave necessity.”
Other subjects covered were an acknowledgement of different realities in Africa affecting the family, including polygamy and extended families; the suffering caused by domestic violence; the challenges of interreligious marriages and opportunities to create places of evangelization and welcome within them; the pastoral care of migrant families; the role of the elderly and of grandparents; and the need to defend Christian families who are being persecuted. There was also talk that “field hospitals of mercy,” a term coined by Pope Francis, should “not diminish sin and the necessity of sacramental healing that comes with that.”
There was further mention of the Eucharist not being a “prize for the perfect but powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
One synod father said the Church is a mother and teacher, as well as judge and doctor, using the image of a GPS — “sometimes when a road breaks we have to take a new road to find a new way to get to the other side.”
Father Rosica again returned to homosexual relationships, which, he said, “came up several times,” and he asked, “How do we speak about them and offer a hand of welcome to them?”
Other language relators also relayed similar themes, but also highlighted interventions that were concerned about the Church becoming “too welcoming and open to changes” so that it waters down the definitive teaching of the Church.
They also underlined “proper interpretation of Scripture” and the need to “listen to the word of God without adapting ourselves to new ideologies.” One Spanish synod father voiced concern about “gender ideology“ and its effect on the family, while the German relator, Jesuit Father Bernd Hagenkord, said synod fathers underlined the role of “truth and Tradition” and the “role of the Bible,” among the other themes.
Pushback Against Cardinal Erdö’s Address?
Some observers detected a general pushback at the press conference today of Cardinal Péter Erdő’s introductory speech yesterday, which reasserted Church teaching and effectively rejected Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to admit civilly divorced-and-remarried Catholics to Communion.
Pope Francis mentioned the issue in the morning, saying it was still one of many other issues to be discussed. Asked at the briefing whether the proposal was now no longer on the table after Cardinal Erdő’s intervention, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told reporters that he felt it was “still open at the pastoral level” and quoted the Pope’s words of this morning on the issue. He said there was also talk during the press conference of the divorced-and-remarried issue not requiring a “universal solution,” but instead one that could be left to the regional and national level.
Archbishop Durocher, who dedicated his three-minute talk to the role of women in the Church and said he was in favor of women deacons, said Cardinal Erdő’s intervention was “a beautiful and classic presentation of the Church’s teaching” and that “other bishops are saying this is important, and we need to hold on to these.” But he added it is “one piece as we move forward, as we listen to the voice, to the Spirit leading us forward.”
The archbishop said he saw two dangers: emphasizing Church teaching so strongly that the Church closes in on itself and becomes a “kind of ghetto or sect that no longer has an impact on culture” and the other, which enters into dialogue to such an extent that it “dilutes the Church’s teaching.”
For this reason, he said, “some will emphasize the teaching and the other the importance of dialogue. That’s why it’s important this is a collegial exercise; in a sense we do this together because we need to hold both of those together.”
A synod father told the Register on condition of anonymity that Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, also criticized Cardinal Erdő’s relatio as “saying it contained nothing new.” But the source also said that another cardinal later commented that Cardinal Erdő’s speech was “excellent” and a “good résumé of the instrumentum laboris, with many nuances and a better style.”
He added that it “should be considered by the synod, along with the instrumentum laboris.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.