VATICAN CITY — After more than two years of preparation, diocesan surveys, secret meetings, arguments, counterarguments and dialogue, the final report from the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family is now in Pope Francis’ hands.

General satisfaction with the final document, papal warnings against legalism and concerns over the interpretation of paragraphs relating to pastoral care of remarried divorcees marked the end of the synod, which wrapped up Sunday with a Mass celebrated by the Holy Father in St. Peter’s Basilica.

It now remains to be seen what Pope Francis does with the document. According to Jesuit Father Adolfo Nicolas, superior general of the Society of Jesus, there “will be” a post-synodal apostolic exhortation from the Pope, giving his definitive summary of the both synods.

“I don’t believe it will come out late, after a year, as has happened in other synods and with other popes,” he told the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera Oct. 26. “One year is too long; experts in management have told me that after eight months without saying anything, people revert back to the point of departure, and so the whole process has to be redone.”

Said Father Nicolas: “I believe Francis will prepare it more rapidly than that.” At the end of their final report, the synod fathers asked the Pope to consider the possibility of issuing a document on the family.

In his closing speech in the synod hall on Saturday, Pope Francis said the Oct. 4-25 meeting of 270 bishops from around the world led to a “rich and lively dialogue.”

The meeting, on the theme of “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Modern World,” brought forth the image of a Church that “does not simply ‘rubber-stamp,’ but draws from the sources of her faith living waters to refresh parched hearts,” he said.

The Pope listed the nature of the synod, saying this included not finding exhaustive solutions, but listening, interpreting realities and not superficially judging difficult cases and wounded families. He said the meeting had sought to find new pastoral approaches to situations that might be “considered strange and almost scandalous” for one bishop but seem “normal” for another living in a different continent or culture.

At the same time, he criticized those who uphold the letter of the law rather than its spirit. The Church’s first duty, he said, is “not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.”

He said “true defenders of doctrine” are those who put people and “God’s gratuitousness of love and forgiveness” above ideas and formulae. Laws and commandments, while not unimportant, “were made for man and not vice versa,” he said.

In his homily at the closing Mass of the synod Oct. 25, the Pope warned against speaking and working for Jesus while living “far from his heart, which is reaching out to those who are wounded.” A faith that “does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts,” he said.

The Pope’s words followed the publication Saturday of the synod’s final report, published so far only in Italian, in which all of its 94 paragraphs received more than the required two-thirds majority. The document covered a range of issues such as domestic violence, violence against women, incest and abuse within families, poverty, families facing persecution and war, marriage preparation and pornography. 

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told reporters Oct. 25 the synod had been a "very rich experience." Probably the "richest" element "was being in the small groups," he said. Unlike previous synods, the 13 small-language groups met for most of the three weeks rather than just the second half of the synod, so they would, in Pope Francis' words, foster a more "intense" debate. 

 

The Communion Debate

But Paragraphs 84-86, dealing with pastoral care for remarried divorcees, have provoked heated discussion. The passages don’t mention access to holy Communion for civilly-remarried divorcees (admittance is prohibited based on Jesus’ explicit teaching about sacramental marriage) but talk of the process of “discernment and accompaniment” within the “internal forum” (confessional) and in keeping with the “teaching of the Church and the guidance of bishops.”

The text was largely welcomed, partly because it states the importance of upholding the Church’s teaching, based largely on Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), on non-admittance to holy Communion for such Catholics.

But others are concerned that key passages of Familiaris Consortio are omitted and believe this allows some leeway for interpretation to eventually allow Communion for civilly-remarried-and-divorced Catholics not living in continence. And some observers feel the text’s “ambiguous” language would allow the strongly criticized Cardinal Walter Kasper proposal (to allow access to the sacraments after a period of penance) through the back door.

Archbishop Kurtz told reporters the synod laid emphasis on the “movement of accompaniment” and that those paragraphs represent a “continuation” of Familiaris Consortio, “with this notion of discernment and finding ways, as the document says, of fuller participation” and integration into the life of the Church.

He said the text “doesn’t get into what paths” and raises questions about where the “internal forum” begins and ends, but he added he was “actually pleased we were able to bring it as far as we were.”

Critics have argued that the “internal forum” is not suitable if the ultimate goal is access to the sacraments for remarried divorcees. They also argue that it is already present and so wonder why there’s a need to mention it, unless the overall goal is to allow some remarried divorcees to receive Communion.

 

Cardinal Pell

Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, told the Register Oct. 26 the text is “not ambiguous,” but it is “insufficient.” The paragraphs say that the basis for all the discernment “must be the insegnamento complessivo — complete teaching — of John Paul II,” he pointed out, adding that it repeats “that the basis of the discernment is the teaching of the Church.”

But he noted that many fathers “would have liked it spelled out a bit more explicitly,” although he stressed “there is no mention anywhere of Communion for the divorced and remarried. It’s not one of the possibilities that is floated. The document is cleverly written to get consensus.”

Other synod fathers were not so clear in their interpretation. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, told reporters Sunday that the synod “quite deliberately set aside the question of admission to the Eucharist, because that had become a yes-no issue. And the very nature of this is that it’s not as simple as yes-no.”

“It’s a pathway,” he added. “And it is not for me or for the priest who is doing the accompaniment to pre-empt or foreclose that pathway.”

Father Thomas Rosica, English-language media attaché to the Vatican, was similarly vague, telling reporters Saturday the purpose of the document was “not to say who can or who can’t receive Communion”; the final report, he said, neither “includes nor excludes” remarried divorcees from holy Communion.

And despite the synod fathers’ rejection of his proposal, Cardinal Walter Kasper continues to see an opening. “I’m satisfied; the door has been opened to the possibility of the divorced and remarried being granted Communion,” he told Il Giornale. “There has been somewhat of an opening, but the consequences were not discussed.” 

 

Cardinal Burke

For Cardinal Raymond Burke, patron of the Knights of Malta, Paragraphs 84-86 are of “immediate concern” because of their “lack of clarity in a fundamental matter of the faith: the indissolubility of the marriage bond.”

He told the Register that the term integration, used in this and other contexts in the document, “is a mundane term which is theologically ambiguous.”

He also said the quotation from Familaris Consortio was “misleading,” as it omitted the statement in No. 84 that “the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.” Referring to the Catechism, he also stressed that the exclusion of those in irregular matrimonial unions from the sacraments “does not constitute a judgment about their responsibility for the breakdown of the matrimonial bond to which they are bound,” but is, “rather, the objective recognition of the bond.”

But regardless of what synod fathers and Church leaders say, the press have already interpreted it in their own way, with some media in Italy and Ireland arguing that the document gives remarried divorcees access to the holy Communion “on a case-by-case basis.”

Cardinal Pell said such interpretations were “completely unjustified.” He added: “You might like the text or dislike it. You might think it’s good, bad or indifferent, but at least let us read it accurately, and justly, and judge it on its own terms.” He felt the newspapers had “probably been fed a line” and that people “should go to those paragraphs and judge for themselves.”

Informed sources say synod fathers were instructed to vote “No” if any of the sections of the text were unclear, and all three paragraphs had significant numbers voting against them. Paragraph 85 passed by just one vote.

Cardinal Pell noted that the paragraphs “very possibly” would not have passed without the 45 delegates appointed by Pope Francis, whose members include Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, archbishop emeritus of Brussels, and Cardinal John Dew of New Zealand. Each has voiced support for Cardinal Kasper’s proposal. Asked if that was a problem, Cardinal Pell replied: “It’s a fact.”

Others also regretted the text’s deficiencies. Without naming the paragraphs specifically, Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso of Kaduna, Nigeria, recognized that the language in them “leaves a bit more to be desired” and “can be exploited and be used to mislead innocent people.”

But he added, “In a big family such as ours, the Catholic Church, one does not always have his or her own ways. There are times you do all you can to carry all along, provided the basics of the faith are not compromised.”

He told the Register, “On the whole, the synod was a huge success, given that none of the paragraphs was outrightly rejected.” He added that the final document “is one that most Catholics can largely identify with,” and the synod “was indeed a journeying together of the Catholic family.”

Archbishop Ndagoso said, “We agreed to disagree and disagreed to agree for the common good of the Church.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

He is the author of The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?

An Investigation Into Alleged Manipulation at the

Extraordinary Synod on the Family (Ignatius, 2015).