VATICAN CITY — As things are picking up around the Vatican in the new year, anticipation is buzzing over the release of Pope Francis’ document on the conclusions of the 2014 and 2015 synod of bishops on the family.
Expectations are soaring as to how the Pope will address the major hot-button issues brought up in the two-year discussion, the biggest of which were access to Communion for divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics, as well as a change in the Church’s stance toward homosexuality.
The Pope is expected to release a final document on the conclusions of the synods sometime this spring.
In a Dec. 29 interview with L’Osservatore Romano’s Italian edition, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, confirmed that the Pope’s document will take the traditional form of an apostolic exhortation.
Though the exact date has not been announced, sources close to CNA say the document will be published in March, which falls just before the first meeting of the new synod council in April.
However, while questions continue to loom on what Francis will say regarding the issues of Communion and homosexuality, the Pope himself has recently dropped a few hints as to where he stands in his new book-length interview with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli.
Released Jan. 12, the book, titled The Name of God Is Mercy, includes nine chapters following the foreword by Tornielli and consists of questions and answers between him and Pope Francis.
Francis hits on several big themes in his pontificate, including mercy, his distaste for the rigidity of what he calls the “scholars of the law,” who are obsessed with rules, and confession.
Blessing, Not Communion
While there is not much in terms of novelty in the text, two parts stand out as significant. The first is an episode the Pope recounts of one of his nieces, who civilly married a divorced man that had not yet obtained an annulment from his first marriage.
Although the man was required to abstain from Communion, which is Church practice for persons in his situation, the Pope said that the man was so religious that every Sunday before Mass he went to confession and told the priest, “I know you can’t absolve me, but I have sinned; please give me a blessing.”
This, the Pope said, “is a religiously mature man.” While Francis doesn’t say anything explicit on the matter of doctrine, his description of the man could be read as an indication that he is likely to emphasize an attitude of welcoming and acceptance, but not necessarily a change in current practice.
This idea is backed up by what Pope Francis says later in his response to a question Tornielli poses on whether there can ever be opposition between doctrine and mercy.
“I will say this: Mercy is real; it is the first attribute of God. Theological reflections on doctrine or mercy may then follow, but let us not forget that mercy is doctrine,” the Pope said, signaling that he sees no opposition between the two, but that they are, in fact, entirely compatible.
Mercy Includes ‘Go, and Sin No More’
After making this point, Francis immediately turns to the Gospel story of the adulteress who stands before Jesus while the people around her, faithful followers of the Law of Moses, are prepared to stone her.
He noted that once those ready to cast their stones have dropped them and left, Jesus turns to the woman, who “was probably still frightened,” and tells her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on, do not sin anymore.”
When it comes to this scene, there are those who make a common mistake with Francis.
Many who bask in the Pope’s message of mercy are often tempted to read only as far as the withholding of condemnation, yet at the same time are frequently just as eager to leave out the second part: that of his emphasis on recognizing one’s sin and committing not to do it again.
The link between mercy and doctrine is alluded to yet again in the Pope’s advice to priests, when he tells them that while in the confessional, they must “talk, listen with patience, and, above all, tell people that God loves them.”
If a confessor can’t absolve someone, “he needs to explain why; he needs to give them a blessing, even without the holy sacrament.”
“Be tender with these people. Do not push them away. … If we don’t show them the love and mercy of God, we push them away; and perhaps they will never come back. So embrace them, and be compassionate, even if you can’t absolve them. Give them a blessing anyway.”
Although there are certain situations in which a person cannot be absolved (such as in the case of someone who has been divorced and civilly remarried without an annulment), the Pope’s answer in these cases is to have compassion, but that this compassion doesn’t necessarily mean change.
Pope Francis said that the Church needs “to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brothers live … and let them feel our closeness,” but clarified that she must do it “without letting ourselves be wrapped up in that darkness and influenced by it.”
“Caring for outcasts and sinners does not mean letting the wolves attack the flock,” he said. “It means trying to reach everyone by sharing the experience of mercy.”
Teaching on Homosexuality
Another important point is when the Pope comments on his infamous “Who am I to judge?” remark, which instantly gained him the world’s attention and seemingly overnight became one of his most misunderstood phrases.
When asked about the expression, Francis explained that he was “paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” which is the official compendium of the Church’s teaching.
He also said he was glad they were talking about “homosexual people” and cautioned that “people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies.”
“I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it.”
Given these remarks, it again suggests that the Pope is supportive of a compassionate, inclusive attitude toward those with homosexual tendencies, but that a change in the Church’s long-standing teaching on the topic of homosexuality isn’t up for debate.
All in all, while the synodal document has yet to be released, if the Pope’s new book is any indication of what’s coming, we can expect no big changes.