Assessing the Synod’s Final Report


(photo: CNA)

VATICAN CITY — The English translation of the final report of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family was published Oct. 30, nearly two weeks after the synod’s conclusion.

Although many have expressed satisfaction with the document, from which most of the controversial aspects of the interim report have been removed, a couple of contentious paragraphs reached a synodal consensus of a two-thirds majority and remain in the text. As well, other contentious paragraphs that failed to get the required two-thirds consensus will remain in discussion as the synodal process continues, according to the Vatican.

Questions were also raised as to why the report, published in Italian on Oct. 18, took so long to translate when the controversial interim report was translated into several languages only 48 hours while the synod was continuing, and published without most of the participants reading it beforehand.

The synod with the theme “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” took place at the Vatican from Oct. 5-19. The final report, called a relatio synodi, is divided into three parts: listening to the context and challenges facing of the family; looking at Christ, the Gospel of the family; and offering pastoral perspectives to the current situation.

The report begins by noting that the synod reflected on the family in “all its complexities,” with a perspective “fixed on Christ” to reevaluate “with renewed freshness and enthusiasm” what revelation teaches about the “beauty and dignity of the family.”

The family, it underlines, is “uniquely important to the Church in these times” and needs to be “rediscovered” as the “essential agent” in evangelization.


Analytic Approach

The first part begins by recommending an “analytic and diversified approach” to the cultural and anthropological changes affecting all aspects of life. It holds up positive developments such as greater rights for women and children in some parts of the world, but criticizes the “growing danger” of “troubling individualism” which “deforms family bonds.”

The “crisis of faith” often underlies the crisis in marriage and the family, it says, and pinpoints symptoms of this: loneliness, powerlessness, poverty, financial hardship, the demographic crisis, and families who feel abandoned by institutions.

The document further singles out polygamy, which is still practiced in some countries, arranged marriages, the challenges of interreligious marriages, relativism and indifference. It notes the increase in cohabitation, divorce and violence against women, as well as the “scandalous and perverse reality” of sexual exploitation of children, the scourge of war, terrorism, organized crime, the phenomenon of street children and challenges associated with migration.

In the face of these challenges, the report highlights how some cultures are coping with them, and recalls the Church’s purpose of assisting couples. Nowadays, it says, a person’s moods and feelings are “very fragile, narcissistic, unstable” and do not always allow a person to mature. Pornography, fostered by a “misuse of the Internet,” and forced prostitution are partly to blame, it adds, and this context causes many to remain “in the early stages of their affective and sexual life.” It further warns that this is weakening social bonds, leading to declining populations that result in economic impoverishment.

The first part ends discussing “pastoral challenges” and the need for hope based on the “convictions that the human person comes from God.” In these times of “individualism and hedonism,” it says people “need to be accepted in the concrete circumstances of life.” They need to be encouraged in their “hunger for God” and their wish to feel “fully part of the Church, also including those who have experienced failure or find themselves in a variety of situations.”

The Christian message, it adds, “always contains in itself the reality and the dynamic of mercy and truth which meet in Christ.”


Part Two

Part two of the final report is largely Christocentric. “Every time we return to the source of the Christian experience, new paths and undreamed of possibilities open up,” it states, quoting Pope Francis’s vigil discourse on Oct. 4. It underlines that all things were “made through Christ and for him,” reaffirms Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, and stresses the true meaning of mercy: “By looking at the sinner with love, Jesus leads the person to repentance and conversion (“Go and sin no more”) which is the basis for forgiveness.”

It then explains how Moses granted to fallen man the possibility of divorce, but subsequently Jesus restored marriage and the family “to their original form” by reconciling all things to himself.

“Christ bestows on marriage and the family the grace necessary” to witness to the love of God in a life of communion, it states. The report then takes the reader through various documents of the Second Vatican Council, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis on marriage and the family.

Turning to the truth and beauty of the family, it holds up faithful marriages and highlights the Holy Family as a “wondrous model.” It reiterates that any breach of sacramental marriage is “against the will of God,” but says the Church “turns with love to those who participate in her life in an incomplete manner,” recognizing that the grace of God works in their lives “by giving them the courage to do good, to care for one another in love and to be of service to the community.”

The report says it looks with “concern” at young people’s distrust of marriage and the haste at which others break the marital bond. They need pastoral attention that is “merciful and encouraging, so they might adequately determine their situation,” it says.

The second part ends by comparing the Church to a lighthouse or a torch carried among people to enlighten those who have “lost their way” or “in the midst of a storm.” It then goes on to say that the “most merciful thing is to tell the truth in love” and that merciful love is a call to conversion. The Lord, the synod fathers recall, doesn’t condemn the adulterous women, “but asks her to sin no more.”


Pastoral Perspectives

The final part of the document looks at various pastoral perspectives and proclaiming the Gospel of the family in various contexts. It doesn’t give examples, but argues that language is important in conversion and that it should be “effectively meaningful.”

“This does not consist in merely presenting a set of rules but in espousing values, which respond to the needs of those who find themselves today, even in the most secularized of countries,” it says.

The synod fathers insist on a “more positive approach” to the richness of “various religious experiences” without overlooking difficulties, and the report highlights two areas of particular importance: a clear denunciation of “excessive importance given to market logic,” and better formation before marriage.

The report notes in Paragraph 41 “sensitivity to the positive aspects” of civil marriages and, “with obvious differences, cohabitation.” The Church, it says, “needs to indicate the constructive elements in these situations” — a point of contention in the interim relatio.

This passed with the requisite two-thirds majority, as did the following paragraph that notes that “simply to live together is often a choice based on a general attitude opposed to anything institutional or definitive.”

Rather than mention the dangers of mortal sin in such situations, the synod fathers give reasons for their existence such as poverty and say these relationships “require a constructive response” in the hope they lead to marriage in conformity with the Gospel. “These couples need to be provided for and guided patiently and discreetly,” it says.


Disturbing Development

Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and a synod participant, said he found the acceptance of this document “disturbing.”

The language used in the report “is at best confused,” he told the Register Nov. 4, and he was afraid “some of the synod fathers may not have reflected sufficiently on the implications of that” and perhaps “didn’t understand what was being said.”

The document frequently underlines the importance of respect for all individuals and families, especially those who suffering from separation, divorce or abandonment, and their need for the accompaniment of the Church.

More than two-thirds of synod fathers voted for streamlining the annulments process to make them “less time-consuming,” although the report mentions that some synod fathers were opposed to the proposal as they doubted any new system would “guarantee a reliable judgment.” They stressed the need to ascertain the “truth about the validity of the marriage bond.”

Three out of a total of 62 paragraphs failed to get a two-thirds majority: Paragraph 52, which explores possibilities of admitting divorced and remarried to holy Communion; Paragraph 53, which calls for “further theological study” into why people who are divorced and remarried cannot have access to the sacraments if they have recourse to “spiritual communion”; and Paragraph 55, which calls for homosexual persons to be “received with respect and sensitivity.”

Although they were unable to receive a synodal consensus, the Vatican says they will remain part of the discussions going into the next synod in 2015.

Cardinal Burke said he found their inclusion also disturbing.

“What’s the point of voting paragraph by paragraph except to either accept a paragraph or have it removed?” He added this was “just one more disturbing aspect in which this synod of bishops was conducted.”

The third part of the document urges a return to the message of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth). The final paragraphs highlight the challenges of raising children, their education, which parents should be free to choose, and the valuable role of the Church in supporting families by being “welcoming communities.”

In conclusion, the report says the synod took place “in great freedom and with a spirit of reciprocal listening.” Noting that no decisions had been taken, it says “the Holy Spirit will guide us in finding the road to truth and mercy for all.”

Despite a number of criticisms, many have welcomed the content of the final report and are pleased with the overall result. The synod has gotten the whole world “talking about marriage, communion, forgiveness,” said Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, professor of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. Through his docility to the Holy Spirit, “Pope Francis has effected a media reframing of religion, the priesthood, and the Catholic Church,” he added.

Critics, however, point to a cursory reference to sin (it is mentioned just four times) in the document, while mortal sin, heaven, hell, and the eschatological dimension are not mentioned at all.

Furthermore, as with the interim relatio, an error has been found in the translation. Father Robert Imbelli of Commonweal has noticed that paragraph 3 (number 4 in Italian) says that the synod fathers came together to “discern how the Church and society can renew their commitment to the family.” In the Italian, however, it says “...renew their commitment to the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman.”

But these criticisms aside, Father Gahl believes the final document incorporates the Church’s “rich tradition” into the synod discussions of the “difficult pastoral problems of real people in today’s world.”

Compared to the interim document, he said it “is more Christian and Catholic” and “based more on the Bible and on the preaching of Jesus, especially his preaching of conversion.”

“The Church now goes further under the guidance of Pope Francis to find new ways of addressing the complex pastoral problems, for instance of how to help couples to be faithful to one another, to avoid the pitfalls of divorce, to remain generously open to new life,” Father Gahl said.

“We have all been inspired by Pope Francis’s courage and his desire to stay faithful to the tradition,” he said. The synod, he added, “is about promoting the beauty of marital fidelity in such a way that Christian couples can more effectively pass on the faith to their children and grandchildren and be a light in the world imaging the beauty of the Holy Family.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.