Light From the East: Churches in Former Communist Countries Discuss Family Synod

Christian leaders from the region insist that a sound pastoral approach to family issues must be grounded in authentic doctrinal teaching.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk participates in Pope Francis' Wednesday general audience on Nov. 27, 2013.
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk participates in Pope Francis' Wednesday general audience on Nov. 27, 2013. (photo: Kyle Burkhart/CNA)

LVIV, Ukraine — Reverberations from the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family continue to ricochet around the world.

In Ukraine, for example, despite life-and-death issues preoccupying clergy, implications of the synod are avidly discussed among Catholics.

However, few of the fault lines apparent in Rome divide Christian Churches in a country like Ukraine — making defense of the family a unifying theme for Catholics and the Orthodox who, otherwise, might be lured into politically driven conflict.

At the annual meeting of Eastern Catholic Churches from 20 countries held in Lviv, Ukraine, Oct. 23-26, some 47 bishops came together to concentrate on “ecumenism and the rapport between Church and state,” summarized Bishop Virgil Bercea of Oradea, Romania. “The synod was not on our official agenda.”

But it was on the mind of the meeting’s host, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, and others.

Archbishop Shevchuk, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), participated personally in last month’s synod in Rome.

As the largest of the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome, and with believers living worldwide, the UGCC has significant authority. As well, Archbishop Shevchuk knows Pope Francis from Buenos Aires, where the archbishop served as bishop, then apostolic administrator, of the Ukrainian Eparchy of Buenos Aires between 2009 and 2011.

Archbishop Shevchuk shared his impressions of the synod in Rome with the Register.    

Discussing the deliberations of the group of bishops in which he participated during the synod’s second week, he explained, “Our small group had some outstanding personalities: Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, as well as Cardinals [Walter] Kasper, [Leonardo] Sandri and [Mauro] Piacenza. We were really disappointed by the relatio post disceptationem because we thought it didn’t reflect the discussions held during the first week. It’s hard to say how it was created, but we all felt it didn’t represent us.”

According to the archbishop, even Cardinal Kasper — whose proposal that some divorced-and-remarried Catholics should be permitted to receive Communion generated controversy before and during the synod — was disappointed in the relatio, an interim report released midway through the two-week synod immediately before the small-group discussions took place.

“That document had some theological arguments, but it didn’t include the solid doctrinal teaching of the Church,” Archbishop Shevchuk said. Two of the archbishop's objections center on, first, use of the “law of gradualism” to rationalize permissive attitudes toward sin and, second, the risk that an "ecumenical vision" toward various family arrangements could displace the solid Catholic teaching on the primacy of the nuclear family unit. 

“We discussed this a lot, and we realized that neither can be used as a foundation for the new pastoral approach to those issues,” the archbishop explained. 


Homosexuality: Why There?

“Regarding the whole issue of homosexuality, nobody in the main hall discussed or questioned the doctrinal foundation of the Catholic Church on this issue. Two or three fathers talked about the legalization of such unions by different states, but [in the context of] referring to some sort of lobbyist pressure against the Church,” Archbishop Shevchuk said. “No one suggested that we’re supposed to agree or accept this ideology or different doctrines on the issue.”

Consequently, he said, “there was real disappointment” with the inclusion of paragraphs in the midterm relatio that appeared to promote a positive view of some aspects of homosexuality, so his group voted to delete them.

“The issue was outside of our main topic of discussion, which was family and New Evangelization. Homosexuality has nothing to do with family or New Evangelization,” the archbishop continued. “We’re supposed to discuss homosexuality as an anthropological issue next year. So why was it there this time?”

Archbishop Shevchuk, who is a moral theologian, said during the discussion on homosexuality that he raised the question: “Are we supposed to consider homosexual tendencies as a value in itself —  a value that is supposed to be shared and received? In my opinion: no.”

Instead, he said, the Church, when encountering persons with same-sex attraction, should focus on valuing and respecting the human person and “be aware that such a [homosexual] tendency causes a deep pain to the person.”

As for Pope Francis’ response to Archbishop Shevchuk’s intervention, the archbishop recalled, “The Pope looked me in the eyes, and he made a good sign to me.”


Different Reality

Archbishop Shevchuk’s remarks echoed the words of Latvian Archbishop Zbignev Stankevics of Riga, a synod participant who told LifeSiteNews in a video interview, “Sometimes Christians are too politically correct. They keep silent instead of proclaiming truth.”

“The Christian message is promoting the human person, helping the human person arrive at fulfillment, not against homosexuals … but we must disarm the lie in such relationships,” he said.      

Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, leader of the Polish Episcopate, concurred with the Latvian bishop, telling the Polish Catholic news agency KAI the relatio was “unacceptable,” as it showed the Church drifting from doctrine and St. John Paul II’s vision.

“We also need to present the truth,” not just exceptions and special cases, said Archbishop Gadecki, concentrating on “good, normal, ordinary families who are struggling not so much for survival as fidelity.”

A Byzantine-rite priest from Slovakia attending the Lviv annual meeting summarized to the Register the attitude he encountered among Catholics from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.

“In our view, the synod’s discussion was somehow engineered by Western-oriented leaders, yet the West is where the Church is weakest in important ways,” said the young cleric, who asked not to be named. “Notice, too, the Church in Africa was not leading this discussion, but has reservations close to ours.”

“The Church in the West has not been exposed to the threat of extinction by totalitarian regimes, nor has it experienced a surge of popularity [as in Eastern Europe and Africa], because we have authoritative answers,” he observed. “This lack of suffering, and weakening of authority, creates a very different temperament, maybe an overemphasis on the Catholic Church wanting to be beloved by all.”


Catholic-Orthodox Unity

What’s apparent on the ground in Ukraine is unity between Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians regarding the importance of holding the line for traditional families.

One observer of the synod of the family is Ukrainian Orthodox Bishop Yevstraty Zoria, 37, a leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate. This Orthodox branch has been working closely with the UGCC since last February, when democracy protesters toppled the corrupt Yanukovych government.

“My church strongly opposes same-sex marriage,” the young bishop explained to the Register by phone.

“We think the family is one of the pillars of Christian life, and it is not a matter for discussion or new interpretation, because in God’s law, in the Bible, we have clear guidance on family matters, about men and women’s relations and other issues,” he said.

This is a value his church shares with other Christian leaders, explained Bishop Yevstraty.

“I think we, as Christians, Orthodox and Catholic and Protestant, we need to discuss many problems, and we need answers to new questions from the world, but nobody, especially not bishops or councils or synods, has the right to revise God’s law, the Bible or other fundamental matters of Christianity,” the bishop observed.

The bishop thinks these shared values are a basis for unity among Christians, not disunity.

“If we have one Christ, one Christian belief, we must be together on fundamental things,” he said. “It is no matter whether Ukrainian Orthodox or Greek Catholic or Roman Catholic — because we have cornerstones of our belief. If we change it, these pillars or cornerstones, we change the base of Christianity; yet we aren’t Christians if we change the basis of Christianity. We may be called Christians, but we won’t be Christians in reality.”

Victor Gaetan is an international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.