Serious Reservations Expressed About Content of Synod Report

Critics noted potentially problematic comments about several issues, including homosexuality, contraception, cohabitation and reception of Communion.

Bishop attend a session of the synod on the family at the Vatican on Oct. 10.
Bishop attend a session of the synod on the family at the Vatican on Oct. 10. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — The publication today of the midway report on the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family is a “great moment” that has “mirrored the extent” of discussion so far, delegate president Cardinal Anthony Tagle of the Philippines has said.

But prominent Catholic observers have criticized the document as a “betrayal” of Catholic parents worldwide and as a misrepresentation of Catholicism, as well as for giving the impression that the Church’s teaching is open to change in a number of controversial areas.

The theme of the two-week synod is “The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” Delivering the almost 6,000-word relatio post disceptationem (post-discussion report), Cardinal Peter Erdo, the synod’s general rapporteur, said the report will help shape the final documents on the synod, but he stressed it does “not represent decisions that have already been taken.” Instead, it is intended “to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured.”

The relatio post disceptationem (post-discussion report) is a summation made by synod officials of hundreds of talks given last week by synod fathers, experts and laity. It was compiled to serve as the basis for the continuing discussions this week among synod participants meeting in a number of smaller working groups, organized on the basis of language.

Following the conclusion of the synod, a final report known as the relatio synodi will be released, incorporating the additional discussion that has taken place.


Key Novelties

The relatio post disceptationem is divided into three parts: listening to the socio-cultural context in which families live today; looking to Christ and to his Gospel of the family; and discussion of pastoral perspectives.

Key novelties presented in the report include “a new sensitivity” to grasping the “positive reality of civil weddings [and] cohabitation.” It advocates indicating the “constructive elements” of those situations that no longer correspond to the “ideal.”

Noting its widespread practice in the modern world, under a heading “Positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation,” the report says “simple cohabitation” is often a “choice inspired by a general attitude” or economic factors, and it adds that “it is possible” in civil unions to “grasp authentic family values or at least the wish for them.” Pastoral accompaniment, it says, “should always start from these positive aspects.”

The relatio states that what “rang out” clearly in the synod was the “necessity for courageous pastoral choices” with regards to pastoral care for wounded families affected by separation, divorce and divorce and civil remarriage. According to the synod repot, “What needs to be respected, above all, is the suffering of those who have endured separation and divorce unjustly.”

Various synod fathers “underlined the necessity to make the recognition of cases of nullity more accessible and flexible,” the report states. It proposed abandoning the need for a second review, speeding up the procedure and the possibility of establishing an administrative means under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop. 

The divorced and remarried should not be “discriminated against,” and some argued for the possibility of them “partaking of the sacraments” if preceded by a “penitential path” under the auspices of the local bishop and with a “clear undertaking in favor of the children.” Such a provision would be allowed on a “case-by-case” basis, “according to a law of gradualness.” According to the report, “greater theological study” was needed regarding reception of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.

Under a heading “Welcoming homosexual persons,” the report says homosexuals have “gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community,” and it asks if Catholics are capable of “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation” without compromising on Catholic doctrine.

It says the question of homosexuality “leads to a serious reflection” on how to help homosexuals grow in “evangelical maturity” while “integrating the sexual dimension.” The report says the Church affirms that same-sex unions “cannot be considered on the same footing” as matrimony, and neither is it acceptable for financial aid to be linked to “gender ideology.”

The relatio says it is important to “go back to the message” of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical that upheld Church teaching regarding the prohibition of artificial contraception, but adds that it “underlines the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control.”


Cardinal Erdo

In the relatio’s conclusion, Cardinal Erdo says the reflections took place “in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening” and will “have to be matured and made clearer” in the local Churches between now and the second and final synod on the family in 2015.

He stresses no decisions have been made, but neither are they “simply points of view.” The points in the report reflect the wish of Pope Francis, he says, “inviting us to the courage of the faith and the humble and honest welcome of the truth in charity.”

Cardinal Tagle reminded reporters Monday that the document is “very provisionary,” and the reflections need to be “deepened and clarified,” and other aspects need to be raised. “So the drama continues,” he said.

He added that the synod participants will add nuances to the terminology this week in small working groups. A final vote will then be taken, and the final relatio synodi will be made available in one week. For him, the most important topics discussed so far were the impact of poverty, war and immigration on families.

Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy, the special secretary of the synod, also stressed that the document is a “work in progress,” but he said the synod was a “pathway,” and people must be listened to with a readiness to accept their views, because “all can be considered food for thought.” He said he wished to “recall the spirit of Vatican II” and added that the report reminded him of the Council document Gaudium et Spes and the importance of listening, “looking with understanding to the world, not passing judgments,” but examining the “joy and suffering of men and women of our time.”

He urged “patience, attention to nuances, the complexities of situations” and respect.

Asked what was meant by a “penitential path” with regards to divorced and “remarried” couples, Archbishop Forte compared it to that once advocated for widows who, when remarrying, needed to pursue a path of penitence.

Asked why any criticisms of these reflections were not given much exposure, Cardinal Erdo said some diverging views may be “less emphasized” than others, but that this was “inevitable.” He also stressed, “We must not create confusion,” but, rather, “help debate” and said that he hoped the text will be improved in the final report next week to remove “misunderstandings and equivocal wording.”


Mixed Response

The report has received a mixed response. Jesuit Father James Martin called the report’s language on homosexuals “revolutionary” and a “stunning change” in the way that the Catholic Church speaks about people with same-sex attraction. USA Today staff writer Gregg Zoroya said it showed “unprecedented tolerance toward gays,” while Quest, a London-based Catholic homosexual-rights group, called parts of the relatio “a breakthrough” in acknowledging that same-sex unions “have an intrinsic goodness and constitute a valuable contribution to wider society and the common good.”

But the pro-family coalition Voice of the Family said the report “betrayed Catholic families worldwide” and “in effect gives tacit approval of adulterous relationships.”

The coalition added that it “undermines” the Church’s teaching on contraception by using “coded language” that reduces the Church’s doctrines to a “mere guide” and leaving couples “free to choose contraception in so-called ‘conscience.’” It further asked whether parents would now have to tell their children that the Vatican teaches “positive and constructive” aspects to mortal sins.

“This approach destroys grace in souls,” Voice of the Family warned.

Austin Ruse, director of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), said he was “really concerned” by what might come next at this year’s gathering and at the larger synod of bishops that will take place in 2015. He said the paragraph on the gifts of homosexuals to the Church “was largely unexplained,” as was the mention of a “penitential path” to allow the divorced and civilly remarried to receive holy Communion.

“The document reads like a U.N. document, and the answers that the cardinals gave were like answers you’d hear at the U.N. also — just confusing doublespeak,” he told the Register.

Robert Royal, president of the Faith & Reason Institute, said even if difficulties over apparent differences in doctrine and pastoral practice are cleared up in future documents, “many Catholics, certainly non-Catholics, will take away from the synod the idea that all these things are up for discussion as if they’re not really settled in the Church.”

He compared the situation to what happened after the Second Vatican Council, when no one could control the abuses that followed, and he warned that Catholics may feel at even greater liberty to ignore Church teaching from now on. They can argue cardinals “disagree about this and that even the Pope seems be exploring it, so I can do pretty much what I want,” Royal said.


‘Where Is the Catholic Content?’

“The document seems not to be consonant with 2,000 years worth of Church teaching, theology, practice and spirituality,” said Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute.  “Where is the Catholic content? Where are the insights only a Catholic would say? With the caveat this is only a provisional document, at this stage, it hasn’t been sufficiently explained: How can there be good fruits based on something that the Church has always taught was intrinsically sinful?” 

Royal said that in a “media environment like the one we live in now, the message that gets transmitted is uncertainty” and that “only kind of ratifies people’s autonomy to go ahead and do whatever they want."

“This is not Catholicism,” he said. “It’s hard to know exactly why we’re so anxious to be able to talk to people. Certainly we want to be respectful to all persons, but that shouldn’t be the centrality of what the Church is up to. The Church has, in the modern world, many more difficult things to address.”

 Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist & senior counselor on Nov. 13, 2016.

Who Is Steve Bannon?

Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Rome-based Institute for Human Dignity, discusses the “intuitive genius” of one of the most influential Catholics in the new Trump administration.