Synod Closes With a Clearer Vision Than When It Opened

Synod recap from Rome

The Third Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family life concluded Oct. 19, with Pope Francis praising the two-week meeting for its “spirit of collegiality and of synodality” and participants agreeing to all but the most contentious issues in a final report.

Despite impassioned debate and some concern at how the meeting was steered in a particular direction, especially in its first week, there was general satisfaction with the final result of this ongoing process. Discussions over the Church’s approach to marriage, family and sexuality will continue for the next year, in preparation for the ordinary synod on the family, set for Oct. 4-25, 2015.

“I can happily say that, with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality, we have truly lived the experience of synod, a path of solidarity, a journey together,” the Holy Father said in his closing address to participants Oct. 18. He added that there were moments of “profound consolation” when listening to the testimony of “true pastors, who wisely carry in their hearts the joys and the tears of their faithful people.”

He also spoke of “moments of consolation and grace and comfort,” when hearing the testimonies of the families who shared the “beauty and the joy” of their married life. He said the synod was a journey where the “stronger feel compelled to help the less strong” and where the “more experienced are led to serve others, even through confrontations.”

The Pope highlighted “moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations” and listed these temptations as: the “hostile inflexibility” of “so-called traditionalists” and intellectuals; of a “destructive tendency to goodness” of “so-called progressives and liberals”; of transforming “stones into bread” to avoid the ascetical struggle and of “bread into stone” to cast at sinners; of coming down from the cross to “please the people” and “bow[ing] down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God”; and the temptation to “neglect the depositum fidei [the deposit of faith]” and to “neglect reality.”

He warned that the synodal process should “never be seen as a source of confusion and discord” because the Church expresses herself in communion “in the variety of her charisms” and “cannot err.” He reminded the synod participants that he had said, from the beginning, the synod would take place in “tranquility and with interior peace,” — cum Petro and sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter) — “and the presence of the Pope is the guarantee of it all.” He also reminded those present that his duty is “guaranteeing the unity of the Church” and that the “first duty” of any pastor is to nourish his flock and seek the lost sheep.

At the beatification Mass of Pope Paul VI on Oct. 19 that closed the synod, Francis said that participants “felt the power of the Holy Spirit, who constantly guides and renews the Church,” which is called to “waste no time in seeking to bind up open wounds and to rekindle hope in so many people who have lost it.”


The Final Report

The final report appears to have been well received by the participants. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who had been highly critical of the interim report released Oct. 13, said it was “a significant improvement” over the earlier document. “I would say that it provides an accurate, if not complete, summary of the discussions in the Synod Hall and in the small groups,” he told Catholic World Report. Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, major penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, told Vatican Radio the synod had performed “good work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, under the chairmanship of the Holy Father.” He said the final report would act as a practical lineamenta (prepatory document) on which to work for the next synod.

In the interests of transparency, Pope Francis broke with custom and asked that the voting numbers relating to each paragraph of the final report be published. The results, presented on Oct. 18, showed that all but three of the 62 paragraphs passed with a two-thirds majority. Those that failed to achieve a “synodal consensus” were proposals to allow some civilly-remarried divorcees to receive holy Communion after fulfilling certain conditions and a period of penitence; a call to deepen discussions over such couples gaining access to the sacraments in view of them having recourse to spiritual communion; and a mention of pastoral care of homosexuals, who, it said, must be received with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

Although these were rejected, Pope Francis asked that they nevertheless remain in the final document. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters Oct. 18 that even though they “cannot be considered an expression of synodal consensus,” they show these topics to be a “work in progress” and that “we still have a ways to go.”

Lay participant Christopher Meney, director of the Centre for Life, Marriage and the Family of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, told the Register Oct. 19 that these paragraphs should be “viewed somewhat differently” than the rest of the document, as there is “no mandate to go forward in any of those particular areas at the moment.”


Contentious Issues

Although the end result was generally satisfactory, concerns were raised in the synod about apparent manipulation, especially over these contentious issues, by the general secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, which consists of General Secretary Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri and his 15-member council.

But further unease about manipulation was to take place towards the end of the second week, at the end of the small-group sessions. Participants were alarmed when, instead of publishing each of the language groups’ conclusions, Cardinal Baldisseri proposed the secretariat issue a general summary instead. To many, this appeared to be another attempt to steer the synod, and the participants collectively demanded each groups’ conclusions be published, which the secretariat then agreed to do.

A common criticism during the synod was the attempt by some synod fathers to place a wedge between doctrine and practice, rather than seeing them as one, each in service of the other. This became most visible on the most contentious issues related to divorce and remarriage and homosexuality. Prelates from Africa, in whose cultures traditional moral values remain largely intact, were strongly opposed to the suggested changes in pastoral practice, as were a significant number of Western prelates, including Cardinal Burke and Australian Cardinal George Pell, who leads the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy. The African delegates are understood to have led the opposition to these two areas of discussion that resulted in these two proposals being rejected.


The Next Steps

These contentious issues, which to the chagrin of many participants eclipsed much of the debate, might now be put on the back burner for the remainder of the synod process. But the debate is likely to remain heated, if issues related to divorce and remarriage and homosexuality continue to be strongly present.

Next year’s synod will be run differently, and some observers have noted how the composition of bishops’ conferences at the next assembly will give African bishops a stronger voice.

Concerns and predictions aside, many are viewing optimistically the rest of the synodal process, which will now be largely played out at diocesan and local levels until the ordinary synod next October.