Synod Closes With Clearer Vision Than When It Opened

Some divisions persist over the synodal process and some of the final report’s content, but the second week of discussion at the Vatican produced greater consensus.

Opening session of the Synod of Bishops, Oct. 6, 2014.
Opening session of the Synod of Bishops, Oct. 6, 2014. (photo: Mazur/ (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0))

The Third Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family life concluded this weekend, 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 Saturday. 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, that 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 Sunday 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 last Monday, 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 Saturday, 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” to the rest of the document, as there is “no mandate to go forward in any of those particular areas at the moment.”


Procedural Concerns and 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.

The secretariat was viewed as engineering the proceedings in a direction at odds with Church teaching. The interim report, for example, bore little relation to the interventions of the participants. Although it is routine for such a report to be published, the individual interventions of the synod, which also are typically published, were not released. Instead, the media was fed unofficial summaries of each day’s proceedings by the Holy See Press Office.

The Holy See Press Office did not deny accusations of manipulation but stressed that the interim report, largely drafted by special secretary Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy, was a “working document” and part of the ongoing synodal process. Synod participants, on the other hand, criticized how it was assembled — particularly its content.

Among its proposals, it advocated looking at the “positive aspects” of cohabitation and civil unions; suggested divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics might have access to the sacraments in some circumstances; proposed a more “accessible and flexible” recognition of cases of nullity; and spoke of the “gifts and qualities” that homosexuals have to offer and of “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation” without compromising on doctrine.

Many were surprised by the interim report’s publication and resented how it played out through the media. Moreover, participants remarked on the speed at which the 6,000-word text was drafted and translated, which pointed to it being prepared before the first phase of the synod was complete.

Authoritative sources told the Register that South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier’s reaction to the report and its publication was “thunderous.”

Cardinal Burke told the Register it had a “disastrous” impact on “Catholics, non-Catholics and people of goodwill,” as it gave the impression that the Church was “abandoning the apostolic faith regarding marriage.” Multiple amendments were inserted into the text during the 10 “small groups” that met in different languages the following week, which paved the way to a more acceptable final report.


The Participants Push Back

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.

Concerns also were raised by Polish bishops, especially after publication of the interim report. The Register has learned they were particularly distressed that Pope St. John Paul II’s teachings on the family were not getting sufficient attention.

Specialists from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family were not invited to the synod, and there was resentment that some synod prelates argued that John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, was no longer relevant, as it was more than 30 years old. Polish bishops, sources say, therefore viewed the synod as a rejection of their recently canonized compatriot.

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 led to these two proposals being rejected.


The Next Steps in the Process

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. Some senior sources claim the suggestions expressed in the interim report on these matters reflect those of Pope Francis, but the Holy Father has never publicly stated these are his positions. Cardinal Burke has said he has “no evidence regarding the Pope’s thinking in the matter or regarding his alleged support of a relaxation of the Church’s teaching.”

Even so, one senior Vatican official and participant of the synod has privately warned of possible “trench warfare” between opposing groups if these contentious issues continue to be debated, and he sees the Polish and German bishops’ conferences,  which have divergent views on these issues, likely to be at loggerheads in the months ahead. And there is also concern over possible attempts to weaken the importance of Humanae Vitae, Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical that upheld Church teaching regarding the prohibition of artificial contraception, although it was reaffirmed in the final report.

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. Meney hopes that if discussions over divorce and remarriage are to continue, they may “facilitate a wider discussion on the need for the faithful to appropriately prepare themselves for reception of the Eucharist.” That, he said, “could be a good catechetical opportunity for the Church.”

And noting the Church’s “wonderful and sophisticated teaching around human sexuality, marriage and the family,” he said there’s a “real opportunity now for the Church to go out and proclaim and promote that example: This is what we mean when we say this, and we believe it’s possible for people to live this life.”

“People can live this truth,” he said, “and the Church needs to be confident in proclaiming that and encouraging particularly young people that it’s quite possible for them to embark on a committed, lifelong union, with all it’s up and downs.

“It’s a great way to live a life,” he said, “and having it as a sacramental union gives them a great repository of grace to draw upon when things get a bit tough.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

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