Synod Day 2: Casting a Wide Net

Discussions among the participants at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family considered a range of ideas concerning marriage, family life and sexuality.

Pope Francis attends the first sessions of the synod on the themes of the family at the Synod Hall on Oct. 6. Pope Francis addressed the fathers of the synod on Monday, as they began their first full day of sessions exploring the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.
Pope Francis attends the first sessions of the synod on the themes of the family at the Synod Hall on Oct. 6. Pope Francis addressed the fathers of the synod on Monday, as they began their first full day of sessions exploring the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization. (photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — The latest discussions yesterday afternoon and this morning at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family covered a wide range of subjects largely focusing on how to make the Church and the Church’s teaching more attractive to marriage and family life.

The second and third general congregations (sessions) also included testimonies from married couples from Australia and the Philippines.

Taking the themes from the opening chapters of the instrumentum laboris (working document), synod participants reaffirmed that the family constitutes the future of humanity and must be protected.

Only a general summary of the discussions can be made public, as the synod secretariat is not disclosing talk summaries or attributing them.

In his introduction Monday, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops,  said, “The dissemination of news about the extraordinary assembly is also different from previous synods. This service will be handled by the Holy See Press Office with the assistance of the Commission for Information.”

“The bulletin of the Synod of Bishops will be replaced by the regular bulletin of the Holy See Press Office containing general information, which will be further treated in daily briefings under the guidance of the director of the Holy See Press Office, in collaboration with synod press liaisons and with the participation of some synod fathers,” he added. “In addition, a Twitter service will transmit, summarily and in real time, the most pertinent news developments in the synod’s work.”

Some participants spoke of the need to “adapt the language” of the Church so that its doctrine on the family, life and sexuality is “understood correctly.” To do this, they said, “it is necessary to enter into dialogue with the world” with a “critical but sincere openness.” That dialogue could be based on common themes such as the “equal dignity of men and women and the rejection of violence.”

It was said in the assembly that the Gospel must be shown rather than explained, and the lay faithful should proclaim the Good News with a “missionary charism,” not “depersonalized,” but through a “concrete witness to the beauty and truth of the Gospel.”


From ‘Defensive’ to ‘Proactive’

The challenge, it was said, was of passing from a “defensive situation” to a “proactive one” and “creating a bridge between the language of the Church and that of society.”

Another speaker said people desire happiness. Christians know happiness is Christ, but they no longer succeed in finding “suitable language” to communicate this to the world. The Church, according to a Vatican statement, must be “magnetic” and work by attraction, “with an attitude of friendship towards the world.”

Elsewhere, it was emphasized that the Church must be close to couples in difficulty, stressing mercy and forgiveness, but in the context of justice.

Marriage, it was said, “remains an indissoluble sacrament,” but since the truth is Christ, a Person, and not a series of rules, it is important to maintain the principles “while changing the concrete forms of their implementation.”

The synod, it was repeated, “does not call doctrine into question,” but reflects on spiritual discernment for the application of such doctrine. “Mercy does not eliminate the commandments,” a synod participant said, but provides the key to their interpretation.

He added that “even imperfect situations must be considered with respect,” such as de facto unions in which couples “live together with fidelity, and the love presents elements of sanctification and truth.” It’s therefore necessary to look at the “positive elements” so their value can be recognized “according to the principle of graduality” — a pathway in the search for holiness.

Also considered was “a sort of ‘ego-latry’ that leads to “defamiliarization” and a “loss of a sense of the covenant between a man (and a woman) and God.”

In addition, “clericalism” does not inspire hearts and was rejected, and in its place were calls for the imitation of Christ and the rediscovery of humility.

On sexuality outside of marriage, it was said this can be discussed “so critically that married sexuality can appear almost as a concession to imperfection.”

Also during the congregation were calls for greater formation of priests in relation to the family and relaunching the transmission of the faith within the family.

Another participant suggested sending a message of encouragement and appreciation to families in Iraq. The Vatican later announced that an ordinary consistory on Oct. 20 will also be expanded to include a meeting on the Middle East to look at the situation facing Christians there. Synod participants will be invited.


Third Congregation

During the third congregation held Tuesday morning, it was agreed that greater preparation for marriage is necessary and that the path of preparation should be “long, personalized and also severe,” but without the fear of leading to the number of weddings being reduced.

Synod participants also discussed the media, and one said Catholics must be protected but also better prepared to offer the Church’s teaching in a more “incisive manner,” presenting doctrine “not merely as a list of prohibitions, but also by drawing closer to the faithful, as Jesus did” and acting with “empathy and tenderness.”

Debate also turned to the contentious topic of divorced-and-civilly remarried Catholics. The Church, it was said, “should offer not judgment but truth” and the “medicine” of mercy. Suffering families, it was argued, feel the need to be inspired, welcomed and loved.

“More space must be allowed for a sacramental rather than a juridical form of logic,” the synod heard. It was also stated in this context that the Eucharist is not for the perfect but for those “on the way.”

The Church must be “more open to dialogue” and “must listen more frequently” to the experience of married couples, the synod heard, and also underlined was the importance of catechesis for families, more thorough formation of priests and catechists and a deepened concept of biblical inspiration that offers a possible rereading of the natural law to make it more meaningful.

In their testimony to the synod, Australian couple Ron and Mavis Pirola, married for 55 years, said that until married couples “come to reverence sexual union as an essential part of their spirituality, it is extremely hard to appreciate the beauty of teachings such as those of Humanae Vitae.” They said the Church needs “new ways and relatable language to touch people’s hearts.”

They also stressed the need for the Church to show compassion and mercy and positively recalled a story of how a family they knew showed acceptance and inclusiveness of their homosexual son and his lover. Cardinal Vincent Nichols told reporters, “We responded warmly and with applause” to their testimony. However, Voice of the Family, a coalition of pro-family groups, said the story was “damaging,” as it presented homosexual relationships as “models that can be legitimately chosen.”


Mixed Response to Questionnaire

Father Thomas Rosica, a press secretary for the synod, briefed reporters on what he heard at the congregations. He noted that the questionnaire sent to dioceses ahead of the synod received a mixed response: Some highlighted its positive aspects; others said it was too often viewed as a sociological survey of public opinion, leading to headlines that “everyone is against the Church’s teaching on marriage.”

There was talk of how other religions can teach the Church about commitment and respect for life. But more significant were concerns over language.

Father Rosica said synod participants believed terms such as “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered” or “contraceptive mentality” don’t bring people to Christ and that there was a “great desire” that the language needs to change to “deal with complex situations.”

“Marriage is already seen as being filtered in harsh language through the Church,” he said, while reporting on the synod. The challenge, he added, is how to make it “appealing, living and inviting,” not to speak about “laws, rules, but the Person of Jesus, the sources of our faith, which invites us into the mystery of God.”

But one observer close to the Vatican and speaking on condition of anonymity disagreed. He told the Register he’d like to see a change in language, but in a way that actually makes it stronger, more robust and not afraid to mention sin. “If that happened, I’m sure you’d see many more people in church in 10 or 20 years’ time,” he said.

Cardinal Nichols said it’s too early to draw conclusions from the discussions at this point.

“We’ve had 70 speeches so far and a lot of ideas put forward,” he said. “We have to be patient and let this process mature.”

He again stressed the importance of “friendly dialogue” with the world. “A lot out there is friendly towards us: equality, rejection of violence, dignity of children,” he said. “These strands, which are strong in Western culture, we can befriend.”

He said, so far, there has been a “lovely spirit, a sense of fun and a lightness of atmosphere” in the synod, which enables participants to “speak much more from pastoral experience than academic study,” adding, “There is a real sense of open sharing and walking together.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.