Synod Day 5: Small-Group Reports Made Public

Pope Francis also appealed to the synod fathers to pray for peace in the Middle East and Africa.

The "working groups" during the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Vatican City on Oct. 6.
The "working groups" during the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Vatican City on Oct. 6. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis made an unscheduled appeal at the synod on the family Friday morning to invite the synod fathers to pray for peace in the Middle East and areas of conflict in Africa.

In his message to the fourth general congregation of the synod, the Pope also called on the international community to find a way of resolving current conflicts, saying “hope and progress come only from the choice to pursue peace.”

Also Friday, the Vatican published the first reports from the synod’s 13 small-language groups, while Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, reiterated that synod fathers could publish their own interventions but not those of other participants.

His instruction came after one synod participant published summaries of the synod fathers’ interventions, revealing one cardinal, Panamanian Archbishop Jose Luis Lacunza Maestrojuan, to have questioned the law of Christ.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa, one of the five co-presidents of the synod, said “real work has been taking place” in the small groups, which began meeting on Tuesday afternoon. “They have produced excellent reports that really gave us a good idea at all levels of discussion. I got a very positive impression.”

English group A, moderated by Cardinal George Pell, the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, with Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked that the instrumentum laboris (working document) for the synod, “make reference to sacred Scripture and Tradition throughout” the document and noted that it had an “overly bleak description of the contemporary scene.”

Instead, they said attention needs to be given to theological reflection on “faithful, loving, married couples and family who, so often heroically, live an authentic witness to the grace of the family.”

They also echoed other concerns about the document, which will form the basis of the final report after amendments, saying it was “overly Eurocentric,” with a “Western mentality.” They also spoke of a need for public policy to “foster family life.”


English Groups Question Instrumentum Laboris

English group D, moderated by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto and related by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, expressed gratitude for the “hard work” that had gone into the intrumentum laboris, but were scathing about its content.

They found it to be “flawed, or inadequate, especially in its theology, clarity, trust in the power of grace, its use of Scripture and its tendency to see the world through overwhelmingly Western eyes.” Some in the group said the first section of the text “creates a sense of pastoral despair”; another said it was “condescending” to poor countries, while one member called it “too careful and politically correct.”

“If marriage is a vocation,” they added, “we can’t promote vocations by talking first about its problems.” They said the Church deserves a “better text” and that it lacks “beauty, clarity and force.”

Christian families, it said in closing, offer an important “counterwitness” to the world, and they need to be “recognized, honored and encouraged by the document.”

English group C, moderated by Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Ireland, and related by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, expressed uncertainty about how to work through the instrumentum laboris and said the new methodology for completing that task was “unclear.” They said the document has “more than its fair share” of “Church speak,” and they wanted a synod that was like Vatican II, a “language event, which is more than cosmetic.” They said the synod journey began not just in 2013, when it was announced by Pope Francis, but “from the Second Vatican Council and all that led to it.”

English group B, moderated by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, and related by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin stressed the difficulties and challenges many families face today and said that the humanization of society depends on how the Church realizes “God’s dream for his beloved creation.” The group said “generosity” is at the “root of a culture of life” and that a debt of gratitude is owed to families who support and challenge the ministry of priests in “immense ways.”

Other language groups echoed the criticism of the Eurocentric perspective of the instrumentum laboris and called on states to pay greater attention to the needs of families and above all to their weakest members. Some expressed concern about gender theory, which, when it becomes absolute, leads to the “imposition of a point of view that denies the relationship between sexual identity and the sexual beings we are in our bodies.”


Expanding Role of Bishops Conferences?

In French group B, whose relator is Jesuit Father Francois-Xavier Dumortier, rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and moderator is Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discscipline of the Sacraqments, synod fathers said the diversity of sociocultural contexts and pastoral situations needs to be taken into account. Controversially, group B’s report added that in order to respond to diverse pastoral situations, “it was suggested by one of us — without having been discussed by everyone — that episcopal conferences could have some power to allow their pastors to be ‘Good Samaritans’ in their ecclesial service.”

This suggested role of bishops’ conferences seems to refer to what some observers believe could be a possible result of the synod: that certain pastoral practices, particularly with regard to civilly remarried divorcees, could be left to individual bishops conferences to decide.

Speaking to reporters today in reference to this theme, Cardinal Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, said “what space could be given to bishops’ conferences” needs to be further examined, but added such a solution has “not been worked out yet.” Critics strongly oppose such a move, saying matters touching so clearly on doctrine cannot be left to local bishops to decide.

In other groups, it was stressed that priests are all, “first and foremost, family men,” and having parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and cousins means the family is “not alien to us; they form part of our lives.” They said the final document “must give hope to our families, showing the confidence we have in them, and must inspire trust in us.” An environment of making people feel excluded from pastoral care “must be avoided.”


Wide-Ranging Concerns for Families

In a Spanish-language group, whose relator is the Panamanian Cardinal Jose Luis Lacunza Maestrojuan, failure in “Christian formation” was noted, as was the break down in the “relationship between love, sexuality, marriage, family and the education of children.”

The Italian synod fathers, like several other groups, noted concerns about migration, which affects many families fleeing from war and poverty and increasingly involves other families and the Church. The issue of bioethics was also prominent, especially out of concern for couples who are unable to have children.

After reaffirming that the equal dignity of men and women is rooted in the Gospel, the Italian group, whose relator was Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, highlighted the need to condemn “the exploitation of child labor, child soldiers and the female body (by, for instance, prostitution, surrogacy, violence and murder and rape as an act of war).”

Finally, he warned of the need to affirm that the Church has a positive view of sexuality, as an expression of the “symphonic tension between eros and agape.”


Handling Communications

Also today, the synod secretariat tried to take control of communications, saying no synod father should publish the interventions of his brother bishops. The instruction came after Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, published short summaries of interventions, along with the names of those who gave them. Although it contravened a “common rule,” it revealed that Cardinal Lacunza had controversially called on “Peter to be more merciful, like Moses,” rather than Jesus.

At today’s press briefing, attended by Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierrea of Madrid and Archbishop Kurtz, Cardinal Tagle praised the diversity of cultures and perspectives in the small groups but asked that the synod “not turn a blind eye” to the challenges discussed at last year’s meeting.

Archbishop Osoro said synod fathers were allowed to talk with “great freedom of expression,” while Archbishop Kurtz said, “We’re off to a good start,” that common threads were that the challenges of last year should not be diminished and that there was a “beginning of confidence to allow Jesus to be both the first and last word of the synod.”

Following reports that Pope Francis might not issue a post-synodal apostolic exhortation (a final papal summary given after a synod), Cardinal Tagle reminded reporters that post-synodal apostolic exhortations haven’t always been common practice, and the first synods of Paul VI didn’t end with such a document.

Not publishing it “has been tried in the past and could happen again,” he said, adding that synod fathers have “full freedom” to express their views “right up to the last minute.”

Cardinal Tagle, one of the 15 members of the Ordinary Council, which helps the Synod of Bishops in preparing and running the synod, said the instrumentum laboris will be revised “based on the comments of the small groups and be the final document of the synod; and then we await the decision of the Holy Father on how the meeting will conclude.”

In response to criticism of the working document, the cardinal said the text “must be ready to be martyred,” to go through severe “scrutiny.” It wasn’t meant to be a “synthetic, cohesive treatise on mission and vocation of the family,” but needs to be revised, and observations are “expected and very much welcome.”

Archbishop Kurtz said “part of our concern” is what the ultimate use of the document will be and to what extent it will become a “public document to guide the Church.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

He is the author of The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?

An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation

at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family

(Ignatius Press, 2015).

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy