Vatican Sets Stage for Tradition and Controversy at October Synod

NEWS ANALYSIS: According to one priest, the working document, issued Tuesday, reflects fidelity to the Church’s traditional teaching and the diversity of opinions within the Church today regarding hot-button issues.

A scene from the 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family in Rome.
A scene from the 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family in Rome. (photo: CNA/Daniel Ibañez)

VATICAN CITY — A highly anticipated working document for the upcoming synod on the family, published by the Vatican on Tuesday, pushes back on same-sex relationships, reaffirms much of the traditional Church’s teaching on the family, but controversially offers an opening for divorced-and-civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

Although praised for being attentive to a diversity of opinions within the Church on a wide variety of issues to do with marriage and the family, the instrumentum laboris has also been criticized for including a number of proposals that were rejected in the final report of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family in 2014.

The 21,000-word document, so far available only in Italian, will serve as the basis and reference point during discussions at the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, to take place Oct. 4-25.

This document summarizes the proposals from last October’s synodal documents that will be used in preparation for the assembly in October. The synod will study the theme: “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World.”

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, told reporters Tuesday that the instrumentum laboris, which partly draws on feedback from questionnaires sent to dioceses worldwide, “reliably reflects the perception and expectations of the whole Church on the crucial issue of the family.”


Three Parts

The text is divided into three parts: “Listening to the Challenges of the Family,” “Discernment of the Family Vocation” and “The Mission of the Family Today.”

It will be sent to bishops and those participating in the synod to help them present their experiences and aspirations at the meeting.

Cardinal Baldisseri highlighted certain novelties in the first part, which refer to contexts “now happily enlightened by the new encyclical letter, Laudato Si.” The challenges, he explained, are “poverty and social exclusion, old age, widowhood, bereavement in the family, disability, migration, the role of women, emotional life and education in sexuality, and bioethics.”

In “Discernment of the Family Vocation,” the report of the last synod is “enriched” with an extension of the themes regarding natural marriage and sacramental fullness, indissolubility as a gift and a duty, family life, union and fruitfulness, the missionary dimension, faith, prayer, catechesis, the intimate bond between Church and family, the young and fear of marriage, and mercy.

“The Mission of the Family Today” begins with a broad reflection on the family and evangelization and explores in depth a number of other issues, such as the family as a subject of pastoral ministry, nuptial liturgy, renewed language and missionary openness.

On the issue of homosexual relationships, the document firmly rejects same-sex unions, saying that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” — a quote taken from a 2003 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

It also speaks strongly against pressure exerted on clergy to accept same-sex “marriage” and says it is “totally unacceptable” that international organizations give aid to poor countries on the condition that they introduce laws establishing same-sex “marriage” — part of what Pope Francis has called “ideological colonization.” The Holy Father has dedicated his current general-audience addresses to the family.


Church Teaching Affirmed

The working document reiterates Church teaching that “men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect and sensitivity” and should not suffer any “unfair discrimination.” It also suggests that dioceses set up special structures “to accompany families” that have members with same-sex attraction.

On the issue of civilly-remarried divorcees, the document acknowledges the strength of opposition to allowing their reception of holy Communion because that would undermine the indissolubility of marriage and those who have “insisted in favoring the current rules in force.” As with the matter of homosexual unions, the issue failed to reach the required two-thirds majority at the last synod. With the Pope’s instruction, it was left in the lineamenta (guidelines) for the upcoming synod.

This has led to the instrumentum laboris resurrecting the issue for discussion, stating that other synod fathers “have expressed a non-generalized welcome to the Eucharistic table, in certain specific situations and under strict conditions, especially when dealing with irreversible cases and linked to moral obligations to children who would suffer unjust suffering” (122).

It adds, “Eventual access to the sacraments should be preceded by a penitential journey under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop,” echoing the controversial proposal first floated by Cardinal Walter Kasper at a special consistory in February 2014.

The local bishop, it adds, can investigate the issue in greater depth, “bearing in mind the distinction between the objective situation of sin and extenuating circumstances” and that the responsibility for entering into a marriage can be “diminished or nullified” by various “psychological or social factors.” It should be stressed that the instrumentum laboris is not endorsing such an approach, but stating that some synod fathers are promoting it.


Trojan Horse?

Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, professor of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, told the Register he is concerned that the objective and subjective distinction used in Paragraph 122 “can both be interpreted soundly or used as a Trojan horse for all sorts of crazy moral theories.”

The paragraph then claims that, to address this issue, there is "common agreement" among synod fathers for the “idea of a journey of reconciliation or by penance, under the authority of the bishop,” for remarried divorcees living in a situation of cohabitation.

Although the document refers to Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), which says Catholics in these circumstances must neither receive the sacrament of penance nor the Eucharist, but instead be committed to spiritual communion and “live in continence,” the working document says some synod fathers are proposing that a priest could accompany the couple along this penitential path, evaluating their progress and “making use of the power of adequately binding and loosing the situation.”

Father Gahl explained that the implication of this is that, “in some cases, the synod could authorize priests to loosen some of the divorced from valid marital bonds so that they might receive the holy Eucharist, while continuing to live in a union that would otherwise be in contrast with the indissolubility of marriage.”

In order to deepen awareness of the “objective situation of sin and moral culpability,” the document says “some suggest” considering a 1994 CDF letter to bishops on holy Communion for remarried divorcees and a 2000 declaration on the same issue, published by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

‘Roundly Rejected’

Father Gahl reminded that the so-called Kasper proposal had already been “roundly rejected" in the last synod (the issue was one of just three to fail to achieve the required two-thirds majority). Father Gahl said the fathers explained that it "pretends to square the circle by offering mercy to those who regret their sins but are not committed to living according to the challenging demands of the Gospel.”

He said “this odd proposal,” repeated in the instrumentum laboris, “countenances reconciliation with the Church and reception of holy Communion without the commitment to live a life in agreement with the radical call to holiness.”

Put another way, he added, “it offers a discounted ticket to heaven by claiming that without the full challenge of the Gospel you can still be considered one of the saints.”

Archbishop Bruno Forte, the synod’s special secretary, told reporters Tuesday that the key to the working document was the concept of the “law of gradualness,’’ which encourages the faithful to take one step at a time in the search for holiness. As an example, he said the decision by civilly-remarried Catholics to live in continence could come at the end of the path of penitence and not the beginning. The law of gradualness was omitted in the final report of the last synod.

The working document also makes reference to the practice of the Orthodox Church, which blesses a second union, saying it can be of help to the penitential path. It also mentions the need for deeper reflection on spiritual communion for remarried divorcees and their integration into the Christian community, proposing that they be included in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and charitable areas in the life of the Church.

Informed Vatican sources have told the Register that this is being discussed as an area of possible compromise at the synod between those favoring changes for cohabiting remarried divorcees and those opposed to their reception of holy Communion. It would allow those living in second “marriages” to take a more active role in the Church, for example allowing them to become godparents, lectors and possibly teach in Catholic schools. It would therefore give them significant recognition, but would stop short of allowing them to receive holy Communion.

In another controversial passage, the instrumentum laboris says a “new sensitivity of today’s pastoral action” consists of “understanding the positive elements” present among cohabiting couples living in differing circumstances, while “clearly stating the Christian message.” The paragraph made no mention of sin, nor did it stress that pastors urge couples to live separately before marriage.

Supporters of such an approach argue that it is in line with helping a cohabiting couple to rectify their situation in accord with the teachings of the Church, perhaps by seeking the baptism of their children and encouraging them to marry. The Church, they say, should encourage them to live in their current circumstances in accord with Church teaching rather than condemn them.


‘Positive Elements’ of Cohabitation

But critics point out that looking at the “positive elements” of cohabitation was another theme roundly rejected at the last synod. Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, Poland, queried at the time whether applying “the criterion of gradualism” in this context is acceptable. “Can you really treat cohabitation as gradual, on the path to holiness?” he asked.

The document also notes a “strong consensus” to make annulments “more accessible and agile, possibly free,” and to “overcome the need for two conforming decisions.”

Cardinal Baldisseri told reporters that synod fathers have stressed the importance of the circuli minors (small groups) and the necessity of a thematic order: The first week will be devoted to the first part of the document, the second to the discernment of the family vocation and the third to the mission of the family today.

The cardinal reiterated that the synod is a space in which the Holy Spirit can act and is not a parliament. “The synod fathers are invited to express themselves with parrhesia [frankness],” he said. “They will be free to communicate with the media at their discretion and with responsibility.”

Father Gahl said that, overall, the document “reflects, at once, fidelity to the Church’s traditional teaching, a renewed pastoral impulse attentive to inspirations of the Holy Spirit and the diversity of opinions within the Church today regarding hot-button issues, some of which seem difficult to reconcile with Tradition.”

He said that, in sum, the document “is a signal for all members of the Church to pray intensely for the upcoming ordinary synod, while working hard to promote the family as a subject of evangelization, through personal witness and eloquent teaching whenever possible.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.