From the editor's desk

Ball now lies firmly in Francis’ court

29 October 2015

The most positive way of describing the final document of the international synod of bishops, which has just finished its three-week meeting in Rome, is that it is a snapshot of a Church in transition. In that case the direction of travel is probably more important than the point it has reached, which is undoubtedly towards a less rigid and more open form of the Catholic faith. The process has nevertheless laid bare some of the obstacles in the way of this renewal, including some bitterly contested issues that remain unresolved. Those drafting the final text calculated fairly accurately how far they could push it in a liberal direction without jeopardising the required two-thirds majority for every paragraph. So no one would have been entirely satisfied. The key question now is how much further along the same trajectory will Pope Francis lead the Church when he makes his response. The signs are encouraging.

Lack of ambiguity is often a strength in Catholic statements on moral issues. But in this case compromises had to be made if the text were to be adopted. So some passages are likely to mean different things to different people. In his final address, Francis enlarged on how the Catholic faith’s diversity of cultures shapes attitudes: “We have seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.”

This range of attitudes sometimes correlates with geography. The synod revealed the African Catholic Church, now entirely African-led, as by and large conservative on sexual matters with the possible exception of the issue of cohabitation, where they favoured a non-judgemental approach to couples who live together without, and often prior, to marriage. That passage of the final text was one of its most open and generous features. Not so with regard to homosexuality, where African taboos are strong. The document failed even to acknowledge that gay relationships can be profoundly fulfilling experiences of love, confining itself to saying that individuals with a homosexual orientation should be “welcomed with respect” and not exposed to “unjust” discrimination. At the post-synod press conference in London, Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, one of the two English and Welsh representatives at the synod, made a well-judged apology to gay Catholics for the synod’s failure to go further.

Geography was by no means the only factor behind the theological disunity seen at the synod. Some bishops appointed to senior positions in the Church under John Paul II and Benedict XVI would not move beyond the rigidity of Catholic teaching that they perceived those Popes to represent. A third factor, beyond geographical origin and date of appointment, was the degree of theological competence of the synod membership. Some Europeans and Americans – north and south – displayed it; some, from elsewhere, did not. Future synods need more theologians – of both sexes – to deepen the arguments; and church historians would also be a useful addition. But the more the college of bishops – and the Roman Curia – become filled with men who share Francis’ priorities, the more the Church will be able to make progress.

On the headline issue of the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics there was a curious kind of progress, with the final text describing the sort of criteria that should be applied in such cases without spelling out what the result would be. The statement that it is “necessary to overcome various forms of exclusion as practised in liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional spheres”, could be referring to exclusion from the Eucharist but does not say so. This looks like studied ambiguity for the sake of a two-thirds majority, and it is ripe for clarification when Pope Francis makes his reply. Indeed, he has enough of a consensus behind him to take these matters much further. Judging from the tone of his final remarks, he does not lack the will to do so.



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