Features > Trying to square the circle

08 October 2015 | by Christopher Lamb

Trying to square the circle

The opening days of the Synod on the Family have revealed distinct differences of opinion between the participants. How can their commitment to church teaching be matched with compassion for those who struggle with it?

when the Synod on the Family got under way on Monday an unusual sound echoed around the hall where hundreds of bishops had gathered. It was the crying of a three-month-old baby, Davide Paloni, the youngest son of Patrizia and Massimo, a couple attending the gathering as auditors.

Given the topic that the synod is addressing, the “intervention” from little David seemed entirely appropriate. The sound of a crying baby, however, may not be the only surprise to come out of the three-week long event.

This is a synod with a difference. It continues the work of the one that took place last year with free discussion opening up over how the Church can best support the family and at the same time respond to those whose lives fall short of official teaching. Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, a warmer welcome for gay Catholics and whether good can be found in those couples in “irregular unions”, such as people cohabiting, were among the topics discussed. 

They were put forward in a document issued halfway through the synod discussions in 2014 that was described as a “pastoral earthquake”. But following a backlash the synod fathers shied away from voting in favour of such proposals. 

For Pope Francis, a synod is not just a meeting, but a constant process in the life of the Church – of Rome governing with local Churches. After the current gathering closes on 25 October the Pope is likely to use the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which begins on 8 December, to submit his proposals for the next steps. 

Yet the whole process has been criticised by conservative groups, who see it not as an opening up of new pastoral possibilities but the opening of a can of worms. They point to the divisions in the Anglican Communion, struggling to maintain a semblance of unity over issues such as women bishops and gay priests, as an example the Catholic Church should not follow. 

Sensitive to this critique, Pope Francis’ homily at the opening of the synod on Sunday was a strong defence of marriage. Then, on Tuesday, he made an unexpected intervention to say that church teaching is not up for discussion, nor should there be a single focus on Communion for the divorced and remarried.

Francis appears to want to set the parameters for the discussion while also shut down the conservative critique that the synod will undermine the indissolubility of marriage. 

What is crucial for the Jesuit pope, schooled in the Ignatian practices of discernment, is for the synod to be a “protected space” where the Holy Spirit can work. The synod is going to spend longer in small-group discussions and speeches have been limited to three minutes.

On Monday Francis called on participants to be guided by the God “who always surprises” and that the deposit of faith is not “a museum to view, nor even something merely to safeguard, but is a living source from which the Church shall drink”. 

A few moments after he had made those remarks the synod’s relator, Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdo, a canon lawyer, gave a 15-page address essentially restating church teaching and seeking to close off the discussion on Communion for divorced and remarried. “It’s not the shipwreck of the first marriage, but the living together in the second relationship that blocks the access to the Eucharist,” he said.

His contribution was not received well by some of the synod fathers who, it is understood, stood up to ask whether they could challenge Cardinal Erdo’s paper. And it was following the relator’s contribution that the Pope made his unexpected intervention to say that church teaching is not going to change. It was as if Francis had to remind the gathering that he was the Pope, the guardian of doctrine, but the pastoral dilemmas facing people should still be addressed.

In the end, the Erdo paper was not able to suppress an open discussion. Early interventions from bishops have included the need to find new language to describe “gay people as part of our own family” and not to live in fear of a “hostile and godless and culture”. Canadian Archbishop Paul-André Durocher told journalists that Cardinal Erdo’s intervention was an “important piece” for the synod deliberations but it was simply that: “a piece”.

And Archbishop Claudio Celli, the President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and a former Vatican diplomat, added at the same press briefing that the question of Communion for divorced and remarried was open.

A crucial question facing the synod is whether giving the sacraments to remarried divorcees is a question of doctrine or discipline. Given the Pope has said doctrine will not change and that the Communion issue was being discussed, I asked those giving the briefing whether this is a matter of discipline that could be developed? Archbishop Durocher replied: “There is disagreement over that.”

After just a few days of talking all the indications are that reaching consensus on the matter is going to be difficult. A likely outcome of the synod process could be greater responsibility to local Churches to develop their own pastoral reposes. This would work for European Churches to develop their responses on remarried divorcees, while Africa might be given more freedom to shape how they deal with polygamy. Church teaching would remain the same.

Such an approach was suggested by the Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, in his intervention. He said: “It is important that the Synod could give to the local bishops the space and the responsibility to formulate appropriate responses to the pastoral questions that live in the portion of the People of God entrusted to their pastoral care. A special role is the role of the individual Bishops’ Conferences.”

The Pope has given an indication that he is in favour of such an approach, which was outlined by the former Archbishop of San Francisco, John Quinn, in a short book, Ever Ancient, Ever New: structures of communion in the Church, which outlines how a decentralisation, based on the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, could be achieved. The book was sent to Pope Francis who told Quinn last year it was “very important”.

As the synod deliberates it does so against a backdrop of growing impatience among lay Catholics waiting on the outside, particularly over who is welcome to receive Communion and who is not. The former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, is one of those who would like to see reform.

At a symposium on the role of Catholic women in Rome held last week at the Pontifical University Antonianum, she said: “In my world, family communion has been battered by these very men at the synod because with family members who are gay and who are divorced we cannot attend the same table.”

Another voice at the symposium, that of Nontando Hadebe, an African theologian, highlighted just how fundamental some issues are to the future of the family and how much people are looking to the synod for hope and to restore the dignity of women, abused by their own husbands, and for whom the family is not an ideal but a place of suffering. “This is the moment,” she said, “when the Church should say no to women being beaten.”

Those expecting dramatic or spectacular change at the synod are likely to be left disappointed given that it is clearly focusing on pastoral, not doctrinal questions. Then again, the same thing was said about Vatican II, which turned out to be a major reforming event in the life of the Church. Ultimately, its outcome will be down to Pope Francis, for in his response to what he has heard, he will have the last word.

The Tablet is reporting daily from Rome during the synod. Check www.thetablet.co.uk for daily updates.

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