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The end of the beginning

22 October 2015 | by Christopher Lamb

After three weeks, the Synod on the Family closes in Rome this weekend. Differing views on personal relationships emerged but so has a move towards a more listening Church

Being inside the hall and watching the synod discussions has been, according to the Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, a bit like seeing corn pop when popcorn is being made. “Stuff was going off in all directions,” he said.

So it has been for observers of this Synod on the Family, which today will be voting on its final document. All sorts of topics have been covered: from divorce, gay people and polygamy to marriage preparation, poverty and migration.

Themes appear to have emerged, such as the need for the Church to find a new language – not the “indissolubility” but “fidelity” of marriage – to give greater autonomy to local bishops on pastoral questions and to help rather than judge those couples who fail to live up to the ideals of Catholic teaching.

What remains to be seen is whether any of these shifts to openness and decentralisation will make it into the final document of the synod and become a reality in the Church. It is quite possible that the outcome of the three-week gathering disappoints both conservatives and progressives on questions to do with marriage.

This meeting of the world’s bishops has in fact been as much about the synod as it has been about the family. From when he started the synod process, a little after his election in 2013, the Pope has been clear that he wants the gathering to become part of the Church.

Last year he encouraged the participants to speak frankly and openly, and this time faced down fierce resistance, from those – including cardinals – who suggested that somehow the process is being manipulated in a progressive direction towards not just reform but substantial change.

Pope Francis had to work hard to make sure the synod was, in his words, a “protected space” for discernment and a place to allow for the work of the Holy Spirit. He did this in part by assuring the Synod Fathers that the Church’s teaching on marriage was not going to change. That opposition now appears to have dissipated.

Perhaps most important for the synod, and its future, was Francis’ speech last Saturday, which many are describing as historic. Marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, the Pope made clear that the Church should not just hold synods but become synodal.

An enhanced synod, the Pope explained, “is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council” and is able to “keep alive” the spirit of the council and its method.

This will include a “healthy decentralisation” and a listening to the sensus fidei – the sense of the faith among people – that the Pope said has an “instinct to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church”.

Whatever final document the synod produces, the process is not going to end this weekend. The Pope wants a Church that is continually listening to the People of God. Yet at some point this synod is going to have to make a decision on the question of Communion for divorced and remarried. And during the gathering we have heard conflicting messages on this matter.

Journalists have been told that the question was raised numerous times with many approving of the notion of a penitential pathway, allowing the remarried to be admitted to the sacraments. The Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, stressed to journalists the importance of the Church respecting the conscience of divorced and remarried people, saying: “The conscience is inviolable. And we have to respect that when they make decisions and I’ve always done that.”

Furthermore, Synod Fathers were reported to have applauded after hearing the moving story from a bishop of a young boy who took the host, split it and gave it to his parents who could not receive Communion.

At the same time, Archbishop Coleridge has said he has not heard an intervention explicitly calling for Communion to be given to the divorced and remarried. He has also predicted that the synod is 65 per cent against and 35 per cent for any development.

The German-speaking Church, however, is impatient to see something happen. It is arguing that it is possible to allow the sacraments to the remarried without changing the teaching on indissolubility (see page 6). And it appears to be having some success in convincing traditional opponents of such a move, such as Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who was a member of the German language group alongside Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, who has been more in favour of reform.

This week, Müller told the German weekly Focus magazine that it cannot be completely ruled out “at least not in extreme individual cases”. While stressing that general admission of remarried divorcees could not be permitted, he said that “in certain cases in the conscience area it is possible to give it”.

Although the bishops are divided in this area, Francis has stressed that he still holds all the cards over what the final outcome of the process will be. Bishop Charles Drennan of New Zealand told The Tablet that the Pope is not bound by the need for the traditional  two-thirds majority when the bishops’ vote on this question. Francis may feel that a simple majority is enough of a mandate.

It is unlikely, however, that the synod will propose a general rule on this matter. Far more likely is that the issue is devolved to local bishops with the Pope issuing a motu proprio on the subject in the same way that changes to the annulment process were implemented. But any decentralisation in this area is likely to be opposed. One of the opponents to change, the Australian Cardinal George Pell, said this week: “Catholic means ‘universal’, not ‘continental’”.

Overall, the general move at the synod to focus on pastoral realities may mean that the synod document tries to make some practical recommendations. One of these may be for beefed-up marriage preparation courses, requiring couples to attend a serious course before they marry. A similar proposal was put forward in 1980 after a previous synod.
Cohabitation is also emerging as a rare issue where both the West and Africa can agree that a non-judgemental “accompanying” approach is needed by the Church. Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban pointed out that in Africa cohabitation is common where a couple live together while the man works to pay off the dowry. The cardinal stressed that it takes place as a staging post to marriage – he said “it is pro-marriage” – and that the African bishops should study to find a way of incorporating it into the Sacrament of Matrimony.

While cohabitation is a different phenomenon in the West, most parishes in Europe and North America receive couples wishing to marry who share the same address. The question then becomes how the Church welcomes and encourages them.

But there is a danger of the growing gap between ordinary Catholics and official church teaching. Nowhere is this clearer than over the ban on artificial contraception.This issue has on the whole been ignored during the synod, which in itself speaks volumes.

It was, however, tackled by Sharron Cole, a New Zealander and a former board member of a natural family planning group, who urged the Synod Fathers to reconsider not just Humanae Vitae but the whole of church teaching on marriage and sexuality.

She said: “Many Catholic married couples have made their own decision in conscience about how to exercise responsible parenthood, which may mean the use of artificial contraception. For some, this has meant leaving the Church. Others remain but often with a sense of unease.

“As an ex-board member of natural family planning, I know that this method of contraception permitted by Humanae Vitae is an effective method for motivated couples. However, for many couples the method is simply not practicable.”

Cole added: “It will take not more catechesis but rather listening with deep empathy to restore the credibility of the Church in matters of sexual ethics. The time is now for this synod to propose that the Church re-examine its teaching on marriage and sexuality, and its understanding of responsible parenthood, in a dialogue of laity and bishops together.”

Asking for people to speak freely and to listen to the laity, as Pope Francis has done, is likely to make some in the hierarchy feel uncomfortable. Whatever happens today, and at the synod’s conclusion tomorrow, Francis has created a process whereby the Church can honestly face up to some of its problems.

Whether this will lead to concrete change is unclear but many bishops, such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a synod veteran helping to draft the final report, believe “the Church’s caring embrace of people who are having difficulty in living up to the fullness of the Gospel will win out” in the end.

Even so, there is likely to be some more turbulence along the way.



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