Whatever gloss the Vatican press officers put on it, the final document on the Synod on the Family is a setback for Pope Francis and those prelates who support his drive for a much more pastoral approach for those living in “irregular unions”.
Three paragraphs relating to gays and to offering Communion for divorced and remarried couples – much more anodyne than in the splendid mid-term relation – did not achieve the requisite two-thirds majority. This shows to the world that the Catholic Church still has a long way to go if it is going to address the yawning gap between its moral teaching and how most people – including Catholics – live their lives.
But there are nevertheless reasons for hope. First, the frankness and openness insisted upon by Pope Francis at this synod. This continued right up to last night with the publication of the final document known as the Relatio Synodi. At his insistence it was published in full and included the three paragraphs that had failed to receive the two-thirds majority. The voting figures were included also in the interests of transparency. This document, said Fr Tom Rosica of the Vatican press office was not magisterial but rather a “work in progress”. Together with the Pope’s spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, there was a clear overall majority for these sections. Fr Rosica insisted that the matters raised in them won’t go away but will remain on the agenda for the all-important Ordinary Synod on the Family next October.
It was revealed last night that the small working groups that met in the second week of the synod proposed a total of 470 amendments to the mid-term relatio. Reading through the reports of the three English-language groups I was struck, above all, by their timidity. They were fearful that in reaching out so generously to divorced and remarried, to gay couples, cohabiting heterosexual couples and those in civil unions, the message about the importance and beauty of marriage would be lost. They wanted to affirm more fully those married couples who struggled on, sometimes in the face of enormous difficulties. One group even opined that seeing grace and goodness in so called irregular unions (horrible phrase) would “confuse the faithful”.
The faithful are not confused. Rather, many Catholics who stay married are worried that so many fellow Catholics – especially their children – perceive the Church’s teaching in this area as irrelevant. Witness the recent Tablet survey which shows that a third of remarried Catholics continue to receive Communion with or without consulting their priest, and the figures from the Canon Law Society that shows the decline in the number of Catholics seeking annulments. The process is too lengthy and costly and not worth the bother.
On the gay issue, the Australian couple who addressed the synod and spoke about their friends’ attitude to their gay son was authentic witness. These friends, said the couple, welcomed their son and his partner into their home because “he is their son”.
Fortunately Pope Francis has eloquent supporters in Cardinals Kasper, Marx, Schönborn and Archbishop Bruno Forte and others.
Above all Francis can, better than anyone, articulate the welcome, love and mercy the Church offers to every individual. If any doubt read his rousing final speech to the synod.
Elena Curti is Acting Editor of The Tablet