There was scepticism around the recent Synod on the Family among many of the people I know. How could 190 old men comment on married life and the family? And why did two thirds of them veto already watered-down language on welcoming people in same-sex relationships?
But we shouldn’t slam the synod. A host of tricky issues are finally out of the box. Things could have gone further, but they also could have been much worse. Here are three signs of hope.
First, on same-sex relationships. The sound of screeching tyres and conservative discontent could be heard almost immediately after the publication of the mid-way relatio. But it’s too easy to argue that the bishops have proven again how reactionary they are.
A simple majority voted in favour of the proposition that gay people be “welcomed with respect and delicacy” and must not suffer “unjust discrimination”. Even this was watered down from the earlier version which acknowledged gay couples’ "gifts and qualities" and potential to offer “precious support". It lost out by two votes but this is a step forward, even if small. Cardinal Nichols said he couldn’t remember which way he voted on the paragraph on homosexuality but he said he didn’t feel it went far enough.
We have a sense of where Francis’ mind is regarding same-sex relationships. A number of high-ranking bishops have put their heads above the parapet in a way that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. This is progress even if it doesn’t look like it to restless progressives.
Second, on divorced and remarried Catholics. Making it easier to say for divorcees to be readmitted to the Sacraments by saying the marriage was never valid in the first place moves the goalposts and claims the match. This legalistic solution sits uncomfortably with the pastoral demands of the issue. But again, just talking about this issue in public is progress.
In his concluding speech, the Pope described the Synod as a journey on which fellow travellers face a number of seemingly contradictory temptations (“hostile inflexibility”, crowd-pleasing and so on). It sums up the challenges we face in the year ahead. The Church – that means us too – has a lot of listening and praying to do about this issue if it is to be fair to those who experience failure and pain, as we all do at some point.
Third, on collegiality. The Synod has given us an alternative view of church leadership to the automaton career bishops all saying the same thing, to which we’ve grown used. Instead. It showed a world of positions taken and, I think, genuine listening to other perspectives. It is tremendously exciting and an approach we should try to emulate. The media doesn’t understand this easily, so the Church will have to be clearer in articulating itself if it tries to find routes forward based on ideas of collegiality.
Paul VI’s beatification at the end of the synod last Sunday was entirely fitting. The issues contained in his most famous encyclicals, Humanae Vitae and Populorum Progressio, remained contentious at the synod. While the synod discussions seemed hung up on personal morality, systemic economic issues clear to Paul VI which corrode family life did not get the attention they deserved.
I hope the prophetic call to justice in Populorum Progressio will echo in the discussions over the next 12 months. Surely poverty and inequality are among the more important issues facing the family – how should we Catholics respond?
This month's synod was Act 1 in a multi-act drama. The next step will be to fully participate in the discussions and prayer of the Church ahead of the synod next October. That synod will be more pastorally focused because heads of bishops’ conferences will be joined by other bishops – those who probably have what Francis called “the smell of the sheep” on them. I’d be surprised if more radical shifts in language and approach weren’t on the horizon. That’s good news indeed.
Daniel Hale is Director of Public Engagement at Catholic charity Progressio. He writes in a personal capacity.