This week produced the clearest evidence yet that the Synod Fathers are sharply divided between those who are supporting Pope Francis in his efforts to present a more pastoral vision of the Church and those determined first and foremost to emphasise its moral teaching
For the vast majority of the time he has spent at the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis has sat silently and listened to the discussion. Yet just hours before the gathering released a document offering a dramatically new pastoral strategy for the Church in relation to gays, divorcees and cohabiting couples, he gave a homily hinting what might be coming.
At the daily Mass at his residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Pope reflected on Jesus’ criticism of the Doctors of the Law.
“They [the doctors] were closed within their system, they had perfectly systemised the law, it was a masterpiece,” he said in his homily. “They did not understand that God is the God of surprises, that God is always new; He never denies Himself, never says that what He said was wrong, never, but He always surprises us.”
And when the synod released its halfway-point document – the relatio post disceptationem (“report after the discussion”) – there were many who were surprised.
The language in the document, which it should be stressed is not the final text, is striking. It recalls the Second Vatican Council when it talks about recognising “positive elements” to be found in unions outside sacramental marriage, and says the Church should acknowledge the “seeds of the Word” in the relationships of cohabitating couples, civil marriages and divorced and remarried people.
It goes on to explain that gay Catholics have “gifts and qualities” to offer parishes, and same-sex relationships at times demonstrate “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice”. While not changing teaching on homosexual acts, it is a recognition of the value of gay relationships, something that Cardinal Basil Hume had done back in 1997 but which then was markedly different in tone from Vatican documents on the subject at that time.
On church teaching forbidding artificial contraception, the text subtly called for “appropriate teaching regarding natural methods” and noted that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae shows the need to respect the dignity of the person “in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control”.
This was a text that Francis was keen to have some influence over. He appointed six people to help with the document’s drafting, including a number known to be close to him, such as Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, president of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.
It is understood, however, that a key figure in the writing of the text was Archbishop Bruno Forte, the secretary of the synod and seen as a theologian in the mould of the Second Vatican Council. Such was his influence over the text that at one point Cardinal Péter Erdö, the relator general of the synod who had his name on the document, deferred to Archbishop Forte when a question was asked at a press conference about the passage on homosexuality.
Following the text’s release, both Archbishop Forte and Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila in the Philippines said the synod had captured the spirit of Vatican II. Quoting the council’s pastoral constitution, Gaudium et Spes, Cardinal Tagle said the synod wanted to respond to the “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the women and men of this age”.
But if the spirit of the council was alive in the hall on Monday, the winds of caution were blowing through the gathering on Tuesday. That day’s summary of the synod’s discussion on the document noted there was a desire among many of the Synod Fathers to avoid “the impression of a positive evaluation” of homosexuality and cohabitation, a need to emphasise Jesus’ prophetic tone and support those families that do follow church teaching.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, Archbishop of Durban, told journalists that the document did not accurately reflect the Synod Fathers’ view and that the media had misrepresented it. While he stopped short of disowning the text, he said work was taking place to amend it.
The synod this week discussed the text in small groups, known as circuli minores, and put forward amendments. It is understood that there is a backlash among some at the synod not happy with the content of the relatio, while others are concerned about misinterpretation. The Pope is due to receive the final synod document today but it is not known when it will be published. It is likely to contain clarifications setting out church teaching clearly and will act as an instrumentum laboris for the next synod
As Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the Archbishop Emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels who attended the Synod on the Family in 1980, told me: “There is a real battle between two groups.” On the one hand there are those who “are for openness” and on the other those who are for tradition. Among those leading the tradition camp is Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s supreme court and an outspoken opponent of any move to allow Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. He is leading one of the English-language discussion groups and has openly criticised the text, telling me it is “unacceptable” in its current form.
“The document in my judgement is not carefully stated on the matter. First of all we don’t refer to people by their attraction to persons of the same sex, calling people homosexual persons; that’s not their identity, it is John or James, who has this attraction to persons of the same sex. That’s the first clarification,” said Cardinal Burke.
“Secondly, the Church has never questioned in her pastoral practice that persons who suffer from this attraction have important qualities and can make a contribution to the life of the Church. That’s never been in question. On the other hand, it is impossible for the Church to say that homosexual relations have a positive aspect: how can we attribute a positive aspect to an unchaste act? That has to be clear.”
But what about the need to make church language less harsh, as some Synod Fathers have suggested? Cardinal Burke says it is important not to use euphemistic language, and to describe things as they are.
He also rejects the image put forward at the synod that the Church should not be a lighthouse beaming out the truth but holding a torch and walking with people, saying: “Yes, it’s great to have a torch when you are going out to the individuals to try and help them. But if a ship is in distress or a whole culture is in distress, you need a lighthouse and it had better be beaming brightly.”
If the Church does find an opening for Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, he said: “For me, it would present a great crisis.”
For weeks there have been rumours in Rome that Cardinal Burke will be moved from his position at the Signatura. Cardinal Danneels, on the other hand, gives the impression that the synod appears to be going in the right direction. He likened the debates to the early stages of the Second Vatican Council when a number of the Council Fathers took charge of the proceedings from the Roman Curia and embarked on a path towards renewal.
The cardinal says he has never known a synod “where the atmosphere of openness and the absence of fear was so great”, and there is a feeling of synodality, of the Church making decisions in a collegial manner.
There is still a long way to go in the synod process. It is likely that the final document from this gathering will set the tone and context for the larger, ordinary synod in 2015 rather than setting out a list of propositions.
Cardinal Danneels referred to a letter published before the synod by his fellow countryman, the Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny. It called for the Church to be a “travelling companion” with families in difficult situations and asked whether teaching could be better rooted in people’s lived experiences. This included Communion for divorced and remarried, homosexuality and contraception.
“It is a description of the reality, it is not giving the solutions,” the cardinal explained. “He asks things and there must be an answer. Now, or in a year’s time.”
The Church is waiting.