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Analysis: Synod on the Family – a defining moment for Francis’ Papacy

Analysis: Synod on the Family – a defining moment for Francis’ Papacy

The focus of the Catholic world will be on Rome from 5-19 October when the first session of the Synod on the Family, called by Pope Francis, gets underway. Will this Synod see a significant shift in the practice of the Catholic Church, and why might this be a watershed moment for the Papacy of Francis? By RUSSELL POLLITT.

Last year, on his way back from Brazil, journalists asked Pope Francis questions inflight about divorced and remarried Catholics. He replied, “I believe this is a time for mercy…” He then alluded to the Orthodox practice of permitting a second marriage. He did not say he wanted to change Church teaching but suggested that it was a concern of his and that he was open to change. Earlier this year he asked German Cardinal, Walter Kasper, to address the College of Cardinals on divorce. Kasper advocated for the acceptance of secondary civil unions by the Church. This, again, seemed to indicate that Pope Francis was open to change.

Pope Francis convened a Synod of Bishops on the Family in October 2013 for October 2014. A questionnaire was sent to the universal Catholic Church on matters relating to the family. Many interpreted this as yet another sign of the Pope’s openness to change in current Church teaching on “hot-button” issues like divorce and remarriage, contraception and same-sex unions. Dioceses all over the world were asked to distribute the questionnaire widely and then collate responses and send them to Rome. Some chose not to do this.

Granted, not much time was given for the task. However, the German Bishop’s Conference worked quickly and was amongst the first to release their findings. They pointed to the huge gap between the teaching of the Church on matters like contraception and divorce versus the choice and practice of many Catholics. Some bishops’ conferences decided not to collate the responses they received – it’s unclear why.

It was predictable that, as soon as the issues around family and marriage were unearthed, there would be wide-ranging opinions and some vigorous debate. Senior church officials quickly came out and disagreed publicly with each other. The fault lines were drawn between those who wanted change and others who insisted that things should not and could not be changed.

Earlier this week, just before the Synod begins next month, it was revealed that a group of Cardinals have collaborated on a book entitled Remaining in the truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. According to the publisher, Ignatius Press, the books thesis is that “the Church’s longstanding fidelity to the truth of marriage constitutes the irrevocable foundation of its merciful and loving response to the individual who is civilly divorced and remarried.” In other words: change is not likely because what the Church holds right now is an irrevocable truth. It’s interesting to note that the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) Cardinal Gerhard Müller, is one of the editors. Müller insisted earlier this year that the church had no authority to change this teaching and it was not open to question. Pope Francis made him a Cardinal last February at the first consistory (a ceremony at which cardinals are created) he presided over.

Just after Müller’s insistence that nothing could change Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga from Honduras, the coordinator of the Pope’s “C8” (Council of eight Cardinal advisors) hit back at Müller, saying he is a German theology professor and therefore only sees black and white. He said “But I say, my brother, the world isn’t like this, and you should be a little flexible when you hear other voices”. He also told Müller, “That means not just listening and saying no.” Pope Francis himself, talking to a group of priests and nuns from Latin America, said that should they get a letter from the CDF complaining about something they wrote or said, they should just take note of the contents and move on. Many were surprised at his seemingly nonchalant attitude towards the Church’s highest doctrinal office.

Another curial Cardinal, Raymond Burke (who is head of the Church’s supreme judicial authority called the “Apostolic Signatura”) is also one of the editors of the book. He represents, for many, the epicentre of resistance to the Francis Papacy. He has publicly disagreed with the Pope on issues around marriage and divorce. Another contributor is Cardinal, Carlo Caffarra of Bologna. He rebuked Cardinal Kasper earlier this year and is on record saying that the Pope “has no power” to change a teaching rooted in Christ’s explicit teaching.

Besides the strong voice of the German Church, there have been other bishops who seem to support openness to discussion and, perhaps, change. Bishop Johann Bonny of Antwerp, for example, wrote a lengthy reflection on the Synod in which he calls for the Church to explore how people, under certain circumstances, can be admitted to Holy Communion if they are divorced and remarried.

Talk of reviewing the Church’s position on a number of issues with regard to marriage, family and divorce are not new. In 1993 some German bishops wrote a pastoral letter to divorced and remarried Catholics. They said that if they, in conscience and after consulting a priest, discerned that their first marriage was invalid they could receive communion.

Cardinal Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, rejected the letter and harshly criticised the German bishops saying that this teaching of the Church was a matter of divine revelation and that individual bishops did not have the authority to change it. Later, in 1999, some Cardinals, notably Godfried Daneels of Brussels and Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, tried to re-open the discussion but Ratzinger enforced the traditional line. Pope John Paul II had declared the issue closed, Ratzinger pointed out, five years before. The crux of the matter is that for many in the Catholic Church this is a matter of mercy; for many others it is a matter of fidelity to tradition and not giving into what has been called “relativism” or the “secular assault” on the traditional family.

Although many divorced and remarried Catholics have been given renewed hope that things might change, much of the discourse now seems to suggest that things will not. Most Americans at the Synod are expected to oppose any changes. Many Africans and Asians will back them. Some North American bishops who are considered to be “moderates” – like Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York – said in February this year that they are against change.

African bishops are nervous that any softening of the current position could open the door to polygamists wanting special consideration. Many clergy in the dioceses of Africa have not elicited people’s opinions or listened to a wide range of opinions before going to the Synod. There are few collated reports of data gathered from lay people in Africa. This means that the voice of the hierarchy will be stronger, if not the only one, from some regions at the Synod.

So where does this leave things?

It’s important to note that this Synod is the preparation session for a bigger and longer Synod on the same subject next year. This is not the only sitting. After this initial sitting positions may shift – or harden! Some have suggested that Pope Francis might act alone and surprise the Church. However, he has said explicitly that he will not act alone and wants to be in union with the world’s bishops when making important decisions regarding the Church. On the other hand there are also unconfirmed (but not denied by the Vatican) reports that he called a divorced and remarried woman in Argentina who had been denied Communion by a priest. He advised her to find a more understanding priest. Francis is not always very easy to read and he may just surprise us, as he has done a few times, by being more spontaneous than is expected.

The Pope, on that famous flight from Brazil (in which he also said the most quoted sound byte of 2013, “Who am I to judge?”) suggested that the Orthodox process and position might be worth considering for the Catholic Church. This has been interpreted as a sign of hope for many divorced and remarried Catholics – that they will be welcomed back to Communion in the Catholic Church soon. Those excepting a significant shift in the official position of the Catholic Church on things like contraception and same-sex unions will be disappointed – it’s an unlikely happening.

This Synod will be the most telling sign for many as to just how serious Pope Francis is about reform. American Vatican commentator, Fr Thomas Reese SJ, suggests that the Pope’s choice of participants at the Synod is a sign that he too has not understood the kind of reform that is needed in the Catholic Church. He says that half of the experts on family at the Synod are clerics, not lay married people. He also suggests that many of the lay people who have been selected are people that have been named by bishops and would be people who are of one mind with them on contentious matters. They probably don’t represent the views of the vast majority of Catholics. He also points to the fact that 25 members of the Roman Curia are present and suggests that they have every other day of the year to advise the Pope on these matters. This is a unique opportunity to hear the views of a great diversity of Catholics (and far flung bishops) all over the world. The officials of the curia should not be speaking, or voting, at this Synod (most of their views are well known already anyway!)

Pope Francis has managed to capture the imagination of many in the world – across religious, national and ethnic backgrounds.  He has enjoyed much popularity and, in a few months, has been recognised as a formidable leader in the world. If he does not manage to bring about some change he may well face his first wave of anti-Francis sentiment. Many will be disappointed, not least his fans in the media. It could mark the end of the honeymoon phase of his papacy. He has been placed in a rather difficult position and stands to disappoint and lose people on both sides of the divide. Others suggest that, for the vast majority of Catholics, they will simply continue doing what they have been doing because they have made up their minds on a number of issues including divorce and contraception. It may be a missed opportunity to bridge the gap between what the Church teaches and what people do in their day-to-day lives.

The focus may be much more on Francis himself than the Synod. It might just be the defining moment of this papacy and therefore, if we are honest, his most important venture yet. He is walking a tight rope. DM

Photo: Pope Francis’ cape is blown up by the wind as he addresses people during his weekly General Audience on Saint Peter’s Square, in Vatican City, 03 September 2014. Thousands of faithful attended the audience. EPA/FABIO FRUSTACI


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