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Family Synod, Part I: Has there been open and frank discussion?

Family Synod, Part I: Has there been open and frank discussion?

Last week, at the beginning of the Synod on the Family in Rome, Pope Francis told the 190 bishops meeting that they should “speak boldly and listen with humility.” He also said “God’s dream clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants” and that “Bad pastors lay intolerable burdens on the shoulders of others, which they themselves do not lift a finger to move”. These are strong words from the Pontiff that suggest he really wants open and frank discussion about real issues affecting the family today and the teaching of the Catholic Church. At the close of the first week, just how open and frank has the discussion been? By RUSSELL POLLITT.

This Synod is significant for many Catholics who find they are living in situations that are not congruent with Church teaching (often because of circumstances beyond their control) and yet desire to be faithful members of the Church. This is important; for non-Catholics it may not be an issue but for many Catholics it is. It is, also, the first time since the Second Vatican Council that there has been a significant global conversation in the Church about positions that the Church holds – for example divorce and artificial contraception. What gets said and decided at this Synod could also have impact on the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Churches – like the Anglican Church who do allow divorce and remarriage.

Before the Synod began there had already been rigorous public debate and disagreement between senior Cardinals about a few issues – the most debated being the possible admittance to communion of divorced and remarried Catholics. German Cardinal, Walter Kapser (also said to be close to the Pope), suggested the Church take a more merciful stance towards the divorced and remarried. He cited the Orthodox position that allows for second marriages under certain circumstances – Pope Francis himself has also hinted at this. Kasper would also advocate a less rigorous stance on issues like birth control.

Kasper encountered resistance from conservative American Cardinal, Raymond Burke, who also happens to be in charge of the Vatican’s judicial system called the “Apostolic Penitentiary.” In a TV interview this week, with Raymond Arroyo from Eternal Word Television Network News, Burke again bluntly criticised Kasper and his supporters who are calling for a more merciful approach to problems with marriage and family. Michael Sean Winters, a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter in the USA, called Burke “tone deaf” and said that he “failed to achieve anything except make the Catholic Church look foolish and mean-spirited” after the interview.

Each session of the Synod opened with a married couple giving testimony from their own experience on the topic of that session. A South African couple, from Durban, are present at the Synod as auditors. A Filipino couple, speaking about divorced and remarried Catholics, said that they hoped the Church would come to a more “enlightened pastoral charity” and this this would help encourage “inclusive participation in church life”.

Some of the couples spoke candidly about their sex life and said that it was “extremely hard to appreciate the beauty” of the Church’s teachings prohibiting contraception. Another couple spoke of how natural family planning has enriched their marriage and how those who do not practice it “don’t know what they are missing”. A French couple spoke of how they had tried natural family planning and artificial contraception and how, when using artificial means, they discovered that she was always “in a bad mood, desire was absent and her joy disappeared.” A Brazilian couple called on the Bishops to help Catholics observe current Church teaching on contraception.

Hungarian Cardinal, Péter Erdö, suggested that the Church re-propose and re-read the controversial 1968 Encyclical “Humane Vitae” (the document issued by Pope Paul VI which teaches that the use of artificial contraception is against the natural moral law) as a “positive message”. He also pointed out that mercy, which has been a consistent theme for Pope Francis, “does not do away with truth nor relativise it, but seeks to interpret it correctly in the hierarchy of truths”. Nor does mercy, he said, “do away with the demands of justice”.

A couple from Australia got a global reaction from Catholics and Catholic groups – not only those at the Synod – when they suggested that the Church freely welcome gay couples. The couple, who have been married for 57 years, suggested that welcoming gay couples into the fold would serve as a “model of evangelisation”. Cardinal Burke came out strongly against this proposal, calling same-sex relationships “intrinsically disordered.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the word “disordered”. It was curious that Burke said this because, just a few days before, Fr Thomas Rosica (a Canadian priest appointed to do a media briefing in English on each day of the Synod) said that there was a lengthy discussion on how to change the “harsh language” used by the Church. Often the Church labels people, the Synod Fathers heard, with words that “are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to the Church”.

The first week of the Synod covered some interesting ground. A few things are worth noting:

There was a call for the Church to change its language; three oft-used phrases were identified as problematic:

  • living in sin” – referring to couples who live together before marriage

  • intrinsically disordered” – referring to gay people

  • contraceptive mentality” – to refer to a society that does not respect life.

Reports suggest that there were strong feelings in the Synod Hall that language has to change in order to meet the very difficult situations people find themselves in.

Another interesting discussion was on the theological notion of “graduality”. This means that Catholics grow towards adherence or understanding of Church teaching throughout their lives, it doesn’t just happen. The search for holiness is something we move towards, step by step, and God is with us now as we journey to holiness.

The Synod discussed the issue of annulments. Catholics, who are divorced and wish to get remarried, are required to get an annulment of their first marriage so that they can validly be married in the Church again. For many this is a long and cumbersome process. The Synod has suggested that a more streamlined process be introduced – how or what this might entail still remains to be disclosed. This, some Vatican analysts suggest, may be the only real change that may emerges from this Synod: a more “user-friendly” and efficient annulment process. There are some who would caution against making this process easy and believe that divorced Catholics must live with the sacrifice such a state demands.

Officially the Church regards marriage as a lifetime commitment. The annulment process is, therefore, deliberately slow and cautious. Many people also complain that it is time-consuming, expensive and invasive in terms of the personal data that is required. There are, on the other hand, people who have found the process cathartic and say that it has helped them move on from the pain of a broken marriage.

Another significant thing to note is that many bishops have taken up the invitation of the Pope to speak freely. This is significant because many theologians and bishops did not feel the freedom to speak out during the papacies of Benedict XVI and John Paul II. There are a number of times that a sense of this freedom emerged.

Some of the Austrian and German bishops have stressed the need for change and said that the Catholic Church needs to take a new look at its teachings on marriage and family life. Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn, said it was clear that the Church must reach out to those whose marriages have failed: no one must feel that their membership of the Catholic church ended because they failed.

The Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Marx, said that he hopes the whole church will engage in a broad discussion on marriage and the family. He cautioned against glorifying what some people see as “the good old days.” “The undertone that there used to be such a thing as an ideal marriage and an ideal family in times gone by should be avoided,” he said. He also suggested that the church must take a differentiated view of homosexuality.

Irish prelate, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, said that the Synod “has to find new language to show that there can be development of doctrine, that there has been a willingness to listen to what emerged in the questionnaire that went out [to Catholics all over the world asking for their input], and what was said in the Synod itself”. He admitted that there was strong and respectful debate and that the Synod was struggling to tie together the notions of truth and mercy. Martin said: “It isn’t that truth is a dogma and mercy is something on the sidelines of Christian teaching. We have to find real ways of bringing these together and it’s not easy to.”

Some of the African bishops spoke about polygamy and the problems associated with this in the African Church. Some of the bishops said that the pre-Synodal document reflected Western problems and not theirs. The bishops of Africa highlighted issues such as poverty, witchcraft, cultural customs that consider a marriage valid only after the birth of a child, and “wife inheritance” (when a man dies the community assigns a new husband to his wife).

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos in Nigeria said that “We [Africans] get international organisations, countries, and groups that entice us to deviate from our cultural practices and traditions and even our religious beliefs because they think that their views should be ours, their opinions and their concept of life, should be ours.” He insisted that the continent doesn’t need lectures about reproductive rights, nor does it want supplies of free condoms and artificial contraceptives. “We want food, education, good roads, electricity, and health care.”

Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Durban, speaking on divorce and remarried Catholics receiving communion in an interview with Catholic News Service, stressed that the Church cannot be swayed by the world. Cardinal Napier said that the Church has to hold to the truth about marriage. This means that those who are divorced, he said, have to “carry their cross” and, like Jesus, take what comes. He said that there was no easy way out for Jesus and therefore, for married people who find themselves in impossible situations, there might also be no easy way out. Cardinal Napier highlighted the difficulty of polygamy. He made a distinction between “successive polygamy” (someone who is married, divorced and remarried) and “simultaneous polygamy” and asked where the Church is going to have to draw the line because in essence, he said, it is quite difficult to tell the difference. “The Church has hard choices to make”, Cardinal Napier said.

Although the Synod, in just a week, covered much ground, it seems there were a few gaps. Little was reported on any in-depth discussion of global factors that impact on family life such as economic, geo-political, and social problems. In supporting family life, for example, could the global Church not lobby governments where there are economic, geo-political, and social problems? In Africa, as another example, migration has a huge impact on family life – this seemed mostly absent from the discourse.

It may also have been good to have not just married couples addressing the Synod but also divorced people, single parents and gay people. These are important voices that need to be given the opportunity to speak and be heard if the Synod is going to respond to the issues that families face today in a balanced way. Their absence means that part of the Church has not been heard directly.

Pope Francis has made it clear that he wants to hear the facts on the ground and that he wants the Church to respond to concrete situations rather than impose ideals from above that circumstances make difficult or even impossible to attain. The real world is a messy one that calls for a great deal of humility and the willingness to acknowledge that life and relationships are complicated.

This week the Synod continues. The delegates will break into smaller working groups to prepare documents and recommendations on a number of things that have been discussed and debated in the last week. There is no way that this Synod will solve the multifaceted problems that face the Church with regards to family life today and what the Church teaches and believes. But hopefully the Synod will initiate a broader conversation in the Church about family life. Senior Vatican analyst, Fr Thomas Reese SJ, suggests that maybe this Synod will help the Church see that there are no simple solutions for the today’s family crisis.

Hopefully, in the week ahead, the clearly divided camps – one that sees the issues around marriage and family as unchangeable, revealed truths, and the other that recognises the need for a pastoral response and, perhaps, a doctrinal review – will take time to critically evaluate their own positions and listen more carefully to each other.

The greatest test of Francis’ desire for open and frank discussion on real issues might well be the ability of the two opposing views to find common ground. Watch this space. DM

Photo: Pope Francis looks at statue representing a family on the occasion of the opening of the Extraordinary Family Synod in the Synod Hall, Vatican City, 06 October 2014. EPA/CLAUDIO PERI / POOL


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