Making headlines, to describe the unexpected interim document on the Family Synod that came out of the Vatican on Monday, were things like “A stunning change”, “A Catholic earthquake” and “A bombshell document from the Vatican”. Twitter was abuzz with comments and most major news networks commented on the story. These headlines were followed, hours later, by others that said things such as “Here’s why Church teaching on ‘gay marriage’ did not change today” and “One of the worst documents drafted in Church history!” Some are excited and hopeful; others are clearly disappointed, including South Africa’s Cardinal at the Synod, Wilfrid Napier. By RUSSELL POLLITT.
Has there, in essence, been a significant change in Catholic Church teaching?
On Monday morning the Synod Rapporteur, Cardinal Peter Erdö of Hungary, surprised the Catholic world when he presented the interim document that had been drafted as a summary of what was debated last week during the sessions of the Synod. There certainly was a fresh, open and willing-to-dialogue sentiment that radiated through the document. This was seen most notable in how the Church spoke about people who have been marginalised because of their personal (at times tragic and painful) circumstances. These included divorced and remarried people, gay people and people who were cohabitating.
The document said gay people have “gifts and talents to offer the Christian Community… Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners”. Fr. James Martin SJ, editor-at-large of America, noted: “That any church document would praise same-sex ‘partners’ in any way (and even use the word ‘partners’) is astonishing.”
It was not only the gifts and talents of gay people that were acknowledged. There was a pertinent question posed to the whole Church: “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing them a fraternal space in our communities?” The document does not say that the Church now accepts gay marriage; it says, “The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.”
The 14-page document also addressed other significant issues relating to family life. Addressing birth control it said that the dignity of the human person needs to be respected – and this includes the individual’s personal moral conscience – when evaluating forms of birth control. Addressing cohabitating couples it speaks of the theological principle of “graduality” – the principle that Catholics grow towards adherence or understanding of Church teaching throughout their lives and, therefore, not all at once. The document says, “It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations.”
Concerning divorced and remarried people: “What needs to be respected above all is the suffering of those who have endured separation and divorce unjustly.” People who have been divorced, and families damaged by break-ups, should “… first of all be listened to with respect and love”. The Church should, the document suggests, accompany people who have suffered in relationships and see them as “companions” on the road. There is also a suggestion that those who are divorced may, under the direction of the local bishop, be allowed to partake in the Sacraments of the Church. It states that this should be done “with a clear undertaking in favour of the children”. The annulment process of the Church, it says, should be reformed and several suggestions are made as to how this might be done.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy with what came out of the Synod on Monday. Some Catholics have taken to social media and blogs to express their disappointment. Pro-family Catholic groups have labeled the document “a betrayal of Catholics and family values”.
The UK-based Catholic Herald has slammed the English version of the document and said that those who wrote it should be ashamed. Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, writing in the Herald, says, “… three Cardinals and one Archbishop between them had the task of presenting Catholic teaching to the world, and they mucked it up. They were asked straightforward questions, and they waffled. Princes of the Church are supposed to communicate the truth that the Church teaches, and they failed to do so. I am dumbstruck by their failure.”
South Africa’s Cardinal, Wilfrid Napier of Durban, criticised the document on Tuesday. He said that its message of openness to modern society has put the prelates in “a position that is virtually irredeemable”. Napier says that what was reported in the document is not what is being said at all. “It’s not what we’re saying at all. No matter how we try correcting that… there’s no way of retrieving it.”
Cardinal Napier said that his worry was “that the message has gone out — and it’s not a true message — that this Synod has taken up these positions, and whatever we say hereafter is going to be as if we’re doing some damage control, which is certainly not what is in my mind.”
Napier was asked if the document should be rescinded. He responded:
“That’s rather radical, I think, because the relatio actually has a lot of very good, very good things. It would be like saying, ‘Let’s take back the words that the synod fathers used in the synod hall,’ A lot of it is what was actually said.”
Another prelate who voiced his concerns was Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, Poland. In an interview with Vatican Radio he claimed that the document was not acceptable to many synod fathers. He said that it departed from the theology of John Paul II and reflected an ideology hostile to marriage by seeming to approve of same-sex couples raising children, among other things.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, a Vatican official and head of the Apostolic Signatura, also criticised the work saying that he hopes the document will be set aside completely. He said it “advances positions many Synod Fathers do not accept and, I would say, as faithful shepherds of the flock cannot accept. Clearly, the response to the document in the discussion which immediately followed its presentation manifested that a great number of Synod fathers found it objectionable”.
Has there, in essence, been a change dramatic doctrinal change in the Catholic Church in the last week? The answer is simple: No. There are, however, significant nuances that are important. The Synod document is clearly approaching difficult issues and the complexity of human life from a different lens: not that of law or dogma but through that of mercy. It speaks of marriage but also recognises that people are in other committed relationships – the use of the word ‘partners’ alludes to this. The “softening” of language is important. The suggestion that local bishops should give direction in matters concerning divorce, remarriage and the Sacraments suggests more power will be given to them, indicating a less centralised style of governance – something many in the Church have advocated for in keeping with Vatican II teaching. There is certainly a change in focus: the Church should meet people in the midst of their struggles and first and foremost care about them. Most importantly, perhaps, is the feeling that tricky and painful issues can now be discussed openly, honestly and freely.
Many people have welcomed this seeming new direction in the Church. It has been described as “liberating”, “joyful” and “hopeful”. Some claim this is the “Francis effect” in action. Pope Francis has not said much himself. What he did say has clearly been uncomfortably effective: “… speak boldly and listen with humility.”
At the end of all this we must remember that this is an interim document. It will, no doubt, be revised and amended and a final draft will be released next week. Whatever is released then will be what the bishops take home to be discussed and reflected on around the world before they return to Rome for the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family in October 2015. What will the ‘aftershocks’ of this earthquake be? It all seems very unpredictable at the moment. Time will tell. DM
Photo: Pope Francis speaks on the occasion of the opening of the Extraordinary Family Synod in the Synod Hall, Vatican City, 06 October 2014. Catholic bishops were coming together for a two-week Synod in order to discuss church stances on family-related issues such as marriage, divorce, homosexuality, contraceptives and premarital sex. EPA/CLAUDIO PERI / POOL