World, Life, etc

Family Synod: Who will actually be heard?

By Russell Pollitt 18 October 2015

The second week of the Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome has come to an end. It’s been an interesting week. On Monday a private letter written to the pope and signed by a number of senior cardinals, was leaked to the press. The letter outlined concern and unhappiness over how the pope was managing the synod. What it blatantly revealed is the divisions between the bishops and the push back against Pope Francis’s vision of the church. By RUSSELL POLLITT.

It’s not surprising that some of the bishop delegates present at the Synod on the Family in Rome feel a bit unsure of things. Pope Francis changed the way ‘things have always been done’ at Synods. There are a number of bishops who have been to more than one synod and so change doesn’t sit comfortably.

First, the pope made it clear that everyone should feel free to speak their minds about what they thought so that he could hear everyone’s opinion and position. In the past, things were much more tightly controlled and even ‘vetted’ before being delivered publicly. This time, there was no vetting. The new openness under Pope Francis is a new experience for many Catholics. He has attended most of the sessions and sits attentively saying nothing but quite clearly listening intensively and taking notes.

Second, he adapted the methodology of the synod. This time there was much more small-group work. This meant that there was more time for delegates to speak and that, at any given time, they were discussing and analysing focused areas and not the whole range of issues the synod is looking at. One senior cardinal said he found this very good and much more doable. In the past they would listen to 300 or more interventions before any discussion happened. Then the discussion would tackle many issues at once. Now that things are segmented it’s “much more focused and doable”, the cardinal said. Some of the groups have worked well; others have been a battle between so-called progressive and conservative ideologies.

The letter that was written to the pope by senior cardinals was about process. The narrative behind it, however, seems to be the fear that, in the new method, the deck has been stacked in the favour of progressives. There was a story doing the rounds on the streets of Rome that a conservative coalition was lobbying some bishops to stage a walkout to show their disapproval of where things are heading at the synod. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is palpable fear in some circles that the pope is being pushed by a progressive lobby to change things – most especially on the question of divorce, re-marriage and communion. There has, so far, been no walkout.

The focus this week was on the second part of the working document of the synod, Instrumentum Laboris. The document has itself been controversial. It is based on the content of the extraordinary meeting of the synod in October 2014 and data collected in the interim period. Between the two synods the church did a global survey on issues pertaining to family life. Reports on this survey, from all over the world, were then also included in this text. Some have found the text messy, confusing or not clear enough on doctrine. Others don’t think the text goes far enough and that it is too doctrinally bound. Some have also said that it is too negative.

On Wednesday and Thursday last week, after two days of group work, the delegates returned to the plenary session to report on their discussions in various language groups. It became evident that, for the most part, the lines of battle had been drawn between those who want change in certain practices of the church and those who do not believe the church has the power to change anything. The German-speaking group – where arguably the best theology was taking place – reported a unanimous agreement and a ‘breakthrough’ on issues around mercy and justice. Just what the practical breakthrough is, has still not emerged clearly. The German group is significant in that some of the most conservative and progressive churchmen in the Catholic Church today were all around one table.

Top of the list for media waiting for news from the sessions of the synod is the question of the admission to communion of the divorced and civilly re-married (this question is raised almost daily at the press conferences which report on the synod). The Catholic Church is clear on this matter: those who are divorced and civilly re-married (and who have not been granted an annulment) cannot receive communion. The first union is considered indissoluble. For the sake of clarity: if someone is divorced and not re-married he/she is free to receive communion; it is the second union that is problematic. Some Catholic theologians believe this is discipline, others a doctrine. Some say the church needs to be more merciful, others say that justice is a constituent of mercy, and others say the church has always taught this as a truth revealed by God and therefore it cannot change.

The other big focus area has been language. I think this can be divided into two distinct areas. First, the simplification of the language the church uses to communicate with people. There have been a number of bishops who have agreed that the language is too ‘theological’ or too ‘churchy’. There is a need – in order to speak to people today – to use a language that will be understood, a language that is (for lack of a better word) popularist. Second, there is the issue of using a language this is more positive and inclusive when it comes to issues like homosexuality. A number of bishops find the current language used in the official teaching of the church to be insensitive and lacking.

It has been interesting to observe how the African bishops have positioned themselves. In the meeting last year, the so-called extraordinary assembly of the synod, a number of them suggested that many of the problems that were being discussed were ‘Western’ and not ‘African’. This time round the African bishops have certainly had a voice. Many of them have presented interventions in the plenary sessions and have also enjoyed extensive media coverage. Their views are emerging more strongly (and sometimes quite negatively) than they have before. A number of issues they speak of have been on the agenda.

One African bishop, for example, said that divorce and re-marriage was not an issue in Africa, polygamy was. Polygamy – and how one handles this with regard to Christian teaching – has certainly been spoken of a number of times. Some of the African bishops have suggested that these types of issues be dealt with on a local level in the context in which they are an issue. This has put the spotlight on another tension: the tension between the local and the universal. Some of the bishops clearly think that dealing with this locally makes more sense, others are very suspicion of this and would prefer to see them dealt with centrally – which is code for in Rome.

A great majority of African bishops have also made their view on homosexuality clear: they believe in the dignity of the human person but they do no support a change in the approach of the church to this issue.

The African bishops have also brought important things to the table, which, unfortunately, have not been picked up on as strongly as they should have been. These, for many, would be the key issues that are having a negative impact on family life in Africa and other parts of the world. They include things like the devastating effect of the migrant labour system on families and individuals, poverty, and war. It’s interesting to note that although vague mention is made of political situations, not one African bishop has stood up and said that many of these situations are caused by despotic leaders on the continent. There has simply been silence when it comes to dictators and tyrants.

The African bishops find allies in bishops from the Middle East and Eastern Europe – many of the concerns they raise are similar. Migration has come up over and over again – often linked to the current crisis in Europe. One of the African bishops remarked that places like Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa have become home to many refugees and migrants over a long period so the huge issue in Europe is one that is, in a sense, ‘old’ for Africa.

Some of the African bishops have been very strong on what they have termed ‘ideological colonisation’. They have condemned countries and aid agencies that have agreed to grant aid on condition that, for example, certain legislation is passed such as that abortion or things like artificial contraception are made widely available. Some of the bishops have said that pressure from the outside world on issues like homosexuality or population control in Africa is unjust. One of them, from North Africa, said Africa is developing and the world should be “patient with Africa because it takes a long time for attitudes that are deeply embedded in cultures to evolve”.

Another theme for the African bishops was that ‘family’ has a very different meaning in Africa to the West. In the Western world marriages are essentially between two individuals and are private family affairs. In Africa marriage is between two families and it is essentially a communal celebration in which the broader social context is not only invited but intimately involved.

Where is it all heading? Despite the fact that many critics of the Catholic Church will dismiss this synod and the church itself, we have to acknowledge a fact: in the lives of billions of people, the Catholic Church, and what it teaches, is taken seriously and therefore has impact on the way people choose to live their lives. Many of those are good people doing good things. Also, for millions of people, the church provides education, healthcare and other social services that, for the most part, are of good quality. In South Africa many people benefit from good church schools and medical facilities – because of the failure of the government to provide these now but also, in the dark days of apartheid, when the government would not do this for the majority of the population, the church did. So, to simply dismiss this synod would be naïve.

The synod has shown that divisions exist within the hierarchy – some sharp divisions. But the synod has also shown that in many places a lot of good work is being done on different levels to help ordinary people who are trying to raise and provide for their families – families in many different forms.

As the synod enters its final week, the delegates – bishops and lay men and women from around the world – will have to decide on some key issues for action so that they can advise the pope, who will ultimately decide on the way forward. Key to this will be universal disciplines like the admission of the divorced and civilly remarried to communion, the role and place of women in the church (which has also been mentioned a significant amount of times), whether or not the church will consider lifting the ban on artificial birth control (there have been some impassioned pleas for this), and things like how the Vatican’s diplomatic machine can use its muscle to intervene in situations like Syria, where the situation is dire for many families and minority groups.

Then there are also issues like subsidiarity. Will the Vatican give more power to local bishops’ conferences? Will, for example, the complex system of traditional marriage, polygamy and marriage between Christians and peoples of other faiths be dealt with and legislated on in contexts where these are most prevalent? It is simply unreasonable, some argue, to expect a centralised power without real knowledge of the situation, to decide on some of these issues. Some decisions can do further damage to relations between Christians and people of other faiths in contexts where Christianity is the minority religion. It is also clear that there should be a lot more work done on the distinction between discipline, doctrine and pastoral practice. Sometimes it seems as if many things that people disagree on, like subsidiarity, are thrown into the ‘eternally unchangeable’ camp.

The biggest test of the final week will be to see if the delegates can see beyond their own concerns (and political persuasions) to make concrete proposals for the good of human beings in all their different family situations. Pope Francis has urged, over and over, that this synod be a place of real listening. The report due at the end of this week will tell us what and who the delegates actually heard. DM

Photo: Pope Francis (C) speaks during the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops at Paul VI Hall, Vatican, 17 October 2015. The Synod of Bishops, running from 04 to 25 October, discusses Catholic positions on controversial subjects such as divorce and homosexuality. EPA/GIUSEPPE LAMI

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