Life, etc, World

Family Synod: Why the Catholic Church will not be the same again

By Russell Pollitt 1 November 2015

After two years of work a highly anticipated meeting of Catholic bishops came to an end in Rome last Sunday. The bishops met for three weeks to study and discuss the Church’s response and responsibility in promoting and facilitating family life. Some were relieved that there were no big changes, others disappointed as they had hoped that the Catholic Church would change its position on a number of hot-button issues. Was there any point to the meeting and the entire two-year process? By RUSSELL POLLITT.

A final document called a ‘Relatio’ was voted on paragraph by paragraph at the end of the Synod. Each paragraph needed a two-thirds majority vote in order to be included in the final document. There were ninety-four paragraphs. One paragraph, #85, the one that deals with the admission of the divorced and civilly re-married to communion, made the two-thirds majority by only one vote. The paragraph also suggests that local bishops should be given more jurisdiction to make decisions on questions like this. This paragraph, more than any other, will continue to cause heated debate in the Catholic Church. Many people might judge the Synod by the way it dealt (or did not deal with) this issue.

During the first sitting of the Synod in 2014, a number of hot-button issues caused robust debate and public disagreement between senior Church personnel. Among these were the questions of access to communion for the divorced, civilly re-married, and homosexuality. A year later these issues continued to be flash points. Some of the delegates wanted to see a change in Church practice but others were firmly against this. This, it seems, resulted in a much more cautious text at the end of this Synod.

The text we have been given this year may be a much clearer indication of where many of the Catholic bishops of the world really are; they are generally conservative, and have difficulty with the direction in which Pope Francis wants to take the Church. Some are even openly hostile. It also showed that many bishops have allowed the fanaticism of the American Church, the so-called “cultural wars”, to dominate main stream Catholic debate.

It was striking to notice how many prelates at the meeting were more worried about doctrinal issues than pastoral care. Pope Francis has appealed over and over for a Church that cares and is merciful, but it seemed as if some of the delegates just do not understand him. It also meant that a number of very important issues which have a direct impact on millions of families around the world, issue like migration, war, poverty, political instability, did not get the attention they needed. They were drowned out by the anxiety around doctrine pertaining to the divorced and civilly re-married, and homosexuality.

A number of the bishops had different understandings of doctrine. Some think it is set in concrete, others think it is much more dynamic and therefore open to development. Some came to Rome set on defending timeless tradition; others came to find ways of being more pastorally responsive to families in the contemporary world.

If you were, therefore, to judge the Synod on two single issues, opening up communion for the divorced and re-married, and whether there is a change in the Church’s view on homosexuality, you would be disappointed. Neither looks likely anytime soon.

To clarify: the position of the Church is that without an annulment, Catholics who are divorced cannot re-marry in the Church. If a person does re-marry, the second union is not recognised by the Church. On the issue of homosexuality the Church teaches that homosexuality, as an orientation, is not problematic. The Church acknowledges that some people have a homosexual orientation, and demands that all people are treated with dignity irrespective of sexual orientation. However the Church condemns any physical expression of homosexuality.

It would be a mistake, however, to judge the synod on these two criteria alone. There were a number of significant shifts that took place which were important, and mark a new era in the Catholic Church.

First and foremost is the fact that nothing was taboo at this synod. In previous similar gatherings delegates were told what they could and could not speak about. This time around there were no taboo subjects. It is probably the first time in many decades that delegates at a synod were able to speak freely and honestly about their position on some of the most divisive issues in modern Catholicism.

This new freedom, encouraged strongly by Pope Francis, is a big step forward in the Church and should not be underestimated. At previous meetings of this level, interventions by bishops had to, at times, be vetted by Vatican officials before they could be delivered in plenary sessions. This time there was no vetting. The atmosphere of openness led to public disagreement amongst some of the bishops. This is also significant because presenting a united front was just the way things always had to be. The new freedom and openness led to a healthier atmosphere of debate. The need to agree was much less significant and prelates openly disagreed with each other.

Second, Pope Francis changed the methodology of this synod. The delegates worked in small groups to allow maximum participation. The small group process allowed many more people to have input on particular subjects. This too is significant. In the past long plenary sessions were held in which interventions were made on issues, but there was never much time for discussion. The small group methodology encouraged discussion, and at the end many of the delegates said that this was a much more effective way of proceeding.

Pope Francis also wanted the whole Church to be consulted in the process that led up to the synod. This has not been done in recent history. The Catholic Church throughout the world was asked to conduct a survey, and the material from this was fed into the synod. Openness and discussion were very much part of the methodology of the Second Vatican Council which brought a seismic shift to Catholicism. Pope John Paul II discouraged open discussion; Francis has tried to recapture the vigour and spirit of the debates that energised the Church in the sixties.

The third significant thing is that groups that previously did not seem to say much took the platform at this synod. The African bishops, for example, had often complained that Western concerns and agendas dominated meetings. This time round the Africans certainly had lots of airtime. They brought issues like polygamy, migration and poverty to the table.

A number of them also favoured a more decentralised approach to issues that could be dealt with locally. They did dismiss questions, like the divorced and re-married having access to communion and homosexuality, as things of lesser importance and urgency in Africa. They were very strong on what they termed “ideological colonisation” and cited the example of countries (or aid agencies) that offer help, but insist on the acceptance of certain ideologies in exchange for the aid. An example of this was United States President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Kenya, when he pressured the Kenyan government to put laws about same-sex unions in place. Another example might be an insistence that population control in Africa is a prerequisite for aid. These are controversial issues, but the fact that the African (and Middle Eastern) bishops were vocal, and insistent, is a change. This may indicate that a power and agenda-setting shift is taking place.

Fourthly, the synod revealed that in different contexts the Church faces different challenges and therefore a “one size fits all” approach can no longer work. This hints at the need for a serious discussion on church structure that should question whether or not certain issues should be decentralised. In the previous two papacies the trend was the opposite. John Paul II (and Benedict XVI to some degree) was obsessed with centralised control. The “Rome knows best” approach disempowered local bishops and prescribed ways of proceeding that were ineffective, or at worst, conflictual in some contexts. This synod showed that in different parts of the world varying contexts need specific responses, and that Rome cannot possibly have all the answers.

Fifthly, the document the synod gave Pope Francis at the end, and which some are calling a compromise, gives him a certain amount of manoeuvrability. Given the way that he has proceeded up until now it is not totally inconceivable that the Pope himself might open things up a bit more. His repeated calls for a more inclusive and merciful church, might be prescribed more strongly in the final document, which is called an “Apostolic Exhortation”. After some uncertainty about what exactly Francis intends doing post-synod, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, announced last week that the Pope would indeed write an exhortation.

The last time he wrote an Apostolic Exhortation he did not refer heavily to the material presented to him by the synod. He wrote about what he wanted the Church to hear and practice. He may well use this opportunity to lay open a plan. He not only has the power to do so, but now also the final document, “Relatio”, which gives him the space to do so.

The sixth thing this synod did was move the Catholic Church into a space where it actually acknowledged that the church faced challenges externally and internally. It opened up a space in which deep disagreements were obvious, and they were not swept under the carpet. It opened up a space in which the Church could actually admit that there are problems in the relationship between the Church, its members and the contemporary world. This acknowledgement is important, and points to a shift in the psyche of the Church. Maybe this has been awakened by the so-called “Francis effect”. Time will tell.

Although the bishops have gone home, and some of the prickliest issues have not been resolved, what actually took place was more significant than simply just the issues on the table. The synod opened spaces that had long been shut and allowed engagement within the Church that has not been seen since Vatican II. The cogs grind too slowly for some, but the fact that they are turning, once again, points to something new in an institution that is often accused of being behind the rest of the world, despite its immense influence.

The synod is by no means over and what Pope Francis does next will determine just how far reaching this meeting will actually be. The Church will not be the same after this synod; it simply cannot be. DM

Photo: Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of the XIV Ordinary Meeting of the Synod of Bishops in the Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, 25 October 2015. Pope Francis called for the Synod of Bishops that began on 04 October, to review positions on family issues, including the approach to take towards those who do not fully comply with Catholic ideals of married, faithful, heterosexual and child-bearing unions. EPA/ETTORE FERRARI.

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