Frank Brennan SJ. The Vatican Synod has let the genie out of the bottle.  Deo Gratias

Let there be no doubt.  There is change, and a great deal of uncertainty, in the air in Rome.  And it is not just coming from Pope Francis.  The Catholic Church retaining some of the attributes of a royal court in its mode of governance provides its senior prelates with every opportunity to emulate the tone and substance of the remarks and the ambiguity of approach of the one they call “the Holy Father”.  The Pope has the opportunity even when convening a synod of 190 bishops to handpick those who steer the synod process, write the minutes and manage the media statements to the world.  On Monday, Cardinal Peter Erdo, the chief reporter (general rapporteur) of the Synod on the Family released the ‘relatio post disceptionem’ after the first week of the Synod.  This is not a final text.  It is simply a working document “intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches” in the year ahead.

The document shows the way things are going, and that way is very different from any dictated path approved by the late St John Paul II and simplistically reaffirmed by those prelates who say they too like mercy but prefer the indisputable teachings of Jesus.   The document, which starts with a section on “listening: the context and challenges to the family” before then describing “the gaze on Christ: the Gospel of the family”, lacks the judgmental certainty of the past and displays the moral ambiguity of any pastoral approach which is truly attentive to the complexity, and often the mess, of families and human relationships.  The starting point is a vision of the Church not as the pure bride of Christ armed with the magisterium but as the people of God hungry for food, seeking forgiveness with the words at the Eucharist: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, say but the word and my soul shall be healed.”  We all come to the table of the banquet as sinners seeking mercy, forgiveness and the bread of life.  The document espouses “a missionary conversion: it is necessary not to stop at an announcement that is merely theoretical and has nothing to do with people’s real problems”.  A true first for any Vatican document is that it calls for a new sensitivity in grasping the positive reality of civil weddings and of cohabitation.  While continuing to espouse the ideal of sacramental marriage, the prelates say they need also to “indicate the constructive elements in those situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to that ideal”.

Another “first” is the heading in the Vatican document: “Welcoming homosexual persons”.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church composed during the pontificate of John Paul categorically states: The homosexual inclination is “objectively disordered”.  This claim has been constantly restated in Vatican documents for some time.  For example when Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith during John Paul’s papacy, this claim was restated in the CDF’s 2003 document entitled “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons”.  That document also stated that all “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and that this moral judgment is “unanimously accepted by Catholic Tradition”.   This week’s working document from the synod raises some rhetorical and not so rhetorical questions.  Regardless of how these questions are answered in the year ahead, the very posing of the questions shows that the genie is out of the bottle.  The Catholic Tradition as previously declared is no longer unanimously accepted.  Cardinal Erdo who read his text to the assembled prelates and those lay people invited to attend the Synod as non-voting members said: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”  Presumably there is no going back to the Church position that was implacably opposed to accepting and valuing the homosexual orientation on the grounds that the orientation is disordered.  It is high time for some development in the Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.  The synod document puts it nicely: “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.”

Before the Synod, Johan Bonny, the bishop of Antwerp issued a pastoral letter in which he made the observation:

In these last months of preparation for the Synod, I have heard or read the following on numerous occasions: ‘Agreed that the Synod should support greater pastoral flexibility, but it will not be able to touch Church doctrine’.  Some create the impression that the Synod will only be free to speak about the applicability of the Church’s teaching and not about its content.  In my opinion, however, such an antithesis between ‘pastoral care’ and ‘doctrine’ is inappropriate in both theological and pastoral terms and it has no foundation in the tradition of the Church.  Pastoral care has everything to do with doctrine and doctrine has everything to do with pastoral care.  Both will have to be dealt with during the Synod if the Church wants to open new avenues towards the evangelisation of marriage and family life in today’s society.

There is plenty of work to be done over the next year as local churches reflect on the pastoral and doctrinal questions finally unleashed in Rome this last week.  Many of the 41 prelates who responded immediately to this document did express fears and concerns we are told.  But it is only by acknowledging that the genie is out of the bottle and that there is a need for a comprehensive rethink by the Catholic Church on its teaching about marriage, sexuality, and reception of the Eucharist that we as Church will be able to “offer a meaningful word of hope” – this being the task the Synod Fathers have allocated themselves in the year ahead.   As a Church we have clung to judgmental certainty for too long in the face of people’s every day searching for love, mercy, forgiveness and the food of life.  Now is the time for all Catholics to share “the courage of the faith and the humble and honest welcome of the truth in charity” for all persons approaching the table of the banquet.


Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia and the Rector of Newman.

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7 Responses to Frank Brennan SJ. The Vatican Synod has let the genie out of the bottle.  Deo Gratias

  1. Avatar Ferruccio says:

    Re: The eucharist. Many things must be said in this regard. One of which stand clear in my mind that it is The Gift to the Church. All of us who receive the Gift must say: Lord I am not worthy. And God is the giver in every case. Also: This Gift causes Unity. and so becomes the Sign of Unity within the Church.

  2. Avatar Frank Brennan says:

    The 8,000 word “relation” from the Synod has now been published in Italian. The Vatican has also released the voting figures on each paragraph in the interests of transparency and future dialogue in preparation for the next gathering in a year’s time. At the end of the Synod, Pope Francis gave a heartening speech in which he said: “I can happily say that – with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality – we have truly lived the experience of “Synod,” a path of solidarity, a “journey together.”
    And it has been “a journey” – and like every journey there were moments of running fast, as if wanting to conquer time and reach the goal as soon as possible; other moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say “enough”; other moments of enthusiasm and ardour. There were moments of profound consolation listening to the testimony of true pastors, who wisely carry in their hearts the joys and the tears of their faithful people. Moments of consolation and grace and comfort hearing the testimonies of the families who have participated in the Synod and have shared with us the beauty and the joy of their married life. A journey where the stronger feel compelled to help the less strong, where the more experienced are led to serve others, even through confrontations. And since it is a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned:
    – One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
    – The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
    – The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
    – The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
    – The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…
    Dear brothers and sisters, the temptations must not frighten or disconcert us, or even discourage us, because no disciple is greater than his master; so if Jesus Himself was tempted – and even called Beelzebul (cf. Mt 12:24) – His disciples should not expect better treatment.
    Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace. Instead, I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parresia. And I have felt that what was set before our eyes was the good of the Church, of families, and the “supreme law,” the “good of souls” (cf. Can. 1752). And this always – we have said it here, in the Hall – without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48).
    And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.
    The is the Church, our Mother! And when the Church, in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err: it is the beauty and the strength of the sensus fidei, of that supernatural sense of the faith which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that, together, we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our life. And this should never be seen as a source of confusion and discord.
    Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.
    And, as I have dared to tell you , [as] I told you from the beginning of the Synod, it was necessary to live through all this with tranquillity, and with interior peace, so that the Synod would take place cum Petro and sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter), and the presence of the Pope is the guarantee of it all.”

  3. Avatar Frank Brennan says:

    Today’s 1,500 word message released at the end of the Synod reads more like a preamble to a more substantive document. It contains a few poetic images speaking of the light and shadow in homes along the streets of our cities, the evening light behind the windowpanes in the houses of the cities, and the mountainous trek with hardships and falls. It contains words of spiritual encouragement. It does not deal with any of the contested issues raised in the 5,600 word relatio released on Monday. The closest it gets is to say that “we have reflected on how to accompany those who have been divorced and remarried and on their participation in the sacraments.” The issues causing divisions over doctrinal-pastoral approaches are completely omitted.

  4. Avatar John Edwards says:

    Perhaps we may even add a new principle lex vivendi, lex credendi to the existing: lex orandi, lex credendi!

  5. Avatar Frank Brennan says:

    Elsewhere I have seen reference to a translation error in the English translation of the section of the Synod Report on homosexual relationships. The published English version was: “Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?” In the Italian original, the phrase translated as “accepting and valuing” is accettando e valutando: “accepting and evaluating” or “accepting and weighing.”

  6. Avatar Graham English says:

    The genie has been out of the bottle since 1968. It is now maybe that the attempts to push him back in might have ceased.

  7. Avatar Lynne Newington says:

    I was taken up with the participation of a married couple a Catholic and a Muslim, the Muslim husband keeping his own belief while promising to allow the chidren to be baptised as Catholics.
    Irresspective of how much they love each other, I doubt very much he would permit the invasion of their bedroom, in relation to contraception.
    And I ponder on the feelings on The Trads if the rules change too much, stuggling to rear their children on the concepts they were brought up on in relation to mortal sin…..

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