Frank Brennan SJ. The genie may be out of the bottle but it is still in the ecclesiastical kitchen.Nov 2, 2014
The Vatican has now released the official English translation of the “relatio synodi”, the concluding document from the Synod of Bishops convened by Pope Francis to consider “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelisation”. (http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2014/10/18/0770/03044.html)
In my last post (https://johnmenadue.com/blog/?p=2565), I dealt with an earlier document, the “relation post disceptationem” which was the punchy and slightly provocative discussion paper put together by Pope Francis’s small hand-picked group charged with putting the issues for discussion on the table.
That document indicated a novel acceptance of some “constructive elements” of couples living together without marriage, of the need to welcome homosexuals into the life of the Church, and of the possibility of admitting divorced and remarried people to the Eucharist. The Synod fathers agreed that they wanted to “offer a meaningful word of hope” to the Church. I said previously that they needed to acknowledge “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”.
The relatio synodi is much more than a discussion paper. It is a lengthy committee job cobbling together the many different strands of discussion over the two weeks of the synod. Each of the 62 paragraphs was separately voted on by the 180 bishops in attendance who voted. It does not put the genie back in the bottle, but it does revert to much of the old style Vaticanese, trying to confine the genie to the episcopal kitchen. What’s refreshing is that unlike synod documents published during the last two papacies, this one actually reflects the divisions and differing perspectives. We are even given the voting figures on each paragraph.
Also published today is the official translation of Pope Francis’s closing remarks at the Synod in which he speaks of “moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations”. He lists the “temptation to hostile inflexibility” which is “the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called traditionalists and also of the intellectuals”. Then crossing to the other side of the street, he speaks of the temptation to practise “a deceptive mercy (which) binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.” This is “the temptation of the ‘do-gooders’, of the fearful, and also of the so-called ‘progressives’ and ‘liberals’”. All types were inside the Vatican tent last week and acknowledged as such. But this is still a synod only of bishops – celibate males talking about family life. Even though they have been attentive to some married people invited into their midst, they alone get to vote; they alone shape the final document.
This is all a work in progress. All sides of the hierarchy have put their views, and their views are reflected or at least hinted at in this latest document. The Synod fathers are to reconvene in Rome in a year’s time. Their relatio synodi is “intended to raise questions and indicate points of view which will later be developed and clarified through reflection in the local Churches in the intervening year”. Those reflections must not be restricted just to bishops or clergy.
The drafters have done a reasonable job given that all paragraphs attracted majority support, with only three paragraphs attracting less than 2/3 support. Those three paragraphs indicate the real neuralgic points of discussion. They were: the paragraph about the community’s care for the divorced and remarried being an expression of the community’s charity and not a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; the paragraph requesting further theological reflection on the options of “spiritual communion” or full sacramental communion for the divorced and remarried; and a very clunky paragraph packed with old CDF terminology on “pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual tendencies”, abandoning any talk of welcome for committed gays who give mutual aid and precious support to each other.
The relatio synodi follows the basic outline of the original relatio post disceptationem with three parts on listening, looking, and facing the situation. Listening to the context and challenges of the family in the first part, the Synod fathers (with no sense of irony or embarrassment) when reviewing the socio-cultural context, highlight the positive aspect of “a greater freedom of expression and a better recognition of the rights of women and children, at least in some part of the world”. Dare one add: “at least in some institutions and in some churches”? They speak also of the importance of affectivity in life and relationships.
Looking at Christ and the Gospel of the Family, they move in the second part from Jesus in the history of salvation to the family as part of God’s salvific plan. These deft scriptural surveys are followed by a treatment of the family in Church documents including the 1968 encyclical on birth control Humanae Vitae which is unquestioningly espoused twice in the course of this document. The bulk of this second part is devoted to the indissolubility of marriage, the truth and beauty of the family, and mercy towards broken families.
The third part is where the rubber hits the road. The fathers set out pastoral perspectives on “facing the situation”. They display considerable pastoral sensitivity and deep learning on caring for couples preparing for marriage, couples in the initial years of marriage, couples civilly married or living together, and broken families. But there is no consensus on what to do about the eucharist for the divorced and remarried. And for the moment the welcome mat for gays has been put back in the closet. Then comes what undoubtedly some Synod fathers will think to be a prophetic, counter-cultural discussion on “the transmission of life and the challenges of a declining birthrate”. Living in a world of 7.2 billion people, and constantly meeting young couples who will try anything including IVF to have a child, I would have liked to have seen some treatment of these sorts of issues under this curious heading. Given the soundings that the Synod fathers took with their questionnaire before the Synod, I am staggered that they have said that “we should return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births”.
We never saw the results of the Australian questionnaire before the Synod. But I have no reason to think it would be all that much different from the German response:
In most cases where the Church’s teaching is known, it is only selectively accepted. The idea of the sacramental marriage covenant, which encompasses faithfulness and exclusivity on the part of the spouses and the transmission of life, is normally accepted by people who marry in Church. Most of the baptised enter into marriage in the expectation and hope of concluding a bond for life. The Church’s statements on premarital sexual relations, on homosexuality, on those divorced and remarried, and on birth control, by contrast, are virtually never accepted, or are expressly rejected in the vast majority of cases.
We all have our work cut out for us in the next year if this Synod is be truly reflective of the life experience and faith-filled hope of those who commit themselves to making a go of bringing Christ to the world through their work, their commitments to each other, and their children. For the moment, I would not see much pastoral point in sharing this document with the many young people I know who are living together, or with those who are gay or lesbian seeking a homecoming in the Church, or with those who have endured the pain of divorce and the moral angst of remarriage. I think I will be telling them to keep the door open, wait a while, and check back in a year to see how we are going. Francis still has a lot of work ahead of him, and so does the Holy Spirit. It would be a good start if all bishops’ conferences were to follow the lead of the Germans and publish the results of the original questionnaire. After all if we can have the voting results on each paragraph of an interim Synod document on the family, why not some indication of what family members are saying to their lordships in good faith and with open hearts?