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.