Monday, October 12, 2015

Best & Worst of the Synod on the Family's First Week

Last year's Synod on the Family was a nail-biter, and this year's continuation promises to be more of the same. Rewriting it as a drama, I would cast the Synod relator Cardinal Erdö as the well-intentioned but forgettable protagonist, progressive Cardinal Kasper as a villainous modern-day Martin Luther, and Pope Francis as the mysterious mastermind who keeps us guessing until the very end. The first week of the Synod was chock full of both encouraging and disturbing moments. Here's a recap.

1. The Synod's Marching Orders are to "Martyr" a Document

The task of the 2015 Synod is to rewrite the June working document, or instrumentum laboris. Opposition to this document is so strong that one writer called it the execrable instrumentum. Synod bishops have criticized the document for its flawed theology, its overly negative perspective, its incoherent language, and its illogical structure. Cardinal Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, one of the Synod's organizers, said the text “must be ready to be martyred,” and definitely needs revisions. But, as any writer knows, revisions can't fix a document that is irredeemably flawed. And edits by a committee of 270 ecclesial alpha males are unlikely to produce clarity. In my opinion, there is a real danger of "garbage in, garbage out." 

My vote: Thumbs down.

2. Pope Defends Marriage as Permanent Bond Between a Man and a Woman

In his homily during the opening Mass of the Synod, Pope Francis went back to the beginning -- to the natural marriage of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. “This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self,” Pope Francis said.

He also preached on Jesus' famous prohibition of divorce from the Gospel of Mark:
They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.’ So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mk 10:4-9).
The Church's mission, according to Francis, is to defend "the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously." Pope Francis' words were somewhat undercut by a leaked comment by a Cardinal suggesting that the pope be "more merciful like Moses” rather than Jesus. But my money is on Francis following Jesus.

My vote: Thumbs up.

3. Cardinal Erdö Declares Communion Not Possible for Divorced and Remarried

In his role as the Synod's General Relator, Cardinal Erdö of Hungary got the first word. His opening address declared the issue of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried to be non-negotiable. The cardinal explained that divorced people whose first marriage has not been declared null by the Church are in a state of continuing adultery if they remarry. Adultery is a grave sin, and people who have committed grave sin simply cannot receive the Holy Eucharist (unless they repent in sacramental confession and resolve not to sin again). “The integration of the divorced and remarried in the life of the ecclesial community can take many forms, [but it] is different from admission to the Eucharist,” he said.

The very next day, however, Italian Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli publicly announced that “the question" of communion for the divorced and remarried "is still open.” Certainly, the Synod bishops are still discussing it. Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge estimates that the Synod bishops are 65% against and 35% for admitting the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion. Synod General Relator Cardinal Erdö clearly cannot control the end result. But he gets points for raising the issue and stating his position as clearly, bluntly, and forcefully as possible.

My vote: Thumbs up.

4. The Church is In Danger of Decentralization

One idea for resolving contentious debates among churchmen is to move authority to the local bishops' conferences and let them decide as they will. Surprisingly, Archbishop Coleridge estimates that the Synod bishops are evenly split on the wisdom of that proposal. At first blush, this proposal flies in the face of the catholicity (meaning universality) of the Church. As Catholics have said for centuries, "Roma locuta, causa finita,"or "Rome has spoken; the matter is finished." The saying derives from statements made by St. Augustine in the fifth century, supporting the primacy of the pope over the local bishops.

The primacy of the pope to resolve disputes can be traced to the role of Peter described in the New Testament Book of the Acts of the Apostles. When people in the early Church argued over whether Gentiles could be baptized into the Christian faith, Peter reported that he had a vision from God, showing him through the Holy Spirit that the circumcised and uncircumcised should both be received without distinction (Acts 10 & 11). When the factions heard Peter speak, "they were silenced" (Acts 11:18). Peter did not leave the dispute unsettled.

Allowing local bishops' councils to decide the issue of communion for the divorced and remarried would give the Vatican's tacit approval to the German bishops' June 2014 resolution to admit the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion. This resolution was passed in advance of last year's Synod despite the clear prohibitions earlier stated in the authoritative encyclicals of St. John Paul II. Decentralization would thus be a huge win for the faction led by Cardinal Kasper and an unprecedented power shift.

My vote: Thumbs down.

Stay tuned for the drama of the second week!

Canva graphic created with image by Andreas Tille (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Thanks. I haven't been keeping up with the Synod and this helps.

  2. It's a lot to keep up with. Glad I could help!