Monday, October 26, 2015

The Grand Finale of Week Three of the Family Synod, or Now What?

The Synod on the Family's final act has concluded, and we can all relax. Or can we? Contrary to widespread concerns (or hopes), the Synod final report did not recommend a change to well-settled Church doctrine. Fortunately, we dodged that bullet. But we still don't know what Pope Francis plans to do next. My take on the Synod's final week.

1. Worldwide Smack-down: Africa vs. Germany, Round Two

Although probably the most well-known of the African bishops, 82-year-old Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria did not participate directly in the Synod on the Family. Nonetheless, in interviews with the press, Cardinal Arinze eloquently articulated the African position.

On the joy of being a Christian: "Christianity is good news in Africa. Young people commit themselves with serious sacrifice to Christianity."

On inviting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Holy Communion: "We cannot improve on what Christ has said. We cannot be wiser than him, or say that 'there is a circumstance he did not foresee.' We cannot be more merciful than Christ. We must look for a way to help the divorced who are remarried, [but] we don’t help them by saying, 'Come and receive Holy Communion.'”

On decentralization of doctrine: "Are you going to tell me that we can have a national bishops’ conference in one country that would approve something which, in another conference, would be seen as sin? Is sin going to change according to national borders? ... It looks dangerously like nationalizing right and wrong."

Meanwhile, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany was reduced to taking potshots at more conservative bishops like Cardinal George Pell of Australia, who framed the debate over communion as a clash between supporters of Germany's Cardinal Kasper and followers of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Cardinal Marx publicly accused Cardinal Pell of being unhelpful and contradicting the Synod's spirit of cooperation. Cardinal Pell's spokesman responded that he was “delighted to learn that Marx has explained that there’s no contrast between the Kasper camp and Benedict XVI,” calling it “a welcome surprise.”

My vote: Germany loses. Thumbs up.

2. No Skipping School

A group of concerned Catholics began circulating a petition urging Synod participants who support the Church's unchanging doctrine to walk out in protest. The petition garnered more than 2,000 signatures. General public response viewed the petition as in somewhat bad taste and unlikely to accomplish anything. Ultimately, no one walked out on the Synod.

My vote: Thumbs down on the petition.

3. Pope Francis' Closing Speech Both Comforts and Disturbs

Many have questioned Pope Francis' decision to watch Synod combatants duking it out without intervening. The Pope explained himself well in his closing speech, delivered October 24:
Certainly, the Synod was not about settling all the issues having to do with the family, but rather attempting to see them in the light of the Gospel .... 
Surely it was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family, but rather ... carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand....
It was about showing the vitality of the Catholic Church, which is not afraid to stir dulled consciences or to soil her hands with lively and frank discussions about the family.....
The different opinions which were freely expressed – and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways – certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue; they offered a vivid image of a Church which does not simply “rubberstamp."

One good thing to result from the Synod is that everyone's cards are now on the table. Second-hand stories of priests who have knowingly admitted the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion have circulated for years, despite this action being specifically prohibited by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Now, the open secret is not-so secret any more.

Pope Francis' closing speech also included some encouraging words about appreciating "the importance of the institution of the family and of marriage between a man and a woman, based on unity and indissolubility, and valuing it as the fundamental basis of society and human life." But the speech included some disturbing language as well.

Pope Francis sharply criticized those who turned the Gospel into "dead stones to be hurled at others" and those with "closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to ... judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families." I'm not sure who he's talking about, but I don't think it's the Germans.

Pope Francis also indicated that he favors some type of different treatment on a country-by-country basis, bringing up echoes of doctrinal decentralization:
apart from dogmatic questions clearly defined by the Church’s Magisterium – we have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied.

The two most hotly debated issues at the Synod -- civil remarriage and homosexuality -- both seem to be "clearly defined by the Church's Magisterium." Which begs the question of what else could Pope Francis possibly be talking about, or how narrow is his conception of  "clearly defined."

My vote: I'm still nervous.

4. Synod's Final Report: Yay?

The Synod fathers voted on the drafting committee's final report during the evening of October 24. The good news is that all paragraphs passed by the required two-thirds majority and none of them flatly contradicted Church doctrine. The bad news is, like most writing produced by committees, it's hard to understand what they mean. As the New York Times reported, "the document ... was so carefully worded that it was immediately open to competing interpretations and allowed both the conservative and liberal flanks in the church to claim victory."

Paragraph 76 on homosexuality strongly rejected same-sex marriage while emphasizing the dignity and respect due to all persons and the need to accompany and support people with gay family members. Paragraph 84 on the divorced and civilly remarried called for greater inclusion and integration. Paragraphs 85 and 86 focused on discernment, conscience, and priestly assistance in forming "a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church" by the divorced and civilly remarried. The possibility of Holy Communion was not specifically mentioned.

Of course, the issue has never really been what the final report says. The issue is what will Pope Francis do next. After the 2014 Synod, where many bishops expressed a desire for annulment reform, the Pope created a special commission that led to his amending canon law on his own initiative this past September. The pope has created a new Vatican office merging the existing pontifical councils for laity and family and the Vatican’s bioethics think tank. In addition, the pope may answer calls by some Synod fathers to create a commission to study the question of the divorced and civilly remarried.

My vote: It ain't over yet. Stay tuned.

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


  1. I'm still a new Catholic convert so the whole synod process has been very interesting to me. Sometimes I find myself falling for the hype and the drama, then I listen to older, wiser Catholics and realize, it'll be alright in the end. That's the beauty of the Catholic Church, her timelessness. Thanks for helping to educate me!

    1. Congrats and welcome to the family! Right after I converted, the sex abuse scandal hit. My family asked me if I regretted my decision. I told them that the scandal doesn't erase all that the Catholic Church has been and done for the last 2,000 years. It's always good to take the long view!

  2. I've been finding the whole debate, particularly the take that secular media in GB take on it (they are never a friend of Christianity never mind Catholicism) quite interesting. Maybe I am being naive but should we not be looking at where Christ is victorious in all this and not conservatives and liberals? If these two factions were in the crowd when a woman was caught in the act of adultery I firmly believe they would be throwing stones at one another and Christ would be shaking his head. The question that I believe that should have been addressed regarding Holy Communion is why the vast majority of Catholics firmly believe that divorced Catholics who are not remarried are not allowed to come forward for Holy Communion?

    1. Throwing stones at each other -- hilarious! The question of divorced and not remarried Catholics is a serious one. The Catechism (2384-2385) states that divorce is a grave offense and immoral. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. "If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense" (2383) and "It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law" (2386). So, depending on the circumstances, divorce or spousal abandonment can be sinful and could thus bar the person from Holy Communion. But in many cases, particularly for abandoned spouses, it would not be sinful and they could receive communion.

  3. Totally agree regarding Holy Communion and divorced Catholics. Throwing stones comment is due to my exasperation with the whole conservative/liberal thing!