Midterm report marks shift in pastoral tone

From the frenzied reactions of delight and fury on social media, it was obvious that the extraordinary Synod of Bishops had done something unexpected. The cause was an unlikely one: the interim summary report of their discussions, a 58-paragraph relatio post disceptationem, or “post-discussion report,” a provisional snapshot of a week’s intense but good-natured debates about marriage and family. 

There was a shift. Even if not quite the “earthquake” that some were describing it, the document revealed a significant change in the way the Church thinks about and approaches questions of marriage and sexuality, moving her in the direction of a far more missionary and pastoral stance, in line with Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). It is a shift some fear will sacrifice clarity of witness, yet one the synod sees as embodying Jesus’ true teaching. The morning of the relatio’s publication, Pope Francis in the Casa Santa Marta chapel noted how the guardians of doctrine in Jesus’ time had become “closed in on themselves,” forgetting that the law was not an end in itself but designed to lead to God.  

Pastoral document

The shift was captured by the image of a torchlight being carried in and among the crowd, rather than beaming from high on a hill. Rather than an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it teaching of the truth about marriage and family, the relatio called for the Church to engage people where they were, discerning the seeds of good in arrangements that fell short of sacramental marriage. “What rang out clearly in the synod was the necessity for courageous pastoral choices,” the document notes, adding that it sensed “an urgent need for new pastoral paths, that begin with the effective reality of familial fragilities, recognizing that they, more often than not, are more ‘endured’ than freely chosen.” Elsewhere the document said it was necessary “to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations.” 

In language strongly reminiscent of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, which recognized seeds of truth outside the Church, the relatio calls for the Church to discern carefully what is of God in so-called “irregular” unions. “It is the task of the Church to recognize those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries,” it notes, adding that the Church appreciates “the positive values” in “those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way.”

The document spells out, for example, the difference between a cohabiting couple whose “union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests” that might contain the seeds of a sacramental understanding of marriage and the kind of cohabitation that reflects narcissism, individualism or commitment-phobia. 


At the heart of this new pastoral approach is what the document calls “the law of gradualness,” according to which people grow gradually into holiness, over time, and in stages. This, says the relatio early on, is “how God communicates the grace of the covenant to humanity.” Hence Jesus’s words in Matthew: “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it from the beginning it was not so” (19:8).

People therefore need encouragement, rather than judgement. This does not mean, as Pope St. John Paul warned in his 1980 encyclical Familiaris Consortio (“The Family in the Modern World”), adopting a relativistic approach that seeks to tailor morality to the individual. Rather, it is what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI meant by his (to many) surprising observation in 2010 that if a male prostitute uses a condom to try to avoid infecting people with HIV/AIDS, it can be “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” He wasn’t approving condom use or claiming that chastity and monogamy weren’t the end of the road, but he was acknowledging that the journey there might start with a limited moral choice. 

‘Qualities to offer’

The principle is also invoked in the relatio in regard to a possible path back to the sacraments following divorce and remarriage. Some “were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering,” the document notes, adding that one possibility was for a bishop to decide on re-admission following a “penitential path.”

This would not be a general possibility, the document states, “but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances.” 

Elsewhere, the document embodies a similar approach to issues such as homosexuality and contraception. Although it is clear that same-sex unions cannot be compared with marriage, and rejects “gender ideology,” it notes how people with same-sex attraction “have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” It goes on to ask, “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?” And while the document critiques what it calls “a mentality that reduces the generation of life to a variable of an individual’s or a couple’s plans,” it notes how pressures of unemployment and house costs can contribute to these decisions. 

Spirit of Vatican II

The relatio reflects a determination by the synod not simply to reaffirm Church teachings but to help people live them. In part, that means being more open and welcoming, meeting people where they are and tending to their needs and suffering, including those who have suffered marital breakdown, helping to “light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm.”

It also means mobilizing resources and people to provide what culture no longer can: the example and witness of the truth about marriage. “Christian marriage cannot only be considered as a cultural tradition or social obligation,” notes the relatio, “but has to be a vocational decision taken with the proper preparation in an itinerary of faith, with mature discernment.” 

It goes on to spell out the implications: preparation and support for marriage and family not by more theory but by the whole parish getting involved: family spirituality and formation, couples meeting to pray and support each other, connecting marriage to the sacraments and liturgies, and what the document calls “formative paths that nourish married life and the importance of a laity that provides an accompaniment consisting of living testimony.” As Cardinal Luis Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila, put it to journalists, in this area above all it was key for lay people to take their place as missionaries. 

Many of the synod fathers said after hearing the relatio read out that they felt the spirit of Vatican II blow strongly through the assembly. Synodality, said the synod’s secretary, Archbishop Bruno Forte, meant not just attentive listening but also the patience to walk together and mature together, as at the council. “We who were not able to participate in Vatican II,” said Cardinal Tagle, “we had a taste of it at this synod.” 

Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (www.catholicvoices.org.uk). His biography of Pope Francis, “The Great Reformer,” (Henry Holt, $30) will be published Nov. 25.