The two-week extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that opened Oct. 5 in Rome is proving to be as much about the reformed synod itself as it is about the thorny topics it has chosen to tackle.
As 250 senior Church leaders — cardinals and presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world — gathered to set the agenda for a yearlong review of the Church’s teaching and practices, the focus was as much on method as content as participants adjusted to a new kind of synod — one that started from pastoral realities rather than doctrines, that encouraged frank expression and disagreement, and that allowed for a common mind to emerge over time. The synod seemed to breathe something of the atmosphere of the Second Vatican Council, with talk of openness to the Holy Spirit, dialogue and keeping the focus on pastoral realities.
Search for truth
Although media coverage of the strong disagreements between cardinals in the run-up to the synod painted the picture of a battle between liberals and conservatives, it was clear Pope Francis saw the synod not as a clash between parties but as a collective search for the truth by the presidents of 114 bishops’ conferences and 25 heads of Vatican dicasteries, among others. Pope Francis set the framework at a prayer vigil Oct. 4 and in his homily at the Mass opening the synod at St. Peter’s Basilica the following morning. Referring to the fierce disagreements of the early-Church councils, he invited the synod fathers to “a sincere discussion, open and fraternal,” and asked them to trust that “in his time the Lord will not fail to lead us back to unity.”
Speaking at the first press briefing on Oct. 6, Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, André Vingt-Trois, teased journalists that “less well-informed reporters than you” had seen the synod as a kind of parliamentary debate in which there were majorities and minorities, winners and losers. But this was not the right way to understand it.
“We are not there to achieve majorities for particular positions; we are there to work toward the objective of allowing a common will to emerge in the Church,” he said.
Referring to German Cardinal Walter Kasper, whose advocacy of a path back to Communion for repentant divorced and remarried Catholics has provoked strong opposition from a number of Church leaders and theologians, Cardinal Vingt-Trois said he had difficulties with some of the practical implications of the proposals, but toward Cardinal Kasper felt no animosity.
A change in style
Aware that previous, curia-controlled synods had in the past suffocated discussion, Pope Francis sought to persuade the delegates in the Paul VI Audience Hall to speak openly and with “apostolic courage” without trying to please him. “A general condition is this,” he urged: “Speak clearly. Let no one say: ‘This you cannot say.’” At the same time, he added, “you should listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say.”
Unlike previous synods that have concluded with propositions, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the synod’s secretary general and architect of its new modus operandi, said the meeting, scheduled through Oct. 19, would end with the compilation of a “Relatio Synodi” (synod report) to be voted on by the synod fathers (the group’s voting members). The document would be drafted by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, from an initial summary of the first week’s deliberations, which would then be modified by participants in smaller working groups during the second week. The “Relatio Synodi” will be put to a simple yes/no vote on Oct. 18 and, if approved, will be sent to bishops’ conferences across the world, asking for their response and further input over the next year. The process will culminate in the three-week ordinary synod scheduled for October 2015, during which participants will agree and vote on concrete proposals for the pope to implement.
Practical vs. doctrinal
The relator, or chair, of the extraordinary synod is Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdö, a highly respected canon lawyer who has been twice elected president of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe.
He opened the synod with a speech intended to define the terms of the coming discussion. Because the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage was not in question, “what is being discussed at this synod of an intense pastoral nature are not doctrinal issues, but the practical ones,” he said. Yet that distinction wasn’t shared by Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, the special secretary of the extraordinary synod, who told journalists that charity and mercy were at the heart of the Church’s doctrine, and that teaching people the truth of marriage should not be “a club which judges you, but a gaze of love and mercy which reaches out to you.” Restoring or re-emphasizing that “merciful gaze” to the Church’s pastoral care is, in other words, a doctrinal issue.
Noting that the family was fast becoming “the last welcoming human reality in a world determined almost exclusively by finance and technology,” Cardinal Erdö said that “a new culture of the family can be the starting point for a renewed human civilization.” But this required acknowledging that in many societies culture no longer supplied an understanding of marriage as indissoluble.
“Many approach the sacrament without a clear awareness before the Lord of assuming an unconditional and lifelong commitment to welcome the other and make a total gift of self to the other,” he noted, adding that “under the influence of the existing culture, many reserve the ‘right’ not to observe conjugal fidelity, to divorce and remarry.”
This called for the Church to put far more emphasis on marriage preparation and support for families, while improving the pastoral support it gives to those in broken marriages who often feel excluded from the Church.
In an implicit commentary on Cardinal Kasper’s proposal, Cardinal Erdö said that “mercy does not take away the commitments which arise from the demands of the marriage bond ... This means that, in the case of a (consummated) sacramental marriage, after a divorce, a second marriage recognized by the Church is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive.”
Cardinal Erdö suggested that annulments could be reformed in the light of the modern-day marriage mindset. Noting that “many marriages celebrated in the Church may be invalid,” he proposed — as have others — a simpler, more streamlined annulment process. This could initially involve a nominated priest in a diocese and, in some cases, could be handled locally via a nonjudicial process, culminating in a declaration of nullity by the diocesan bishop.
As important as the relator’s speech is, however, previous synods suggest that they do not bind the discussion, and there will be calls to consider Cardinal Kasper’s proposal on the grounds that God’s mercy always offers a way back to the fallen and that the Church must find a way of doing the same.
At the opening of the synod, however, it was far from clear whether the proposal would make it into the final document. What was clear was that the discussion would be forthright and honest, and that the reformed synod created by Pope Francis is set to be, in the future, a powerful new instrument for creating consensus in the Church.
Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (www.catholicvoices.org.uk).