Editorial: Synod aftershocks

Has the Church changed its teaching on homosexuality? On Cohabitation? On sex? The short answer is no. But for more than two weeks these have been the questions that pastors and news editors, religious educators and Catholic radio hosts are hearing from the pews. Some of the questioners think it would be a great thing if the Church changed. Others think it would be a disaster. Almost everyone is confused, and who can blame them?

The confusion is flowing from the flood of news coverage regarding the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, which concluded Oct. 19 at the Vatican. After a week of speeches behind closed doors that were summarized at press briefings, a draft document called a relatio exploded. Ostensibly summarizing some of the points of discussion during the first week, it included language suggesting a significant change in the pastoral response to homosexual marriages and cohabitating couples as well as the divorced and remarried. The response — turbocharged by initial reports in the blogosphere — electrified the news media.

As the Church seeks ways to attract modern men and women to Jesus Christ, good people will differ on how this is best accomplished.

The result was a raft of headlines proclaiming a sea change in Catholic Church teaching. A few voices cautioned that it was simply a draft document still to be debated and revised, and which itself was to become the basis for further reflection and work leading up to the 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family to be held next October. No matter. The news media saw this as a cave by the Catholic Church, heralding a total collapse of all those who still challenged the notion of gay marriage. For their part, many defenders of Catholic teaching felt blindsided as headlines screamed that the Church was retreating on the issue.

A late course adjustment toning down some of the wording did nothing to mollify critics and simply fueled a second round of even more confusing headlines. At this moment of great pastoral confusion, we think it important to stress these points: 1) This is a working document that is intended to provoke further reflection in advance of the next year’s synod. It is nothing more. It is not legislative. It is not definitive. It may not even be fully reflective of the discussion that took place this past month. 2) The bishops’ discussion, however — even if secreted behind closed doors — certainly reflects the range of topics discussed around dinner tables and in parishes all across this country and beyond. The Church is not ignoring the cultural earthquakes that are occurring, and its leaders are seeking ways to respond to the trials and tribulations of modern families. Such a conversation will necessarily be frank, and frankly is necessary, but not everyone will be in agreement. 3) The Church is not considering a reversal of 2,000 years of teaching — a decision that would almost certainly provoke a schism. It is seeking ways to respond pastorally to some of its wounded flock, and it is seeking ways to attract modern men and women to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Good people will differ on how this is best accomplished.

The discussion to take place over the next year is of vital importance to the Church. Our only request of our Church leaders is that they be more mindful of what debate looks like in the era of a social media-driven journalism that is more quick than thoughtful. All the shepherds are challenged to smell like the sheep, in Pope Francis’ memorable phrase. But shepherds are also called on to protect their sheep. Today this means the shepherds must have a communications strategy that does not leave ordinary Catholics more lost than before.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor