‘THE TABLET’ – an article on the trajectory of the Roman Synod

Now the talking really begins
23 October 2014 by Christopher Lamb

Pope Francis wanted frankness and openness and that is what he got. But there is also the sense that the real debate in the Church about marriage and families is only just starting

Given the “pastoral earthquake” that took place halfway through the Synod on the Family, perhaps it was inevitable that there would have to be compromise at the end. On one level it is hard not to see the synod and its final document as three steps forward and two steps back, in the words of the German cardinal, Reinhard Marx.

There are no guesses as to where Pope Francis’s sympathies lie. If there could be a theme for his pontificate, then it is his stress on God’s “mercy” – for the Church to stop being a “house of glass to judge or categorise people”. At the same time, he is keen to tread a middle path and in his final address on Saturday he criticised progressives who were tempted to “come down from the cross”. (See box.)

Despite the talk of “setbacks”, the final document should be seen within the context of a reformed and improved synod process that is in itself an achievement. Numerous participants at this gathering commented on how different it was to previous synods.

Media attention at the synod has been intense but, while news cycles change in a matter of hours, the Church tends to think in centuries. According to Cardinal Walter Kasper, who kicked off the synod discussions with his speech to the consistory of cardinals in February, the Pope is also thinking for the long term. In a speech in Vienna last week, the cardinal said Francis’s plans are a “programme for a century or more”. This would not, he explained, satisfy Western expectations for speedy reform, adding that the Pope did not fit into the “hackneyed progressive-conservative blueprint”.

Throughout the synod it was clear that many bishops believe the Church needs to find a new pastoral language when it comes to family life. The mid-term relatio appears to have opened a door to a new approach that for many years seemed impossible.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, speaking at a press conference in London this week, said it was important the synod focuses on the “goodness in every person, whatever their sexuality, whether they’re cohabiting or in a second marriage”. He explained that “their lives continue to carry the hallmark of the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s what the synod is laying down as the starting point of pastoral care.” It should be pointed out that, while the final document could not get the two-thirds majorities on the hotly debated topics, there were significant majorities in favour of those paragraphs.

That 104 Synod Fathers voted to allow communion for divorced and remarried in certain circumstances (74 were against) is noteworthy. Similarly, on the paragraph on welcoming gay Catholics, 118 were in favour while 62 against. It is also being suggested that the reason why that last paragraph did not get more support was that some Synod Fathers were unhappy that it did not go far enough and therefore voted against it.

CARDINAL NICHOLS SAID on Tuesday that this was a plausible hypothesis. He said his intention before the vote was “no, this isn’t good enough”, but then had a second thought. In the end he said because the votes happened so quickly he could not remember which way he had voted. To his credit, Pope Francis insisted that the voting tallies be published for each of the document’s 62 paragraphs in the name of transparency and that the text be published in full.

This Pope is clearly happy with healthy disagreement and sees it as part of the process of discernment in the Church. In this way the synod has been likened to the Second Vatican Council, which saw fierce debates during its sessions and over the documents it produced.

Significantly, Cardinal Kasper said he believed the “spirit of the council is blowing through the synod” – a view also held by other Synod Fathers.

At the council, it was the period between the bishops’ gatherings that was crucial in deciding its direction. In a similar way, the time between now and the next ordinary synod will be critical. It is likely to be a time marked by those with different viewpoints publishing books, pamphlets, holding seminars and giving interviews.
The Pope is undoubtedly conscious that he needs to take the whole of the Church with him and one criticism of the mid-term relatio might be that it was too radical, too soon.

There was concern among a number of Synod Fathers that by emphasising the Church’s pastoral concern for those in unions outside sacramental marriage that somehow the beauty of Catholic teaching on marriage will be lost. Cardinal Nichols has said his hope is that the synod will sound a “trumpet call” for marriage.

But after the mid-term document was released, a fear seemed to overcome some at the synod that the media would present the gathering as the Catholic Church accepting a secular agenda on gays, the divorced and cohabitation. This was clear in the small group discussions – the circuli minores – taking place in the second half of the synod and in their proposed 470 amendments to the mid-term relatio.

“Many in the group felt that a young person reading the relatio would, if anything, become even less enthusiastic about undertaking the challenging vocation of Christian matrimony,” said one of the English-speaking groups, while another expressed surprise that the document had been released to the media (despite the fact that mid-way reports at all synods previously are public documents).

To many, Francis bears a strong similarity to Pope John XXIII, the down-to-earth pastor who called Vatican II. Yet with the faith he has put in the synod process he is also walking in the footsteps of Pope Paul VI, who established the body after the council (some point out, however, that Paul VI did not give the synod the powers Vatican II mandated as it is still purely a deliberative body).

Appropriately, Francis closed the synod by beatifying Paul VI and in his homily pulled out a quote from the late Pope in the motu proprio establishing the Synod of Bishops that said: “By carefully surveying the signs of the times, we are making every effort to adapt ways and methods … to the growing needs of our time and the changing conditions of society.”

Undergirding Francis’s faith in the synod is his experience in Argentina and work with Celam, the Latin American bishops’ conference. He played a key role in the drafting of the landmark 2007 Aparecida document, a blueprint for the how the Church can respond to rapidly changing pastoral contexts.

Francis wants the whole Church to be involved in the synod process in a similar way to Aparecida. In a 2007 interview with the now closed 30 Giorni magazine, the then Cardinal Bergoglio said Aperecida was “work that moved from below upwards, not vice versa”. He also said that celebrating Mass and praying with laypeople at Aparecida, a Marian shrine, during that time “gave us a live sense of belonging to our people, of the Church that goes forward as People of God, of us bishops as its servants”.

Laypeople played an important role at the recent synod, opening the early sessions with their contributions, and Francis said a highlight of the gathering was testimonies of families and those married couples who shared “the beauty and joy of married life”. So where do things go from here?

The final synod document is now to be discussed by local bishops’ conferences as the guidelines (lineamenta) before the synod in 2015. That gathering will be larger, with each bishops’ conference electing representatives to attend (numbers according to size). Also attending will be the prefects and presidents of departments in the Roman Curia along with papal appointees.

In the end the Pope hears recommendations from the synod and reserves the right to make the final decisions. Francis said his duty is to safeguard the unity of the Church and to be a servant leader. It is therefore highly unlikely he will go against the majority and will do all he can to avoid deep divisions. He believes in the synod process and the God of surprises. Who knows where this will take the Church?

Pope francis: ‘I would be worried if there was not this movement of the spirits’

In his final address on 18 October Pope Francis detailed the “temptations” faced by the Synod Fathers

… A temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word (the letter), and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

… The temptation to a destructive tendency to do-goodism, that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is temptation of the “do-gooders”, of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals”.

… The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Luke 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf John 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Luke 11:46).
… The temptation to come down off the cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.

… The temptation to neglect the depositum fidei [“the deposit of faith”], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “Byzantinisms”.

… Personally I would be very worried and saddened if there were not these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace. Instead, I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parrhesia. And I have felt that what was set before our eyes was the good of the Church, of families, and the “supreme law”, the “good of souls” (cf. canon 1752). And this always … without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Canon 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et Spes, 48).

… Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront.


The opening paragraph for this article for The Tablet, by Christopher Lamb, speaks volumes:  “Pope Francis wanted frankness and openness and that is what he got. But there is also the sense that the real debate in the Church about marriage and families is only just starting”.

In Pope Francis’ statement after the close of this interim Synod, he detailed the highs and lows – as he saw them – of the outcomes of the conversations. Being, like his illustrious predecessor, Pope John XXIII, a firm believer in the role of the Holy Spirit in such meetings, Pope Francis seems not to have been disappointed in what he could have seen  to be a lack of progress on the issues he had brought before the Bishops on the need for a new openness to homosexual people and divorcees in the Church.

Whatever the eventual outcome of the conversations that are scheduled to continue on these important matters in the ensuing year – before the next meeting of an enlarged Synod in a year’s time –  the Pope shows a trust in the working of the Spirit among those entrusted with the conversations that will have taken place by the end of this period.

There can be little doubt that the conservatives in the Vatican, and in the Church at large, will have been disturbed by the openness with which the topics of disagreement among the members of the Synod were allowed to be broadcast to the wider world. And it was significant that, after the close of the Meetings, Pope Francis took care to thank the assembled media representatives for their part in the dissemination of information proceeding from the sessions. This was surely a signal to the conservatives of a freer and much more open attitude towards the outside world of the goings-on in the Church.

As the largest Christian denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, and its decisions on matters of doctrine and pastoral concern, cannot but have some affect on other branches of the Church around the world. The obvious difference between the culture of the Churches of the Third World, and that of the Churches of Europe and the West – as suggested by none other than the influential Cardinal Kaspar – have been made evident in this Synod, and it remains to be seen over the next twelve months of deliberations, how much they will turn out to have influenced the end result of the suggestions made by the Pope and his more forward-looking advocates of change in pastoral initiatives designed to reach people who have distanced themselves from the Church on account of its perceived disinclination to adapt to change.

Jesu, mercy; Mary, pray!

Read also: http://www.thetablet.co.uk/blogs/1/475/traditionalists-and-progressivists-the-two-prodigal-sons-of-the-synod

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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