The Synod on family ends with new pastoral tone and direction. On complex issues, bishops opt for discernment without the option of changing doctrine.
The consensus document that emerged from a vigorous and at times, bare-knuckled three-week- Synod of Bishops on the Family seemed a miracle after a two-year process that had exposed raw disagreements among the world’s bishops.
Each of the 94 paragraphs of the final report was passed 24 October, by 265 voting delegates, although the two-thirds majority was hairline-thin in the case of the section that outlined a pathway of integration for the divorced and remarried.
The paragraphs had been carefully constructed to enable agreement, although at the cost of ambiguity. Bishops on all sides of the debate have since offered contrasting interpretations of whether paragraph 85 opens the way to the divorced and remarried receiving the Eucharist or reaffirms existing practice preventing it.
Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s Australian finance chief, who emerged at the synod as leader of the opposition to the proposal, said the absence of any reference to Communion was “fundamental” and that any suggestion of a change to existing practice was “misguided.” But Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, a leading figure in the College of Cardinals who is close to Pope Francis, said the issue was not “yes or no” but of a matter of distinguishing between different real-life situations, as Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical on the family, Familiaris Consortio, urges.
“They don’t get specifically into holy Communion,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said of the report. “They get into what it means to walk with and accompany people.”
The internal forum
Even before it began, the synod had mostly decided to reject the so-called “Kasper solution” – a public path of penance that would lead back to the sacraments, as in the Orthodox Church – because it involved creating new law and risked eroding the teaching against divorce. They chose instead to look within their own pastoral tradition for ways that allow for case-by-case discernment without changing doctrine or sacramental discipline, through a “pathway of discernment” in the internal forum.
The internal forum refers to what takes place in the confidential realm of spiritual guidance, confession and conscience. It does not alter law but allows priests flexibility in applying rules for the sake of the health of souls, taking into account particular circumstances. The report spells out a process of spiritual guidance with a series of conscience-searching questions about the past to help develop “a correct judgment on what obstacles exist to a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on the steps that can encourage that participation and make it grow.”
The proposal comes out of a dense theological debate in the German-language group, which included both advocates of change such as the German bishops’ president, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, as well as its most high-profile opponent, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller.
Aware that the rest of the synod was looking to them, the group’s unanimous agreement on an internal-forum examination of conscience process was the breakthrough that paved the way for sufficient consensus.
That consensus looked impossible following the small-group reports in Week 3. The Spanish-speaking group led by Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez de Maradiaga, president of Pope Francis’ “C9” Council of Cardinals, had also urged some kind of pathway of reintegration, as did the English-language group moderated by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the bishops of England and Wales. But two groups moderated by curial cardinals – George Pell and Robert Sarah – rejected any change to existing discipline, while many of the others were paralyzed. In the Archbishop of Montevideo’s Italian-speaking group, there were “two completely opposed positions,” said Cardinal Daniel Sturla.
Cardinal Nichols, who has been elected to the synod council alongside Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, told reporters that the report had “quite deliberately set aside the question of admission to the Eucharist” in order to avoid conditioning the freedom of discernment. He said the discipline and steps laid out in the report “are precisely to help us to avoid that temptation of slapping on a quick plaster and then underneath something is still festering away.” In many cases, he said, a person would conclude in conscience that they should not receive Communion. But if they did? “It’s their decision,” he said. “That is not prejudged or pre-empted.”
Whatever the precise implications of paragraph 85, the synod document overall marks a significant shift since last year’s synod toward embracing and integrating those who are divorced and remarried. “Aside from the issue of sacramental Communion, what we needed was a change of attitude and a change of language,” said Bishop Alfonso Miranda Guardiola, an auxiliary of Monterrey, Mexico, who has pastored to the divorced and remarried for many years. “I believe that’s what we got, and that’s why I’m leaving completely satisfied and totally happy,” Bishop Guardiola told Vatican Insider.
Shift in tone
The early part of the report calls for the Church to adopt broad catechumenate-style faith-formation programs of “vocational discernment” to prepare couples for marriage and support them in their early years, reflecting a key theme of the synod that culture and law can no longer supply marriage’s meaning. But mostly, the report is remarkable for a shift in focus and tone, seeking to help and heal rather than reject and condemn on a huge range of complex and painful situations triggered by family and marriage breakdown.
While reaffirming the importance of clear doctrine, the document warns against making judgments that fail to account for the complexity of individual situations and calls on the Church to be attentive to the ways in which people “live and suffer as result of their condition.”
Not everyone was willing to go that route. The Archbishop of Brisbane, Australia, Mark Coleridge, deplored on his widely read blog “the apocalyptic vision” of synod fathers ardently opposed to a more humane and compassionate approach. On homosexuality, the report merely repeats Church statements against same-sex marriage and treating gay people with respect, because for many of the Africans and Eastern Europeans, this was a topic too far. Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny told reporters that “there was no way of discussing [the question of same-sex unions] in a peaceful way” in his French-speaking group moderated by Cardinal Sarah, the African curial cardinal who in his speech likened gay rights to the threat from ISIS. “That is a point for next time,” Bonny said.
Pope Francis clearly had in mind this forceful minority when he told the synod following the vote that different opinions had been expressed “at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways.” He said, “The true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness.”
But in the end, his attempt to move the Church further in the direction of what he calls in Evangelii Gaudium “a missionary and pastoral conversion” paid off. The synods of 2014-2015 may be remembered for their intense debates and occasional melodramas, but the more open, honest format in the end delivered not only a new direction for the Church but a new way of acting.
“You had all this open discussion about issues that the Church is struggling with,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said. “You’re not going to be able to close that door in the future.”