The three week long Synod on the Family has come to an end on 25 October, 2015. The 318 synod participants (including 270 synod fathers, 18 married couples and the fraternal delegates), in 13 language groups, have discussed crucial subjects like domestic violence, violence against women, incest and abuse within families, marriage preparation, pornography, communion for divorced-and-civilly remarried, and the Church teaching and pastoral care regarding homosexuality, the last two being controversial.
On the concluding day of the synod, ‘The New York Times’ summed up the synod with the headlines: “Amid divide, Bishops crack open door on divorce.” America, a prestigious Catholic magazine from the United States, said that the Synod “leaves door open for Pope to move forward on key issues.” It also referred to “The Pope’s Strong Words for Those Who Seek to Block Change in the Church.”
Confusion and Intrigue
During the synod, there were some incidents of confusion and even intrigue. A letter of dissent to Pope Francis signed by 13 cardinals had leaked to Italy’s ‘L’Espresso’ magazine. The letter urged against abandoning key elements of Catholic doctrine, warning the Catholic Church risked a collapse in the same way liberal protestant churches had done. A few cardinals had even written newspaper articles and given public interviews, some bordering criticism.
Meanwhile, during his Wednesday General Audience in Saint Peter’s Square, Pope Francis came out with a surprise public apology. He said: “I want, in the name of the Church, to ask forgiveness for the scandals which have recently hit Rome and the Vatican. I ask you for forgiveness.” Quoting a passage from the Bible, he added: “It is inevitable that scandals happen, but ‘woe to the man by whom the offence cometh!”
One particular response to confusion is interesting. Seemingly without knowing it, “the Church Fathers stumbled upon a key experience of being in and raising a family: uncertainty,” wrote ‘National Catholic Reporter’, in its editorial on 17 October. It also extended an advice: “Don’t fear it, Synod fathers. Relish it. This is how families live.”
It elaborated. Parents know uncertainty so well. Watching a child toddle off to preschool or kindergarten the first time; watching a son or daughter plunge headlong into academics or sports or theatre in high school. What will she encounter? Will he be safe? The fear of sitting beside a sickbed or in intensive care, not really knowing if it will be all right.
The greatest fear might be when that fledgling truly ventures out on her own to college, into a career, to begin her own family. Parents know (or at least hope) they have done all they can to raise their kids right. They have given them a foundation, the best advice they have. With a pledge of continued support and lots of prayer, not knowing the outcome, the parents allow children to grow up. That’s the cycle of family life, the journey, families walk together.
Like the uncertainty in each family, the issues under discussion in the Synod are complicated and uncertain. There is no reason to pretend otherwise. Then ‘National Catholic Reporter’ wished for a revolutionary Synod document that would say: “We cannot reach a global census on many issues, but we rejoice in that diversity and pledge not to let differences divide us.”
Compassion, the Way Ahead
When the final document was accepted, it was claimed initially as a victory for the conservatives. The mood was uncertain. But to the amazement of all, the Germans reached unanimous agreement on their report that included a discussion of the internal forum.
This unanimity was significant because in the German group were theologically sophisticated cardinals representing different points of view, including Cardinals Walter Kasper, who originally proposed the idea of the “penitential path,” and Gerhard Muller, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), known to oppose that path.
According to Jesuit Fr. Thomas J. Reese, journalist and senior analyst, the fact that cardinals could agree meant their recommendation carried great weight with the Synod fathers. Muller was especially crucial in bringing around bishops who were on the fence. “If the head of CDF says it is OK, it must be OK,” was the thinking.
Regarding communion to the divorcee the Synod document is ambiguous. “The conversation with the priest, in internal forum, contribute to the formation of a correct decision on what is blocking the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the church and on steps that might foster it and make it grow,” states the document.
“Like the Second Vatican Council, the synod achieved ‘consensus through ambiguity.’ This means that they are leaving Pope Francis free to do whatever he thinks best,” writes Father Reese.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, who is on the Synod’s drafting committee, said the final document is presented to the Holy Father and is intended for him and not for the world. Based on this document, he will issue another document. Hopefully it will mean mercy and compassion for all people, including divorcees.
Another well-known newspaper, ‘The Guardian,’ in its editorial column, urged the Pope, to “choose what’s best for women.” It recalled that Catholic Church’s refusal to allow second marriages is actually a protection for some women. In societies where women have no economic independence, it saves them from being discarded when they are no longer useful or interesting to tyrannous husbands. It added: “The real problem facing the pope is whether it is possible to construct a single global sexual ethic that will benefit women and be accepted by them in both the rich and poor worlds. With God, we’re told, all things are possible, but this task looks very hard. Still, it must be tried.”
The Christian message of care, concern and compassion can inspire the permanent loving and creative commitment needed for today’s families! May the Spirit help us to draw compassion out of confusion, creatively.
Kuruvila Pandikatt SJ
Professor of Science, Religion and
Philosophy Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune