The Synod on the Family in Rome is drawing to a close. At least the first phase is – this body reconvenes next year after reflecting on this initial gathering. There are more than 250 members, including 38 non-voting observers, among whom are 14 married couples.
The Synod is taking up four broad areas of concern: Marriage and the Family (as informed by Scripture and Church Tradition); Pastoral Programme for Families in New Challenges (work, migration, poverty, consumerism, individualism, wars, etc); Difficult Pastoral Situations (cohabiting before marriage, de facto relationships, separation / divorce / remarriage / Eucharist, annulments, same-sex unions / children); and, Openness to Life (contraception).
Pope Francis issued a rather unprecedented worldwide survey of family life last year in preparation. It sought the opinions and practices of contemporary Catholics. The German bishops boldly published their responses and these were frank and revealing. People were positively drawn to the ideals of marriage as sacrament, of life-long stable union, the Church’s counseling services and support for marriage. But the Church’s teachings on premarital sexual relations, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, birth control were ‘virtually never accepted’, or ‘expressly rejected’. Its doctrines were ‘a morality of prohibition’, ‘incomprehensible and unrealistic’. Cohabitation of couples before marriage was ‘almost universal’. The divorced and remarried experienced ‘considerable suffering’, ‘discriminated against and marginalised’. Many had left an ‘unforgiving Church’. Few thought that annulments were a solution. It was ‘dishonest’ to pretend a marriage had never existed in the first place. The distinction between natural and artificial means of birth control was ‘rejected by the vast majority of Catholics as incomprehensible’ and was ‘not adhered to’. Only 3% favoured natural family planning, mostly for natural reasons. However, to give perspective, we must acknowledge that this was the view of just one western European country. Other countries and cultures may well be reflecting differently.
In February this year, the Pope had invited German Cardinal Walter Kasper to address 160 Cardinals in Rome on The Gospel and the Family. Kasper spoke of healing wounded families, supporting those whose marriages failed. He asked: Is Eucharist a reward for good behaviour (panis angelicus, ‘bread of angels’), or food for sinners on their penitential journey? Soon after, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith (the old Inquisition), countered. “These theories are radically mistaken,” he said in interviews. Both have produced books on their positions. Both have their allies. There is a lot of jockeying, especially in the social media.
Kasper went on to issue a warning. Everything should not be decided by celibate cardinals and bishops. Most of the faithful live out their faith in families. They face situations that celibates must strive to understand and listen to. The laity “have something to say to us”, he said. Entering the debate is the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, now studying canon law in Rome. She offered a strongly worded challenge to the celibate, childless and spouseless having sole steerage of the Synod. She finished with a question to Pope Francis: “How many of the men who will gather to advise you as Pope on the family have ever changed a baby’s nappy?”
As the Synod commenced, there was a good start. Attention was drawn to language that alienates people from dialogue and the Church. For example, ‘living in sin’: as a reference to couples who live together before marriage; ‘intrinsically disordered’: a reference to gay people; and ‘contraceptive mentality’: a reference made by some prelates to refer to a society that does not respect life. Language should not marginalise people further.
As contributions were made from ‘traditional’ and ‘liberal’ perspectives, the point was often made by the former that doctrines and moral laws established by the Church cannot change. But this is not the case. Over the centuries there have been some major shifts: usury (taking interest on a loan) was once immoral (now we have the Vatican Bank!); slavery was justified by the Church right up to 1866; once ‘error had no rights’ (thus, burnings at the stake) then Vatican II made its ground-breaking ‘Declaration on Religious Freedom’. Natural Law theory, used in our Catholic tradition, is always subject to reason. And reason, reflecting upon human experience, in more fully understanding what it is to be human, is subject to change.
An interim document, the Relatio post Disceptationem, has been produced for discussion and reflection by Synod members. It contains some encouraging remarks:
The bishops acknowledge a pastoral challenge “to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations.”
Encouragingly, the Synod acknowledges that sanctification and truth can be found outside the Catholic Church. So, the Relatio says, “Realising the need, therefore, for spiritual discernment with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons, it is the task of the church to recognise those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries.”
One surprising section in the Relatio responds to the issue of homosexuality. ”Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” affirms the document. ”Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”
With regard to the divorced and remarried returning to the Eucharist, the lines seem still drawn – between those members who saw this as an impossibility and others who were recommending a ‘penitential path’, that is, not unlike the Orthodox Church which regards divorce as a failure to be acknowledged and forgiven, with a readmission to Communion.
But signs are there for compassion and understanding. The challenge for us is that God is at once all-just and all-merciful. We mortals – whether a parent, a priest or a Pope – will always find it hard to hold those two qualities together.
Pope Francis opened the Synod with a beautiful prayer. It is the prayer of one who is not blind to the whole spectrum of human experience – all that draws forth gratitude, as well as all that calls for compassion. This is his prayer:
Evening falls on our assembly. It is the hour at which one willingly returns home to meet at the same table, in the depth of affection, of the good that has been done and received, of the encounters which warm the heart and make it grow, good wine which hastens the unending feast in the days of man.
It is also the weightiest hour for one who finds himself face to face with their own loneliness, in the bitter twilight of shattered dreams and broken plans; how many people trudge through the day in the blind alley of resignation, of abandonment, even resentment: in how many homes the wine of joy has been less plentiful, and therefore, also the zest — the very wisdom — for life […]. Let us make our prayer heard for one another this evening, a prayer for all.
To which we might echo, “Amen!”