An Extraordinary Synod

September 11 2014 | by

CATHOLIC bishops from around the world are gathering in the Vatican from 5 to 19 October for a Synod focused on the theme: Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelisation. It’s the first part of a two year process, called for by Pope Francis, which will be followed by another larger meeting in the autumn of 2015 to continue the discussion and to try and renew the Church’s response to this crucial area of ministry.

The two week meeting marks the first Synod of Bishops of Francis’ pontificate, and expectations are high – especially in the secular media – that he may introduce some innovations, both into the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, as well as into the way that such meetings are conducted. Already in the early stages of preparation last year, the preparatory document (or Lineamenta as it’s known in Latin) generated news headlines by calling on the bishops to undertake a much broader than usual consultation among priests and lay people in their dioceses through the unprecedented use of a public questionnaire.


Not a referendum


Church leaders in some countries responded enthusiastically to the initiative, posting the survey online, publishing statements on the results, and even developing a simplified, more user-friendly version of the questions which included all the most sensitive subjects such as divorce and remarriage, birth control and same-sex unions. Above all the 38 questions, plus space for additional comments and suggestions, wanted to know how well the Church’s teachings on marriage, procreation and family life were known, understood and accepted by people in the pews. Individual Catholics were also invited to send responses directly to the Vatican, but at the same time, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, stressed that the consultation process was not to be seen as a referendum on what changes people would like to see, but rather an initial way of assessing the Church’s response to the challenges facing families in different parts of the globe.

That preparatory document also set out the breadth of different issues that will come under the spotlight during the closed-door October meeting, reflecting the vast cultural differences between bishops from the different continents. While it speaks of Western concerns such as surrogate motherhood (or wombs for hire), “forms of feminism hostile to the Church” and “new interpretations of what is considered a human right,” it also focuses on issues in the developing world where the Church is growing fastest and facing very different challenges such as polygamy, the caste system and problems related to the use of the dowry. Overall though, the document insists on the urgency of tackling the widespread “social and spiritual crisis” which is profoundly affecting the family, “the vital building-block of society and the ecclesial community.”


Restoring trust


Following the January deadline for responses to the questionnaire, a group of experts in the Synod office set about the daunting task of compiling the thousands of responses from the bishops conferences, together with observations sent directly to the General Secretariat by parishes, families, movements and associations, academic institutions and other specialists, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who wanted to share reflections on these vital questions. A Vatican statement the following month underlined the importance of this process, noting that “the draft synthesis of the answers received was unanimously appreciated. It enables the voice of the Church to be heard in all her components and in a variety of contexts and situations, both with regard to the urgency of proclaiming the Gospel of the family with renewed zeal, and in relation to the challenges and difficulties connected with family life and the crises it may face.” Cardinal Baldisseri also stressed that the high number of responses to the questionnaire demonstrated “the urgency of recognising the lived reality of the people and of beginning a pastoral dialogue with those who have distanced themselves from the Church for various reasons.” Simply by distributing the questionnaire so widely and inviting everyone to respond, he said, “a process has been opened for restoring the trust (that) many have lost”.


Greater sensitivity


At the end of June the principle guiding document for the Synod, known as the Instrumentum Laboris, was published, stressing the need to find fresh ways of articulating the Church’s teachings on the family, while at the same time responding with mercy and compassion to those struggling with so many daily difficulties and challenges. The 85 page document strongly reaffirms the Church’s teaching on the sacrament of marriage, its ban on artificial contraception or homosexual behaviour, and blames the lack of acceptance of these teachings on the “hedonistic” and increasingly secular culture of “relativism, materialism, individualism,” and a “selfish liberalisation of morals.” At the same time, however, the document also points to priests and bishops who have caused a “counter-witness” to these teachings through the sexual abuse scandals which “significantly weaken the Church’s moral credibility.” Responses to the questionnaire from almost every part of the world, it notes, “frequently refer to the sex scandals within the Church and in general to a negative experience with the clergy and other persons.” Some members of the clergy also come under fire in the document for their “uncompromising and insensitive” behaviour, especially towards separated and divorced people or single parents, who often feel unwelcome and excluded from the Church. Clearly reflecting Pope Francis’ vision of the Church as a “field hospital” that can “heal wounds and warm hearts,” there is a strong call throughout the document for an “open and positive pastoral approach,” showing greater sensitivity and inclusion to those who are not living according to the Church’s principles.


New language necessary


The question of birth control and the ‘contraception mentality’ is dealt with extensively in the guidelines, praising as “prophetic” Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which rejected the use of all but natural methods of family planning. It stresses that much more needs to be done to find a new language to highlight the positive aspects of this teaching, with its emphasis on the inseparable bond between the love of a married couple and the creation of new life. Yet if we look back to the first Synod on the family held in 1980, it’s evident that the same appeal was made by many of the bishops attending that month long meeting – the first of Pope John Paul II’s lengthy pontificate. English Cardinal Basil Hume gave a particularly impassioned plea for the Church to listen to its people, to encourage them, and to “speak gently and compassionately” in a language that they can understand. That Synod resulted in the 1982 Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio and the setting up of the Pontifical Council for the Family, yet a glance at that concluding document would suggest that not very much progress has been achieved in this regard over the past three and a half decades. A number of Church leaders, such as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, continue to speak openly of a strong sense of ‘disconnect’ between Church teaching and the real-life experience of families – young and old – often struggling with problems of poverty, unemployment and domestic violence.


Who am I to judge?


On the issue of same-sex relationships, the document notes that every bishops’ conference voiced opposition to any change in the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The great challenge facing the bishops, it says, is to “develop a ministry which can maintain the proper balance between accepting persons in a spirit of compassion and gradually guiding them to authentic human and Christian maturity.” While rejecting legislation that allows for the adoption of children by people in a same-sex union, the document states clearly that “when people living in such unions request a child’s baptism, almost all the responses emphasize that the child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children. Many responses indicate that it would be helpful to receive more concrete pastoral directives in these situations.” Furthermore, the document stresses that children of same-sex families must be welcomed without distinction into all educational and pastoral activities of the Church, something that a number of bishops in the United States have in the past refused to do. Several commentators have suggested that although the Synod may not propose any changes in doctrine, it is likely to endorse a growing shift in emphasis from condemnation to compassion, encouraged by Pope Francis’ famous comment, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay relationships by reporters flying back with him from Brazil at the end of the July 2013 World Youth Day celebrations.


Gospel of the Family


The Instrumentum Laboris dedicates a full eight pages to the question of divorce and remarriage, which has been the subject of the most intense discussion in the media since German Cardinal Walter Kasper was asked by Pope Francis to give an introductory speech on the family to the full College of Cardinals at the last consistory in February. The thought-provoking comments by the former head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity reflected on the ‘Gospel of the Family’ as an essential part of God’s plan for humanity, with an honest look at the many tensions and problems that arise in relationships between men and women. While the Cardinal gave a wide-ranging speech on the family as a privileged path for evangelisation, it was the section on divorced Catholics and their exclusion from the Eucharist that caused the biggest stir among those who saw him suggesting a change in the Church’s response along the lines of the Orthodox Churches, which allow a special ceremony for second marriages. The discussion was particularly heated, since the Pope himself has described Kasper as a “superb theologian,” and when I asked the Cardinal to clarify his views, he told me the Synod must work on finding an approach that is neither too strict nor too lenient. “I maintain the full teaching of the Church,” he said emphatically, “but the teaching has to be applied to concrete situations, as Jesus did and as Pope Francis does it very often… the doctrine of the Church is not an ideology in the clouds, but God wants to be present, close to his people.” Pointing to the “abyss” that the questionnaire reveals between the teaching of the Church and the practise of so many Catholics in the world today, Cardinal Kasper said “the Church has to bridge this abyss… it does not mean pure appeasement policies, but the Church must explain in a new way what is family and matrimony in order to help people, and at the same time remain faithful to the Gospel.”


Greater voice to women


The Synod’s guiding document notes that many bishops oppose changes such as making annulments easier to obtain, fearing that “the impression might be given that the indissolubility of the Sacrament is not respected.” But reflecting on the revolutionary changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council, particularly in his own area of promoting Christian unity, the Cardinal said with a wry smile, “There were doctrines of the Holy Office before the Council against ecumenism, yet the Council found a way not to destroy or negate the doctrine, but to find ways to interpret it in an adequate way… and I ask myself why it could not be possible also with other doctrines too?”

Finally, Cardinal Kasper also rekindled the hopes of those who have long been calling for women to be given a greater voice in decision-making roles of the Church, especially regarding key questions of education and family life. “Up until now,” he said, “women have generally only attended the Synod as auditors, holding roles of little significance. There are always two or three female auditors who speak at the end of the meetings when everyone has already spoken. I ask myself how it is possible to prepare two Synods on the family without giving a role of primary importance to women? A family cannot exist without women. It makes no sense to speak about the family without listening to what they have to say.”



Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

in you we contemplate

the splendour of true love,

to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,

grant that our families too

may be places of communion and prayer,

authentic schools of the Gospel

and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,

may families never again

experience violence, rejection and division:

may all who have been hurt or scandalized

find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth,

may the approaching Synod of Bishops

make us once more mindful

of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,

and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

graciously hear our prayer! Amen.

(Taken from the Instrumentum Laboris

of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family)

Updated on October 06 2016