The family synod of Pope Francis

How to summarize?

Here is the essence in short.

This WaPo article captures what much of the secular and even a fair number of Catholic media are saying.

“Yet the still-significant opposition in the synod to rapid changes in rules also suggested how far off Catholics may yet be from seeing Francis’s revolutionary style turned into practice.”

And this short Word On Fire video of Bishop Robert Barron captures what most of them got wrong.

Bishop Barron explains.

I can confidently tell you that the news media are in love with the Vicar of Christ. Time and again, commentators, pundits, anchorpersons, and editorialists opined that Pope Francis is the bomb. They approved, of course, of his gentle way with those suffering from disabilities and his proclivity to kiss babies, but their approbation was most often awakened by this Pope’s “merciful” and “inclusive” approach, his willingness to reach out to those on the margins. More often than not, they characterized this tenderness as a welcome contrast to the more rigid and dogmatic style of Benedict XVI. Often, I heard words such as “revolutionary” and “game-changing” in regard to Pope Francis, and one commentator sighed that she couldn’t imagine going back to the Church as it was before the current pontiff.

Well, I love Pope Francis too, and I certainly appreciate the novelty of his approach and his deft manner of breathing life into the Church…But I balk at the suggestion that the new Pope represents a revolution or that he is dramatically turning away from the example of his immediate predecessors. And I strenuously deny that he is nothing but a soft-hearted powder-puff, indifferent to sin.

A good deal of the confusion stems from a misinterpretation of Francis’s stress on mercy…Now this is important, for many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer matters. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness. Or to shift to one of the Pope’s favorite metaphors, it is to be acutely conscious that one is wounded so severely that one requires, not minor treatment, but the emergency and radical attention provided in a hospital on the edge of a battlefield.

Pope Francis has often used the terminology of the Church as ‘field hospital’. Barron’s explanation of what that means is very timely.

Synod wrap: What else got discussed, how Francis concluded

What most media didn’t cover, or cover well.

In the second week of the Synod on the Family that just wrapped up at the Vatican on Saturday, bishops and cardinals participating in this major two week event broke into their language groups and held daily meetings on the topics they considered most urgent, and addressed those that emerged in the notorious document days before. The press narrowed those down to ‘the Church’s stance on gays’, and ‘divorced and remarried Catholics’ and communion,while the working groups discussed so many more problems people are struggling with globally, and issued summaries revealing the depth and breadth of  those discussions. Keeping them off the record frustrated not a few of the participants.

Cardinal George Pell gave voice to those frustrations.

According to a report by Marco Tosatti in La Stampa (and translated on Fr. Z’s Blog), Cardinal Baldisseri, General Secretary of the Synod, announced that the reports of the small working groups would not be made available to the public. Tosatti reported that this announcement was met with opposition from Cardinal Pell, and then “an avalanche from many others along the same line, underscored by thunderous applause.” Robert Royal, editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, writes that Cardinal Pell “slammed his hand on the table and said, ‘You must stop manipulating this Synod.’”

Thanks to this reaction in the General Synod, which has been reported as a “revolt,” summaries of the small working groups’ interventions were posted by the Vatican press office. The English summaries reveal broad and deep dissatisfaction with the interim draft and plans to add substantial new text affirming the constant teaching of the Church “on the truth of human life and sexuality as revealed by Christ,” along with other “major amendments” and other small ones which, “nevertheless … have significant meaning attached to them” (Circulus Anglicus “A”).

It’s all here. Much of it is really quite beautiful. Like the English language round ‘B’, moderated by South African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier. That group included five members from Africa, seven from Asia, and one each from Oceania, the United States and Europe. They felt strongly, they said, that the ‘relatio‘ (interim document reported all over the world’s media the week before) “ended up placing too much emphasis on the problems facing the family and did not stress the need to sufficiently provide an enthusiastic message which would encourage and inspire hope for Christian families who despite many challenges and even failures, strive every day to live out faithfully and joyfully their mission and vocation with the Church and society.”

The task of the extraordinary Synod was to draw up a picture of the family and of the challenges facing the pastoral activity of the Church in today’s complex and diverse world. Inevitably this meant that it would focus on problems and on some of he principal challenges of particular concern in the Church today.

However, the report of the Synod should go beyond a mere focus on the problems and the pathology of marriage and the family…Many in the group felt that a young person reading the Relatio [interim report] would if anything become even less enthusiastic about undertaking the challenging vocation of Christian matrimony. The Synod report and the message should direct itself towards young people, to help them understand and be attracted by the Christian vision of marriage and the family, in a world in which they are exposed to many contradictory visions…

The Church needs a radical renewal of its style of ministry to families. Marriage is a lifelong task [and] accompaniment [is] not limited to preparation for the wedding…

It’s important to not that the moderator for this session was one of two late additions Pope Francis made to the group that would draw up the final document for this Synod.

The “editorial committee” charged with writing the final report of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family due today, was recently increased by two, when Pope Francis named Cardinal Wilfrid Napier (Durban, South Africa) and Archbishop Denis Hart (Melbourne, Australia) to the committee.

The choices of the two new committee members are interesting. Cardinal Napier, described as a traditionalist, had been outspoken in objecting to what he saw as African concerns being ignored by some at the Synod.

(As noted here and here.)

Archbishop Hart succeeded Cardinal Pell as the Cardinal Archbishop of Melbourne. The Cardinal has been viewed by many as leading the loyal opposition against attempts to modify or dilute settled teachings.

Confusion still exists over how the arguably most contentious section made its way into the interim report: the three paragraphs in a section still entitled “Welcoming Homosexual Persons” in the official Italian interim report. Father [Federico] Lombardi [Director of the Vatican Press Office] told reporters that the emphasis given to this topic in the Interim Report surprised him as “he recalled only one speech out of about 265 about gays during the debate” of the Synod’s first week.

This reflects the concern Pope Francis has expressed from the beginning of his pontificate for the “peripheries” of human existence, the far reaches of the world and the real life experiences of people living on the margins. It also very well may reveal his sensitivity to Cardinal Kasper’s remarks about the African contingent’s views on marriage as necessarily excluded or dismissed because of differing perceptions of relationships. The two additions were good picks.

In the English language groups, the summary labeled circular “C”, moderated by U.S. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz was another exemplary summation of teaching and pastoral concern for the intricacies, difficulties, truth and beauty of marriage.

Marriage is a gift of God to man, a blessing Given by him for the well-being of His creatures, made in His image. From the beginning God ordained that it is not good for man to live alone and so he created a helpmate for him, one equal to him, that they may live in complementarity. This gift, this mystery of attraction and love between man and woman, was from earliest times recognized as coming from God. In the New Testament, the relationship between man and woman is deepened…and explained fully as mirroring the relationship between Christ and his Body, the Church.

All the working group summaries are worth reading over, especially given how misrepresented the Synod was in global media.

Pope Francis concluded the event with what is no doubt one of his finest, most important addresses delivered to date.

I can happily say that – with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality – we have truly lived the experience of “Synod,” a path of solidarity, a “journey together.”

And it has been “a journey” – and like every journey there were moments of running fast, as if wanting to conquer time and reach the goal as soon as possible; other moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say “enough”; other moments of enthusiasm and ardour. There were moments of profound consolation listening to the testimony of true pastors, who wisely carry in their hearts the joys and the tears of their faithful people. Moments of consolation and grace and comfort hearing the testimonies of the families who have participated in the Synod and have shared with us the beauty and the joy of their married life. A journey where the stronger feel compelled to help the less strong, where the more experienced are led to serve others, even through confrontations. And since it is a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned:

– One, 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 goodness [it. buonismo], 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 the 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. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 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,” I think, these things…

Dear brothers and sisters, the temptations must not frighten or disconcert us, or even discourage us, because no disciple is greater than his master; so if Jesus Himself was tempted – and even called Beelzebul (cf. Mt 12:24) – His disciples should not expect better treatment.

Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for 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 parresia. 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. Can. 1752). And this always – we have said it here, in the Hall – 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. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48).

And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

The is the Church, our Mother! And when the Church, in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err: it is the beauty and the strength of the sensus fidei, of that supernatural sense of the faith which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that, together, we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our life. And this should never be seen as a source of confusion and discord.

Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.

And, as I have dared to tell you , [as] I told you from the beginning of the Synod, it was necessary to live through all this with tranquillity, and with interior peace, so that the Synod would take place cum Petro and sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter), and the presence of the Pope is the guarantee of it all.

We will speak a little bit about the Pope, now, in relation to the Bishops [laughing]. So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: [rather] to go out and find them.

His duty is to remind everyone that authority in the Church is a service, as Pope Benedict XVI clearly explained, with words I cite verbatim: “The Church is called and commits herself to exercise this kind of authority which is service and exercises it not in her own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ… through the Pastors of the Church, in fact: it is he who guides, protects and corrects them, because he loves them deeply. But the Lord Jesus, the supreme Shepherd of our souls, has willed that the Apostolic College, today the Bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter… to participate in his mission of taking care of God’s People, of educating them in the faith and of guiding, inspiring and sustaining the Christian community, or, as the Council puts it, ‘to see to it… that each member of the faithful shall be led in the Holy Spirit to the full development of his own vocation in accordance with Gospel preaching, and to sincere and active charity’ and to exercise that liberty with which Christ has set us free (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 6)… and it is through us,” Pope Benedict continues, “that the Lord reaches souls, instructs, guards and guides them. St Augustine, in his Commentary on the Gospel of St John, says: ‘let it therefore be a commitment of love to feed the flock of the Lord’ (cf. 123, 5); this is the supreme rule of conduct for the ministers of God, an unconditional love, like that of the Good Shepherd, full of joy, given to all, attentive to those close to us and solicitous for those who are distant (cf. St Augustine, Discourse 340, 1; Discourse 46, 15), gentle towards the weakest, the little ones, the simple, the sinners, to manifest the infinite mercy of God with the reassuring words of hope (cf. ibid., Epistle, 95, 1).”

So, the Church is Christ’s – she is His bride – and all the bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter, have the task and the duty of guarding her and serving her, not as masters but as servants. The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” (Can. 749) and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (cf. Cann. 331-334).

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; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.

One year to work on the “Synodal Relatio” which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as “lineamenta” [guidelines].

It’s going to be a very interesting, busy, and for some, an uncomfortable year of taking that message to heart, and to their home dioceses, adjusting to the reality that the Holy Father – as Pope Francis as done all along – is very keen on comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. No one can claim his favor rests on them, unless they seek and strive to serve the purposes he laid out in this speech and has emphasized since he became pope. They reconvene ‘with and under Peter’ – Francis as his successor – in a year. And the final word on how best the Church can obey and conform to the will of God, will come from him.

Synod drama: Church, culture, politics and media collide

Now we have a tangled web.

So much has happened so fast at the Synod, it’s difficult to put it together in one narrative. Especially since there are several different strands getting rapidly entangled in this two week event about to wrap up. The Saturday final document will be revealing. For now, some updates.

The mention in the last post of a translation issue, which seems like ages ago in such a rapidly changing Synod, referred to language in the Relatio, or interim report. Like the much debated paragraph #50:

50. Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing […] them […] a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

The phrase “valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine” threw many people for a loop. Whatever took place in the privacy of those assembly rooms to hash out discussions of what was supposed to be a broad sweeping focus on the many trials people face in modern culture, it quickly turned into a focus on the issues of divorced and remarried Catholics and communion, and on the Church’s stance on sexual orientation.

After an interview with the prominently positioned Cardinal Kasper appeared in Zenit.org in which he dismissed the input of African bishops at the Synod (noted in the last post), there was such a strong backlash to his views, that Kasper denied he had said such things, nor ever would speak that way. Which was baffling, given that the interview was posted by Edward Pentin, a veteran Vatican journalist known and respected for his longtime outstanding coverage of Church matters and intricacies. I’ve known Edward for many years, had him on my radio show as a regular guest, and trusted his reporting unfailingly.

So even though Zenit took the interview offline, Edward Pentin published this response on his site, together with the audio of the interview.

The emergence of the strong and clear voices of the African bishops has been an important element of this Synod, and Pope Francis recognized that late into the second week but in time to name one, and another striking voice, to the committee drafting the final Synod document.

Fr. Lombardi reported that “the Pope decided to act” by adding two new members to the writing committee that will synthesize the reports from the small circles of language-based discussions meeting this week. There have been loud grumbles about the makeup of the original group appointed by Pope Francis for its lack of geographic range. The two new appointments are Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa and Abp. Denis J. Hart of Melbourne.

Here’s another account of it all.

Numerous Vatican Synod Fathers have voiced grave concerns both within and without the Synod hall over the last few days that the Synod mid-term report has indeed endangered assurance of doctrinal security, and with potentially grave consequences.

Most recently, Australian Cardinal George Pell said: “In seeking to be merciful, some want to open up Catholic teaching on marriage, divorce, civil unions, homosexuality in a radically liberalising direction, whose fruits we see in other Christian traditions.” He urged, “the task now is to reassure good practising Catholics that doctrinal changes are not possible; to urge people to take a deep breath, pause and to work to prevent deeper divisions and radicalising of factions.”

Exactly. Effort must be made to prevent deeper divisions of the factions within the Church, which Pope Francis has repeatedly called on to be the ‘field hospital’ for the world’s wounded.

That CWR report notes this:

Perhaps this morning’s addition of Cdl. Napier of South Africa to the writing committee is coincidental. Some, however, speculate that it was engineered by prelates who believe that the perspective of the non-Western bishops is a critical contribution to the synod deliberations. The challenge to remain Catholic makes the heroic witness of the Africans all the more significant—they have not been persecuted by social pressure to conform, rather they have maintained their faith in the face of violence, beheadings, and burned villages; their bishops, said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, have “mopped up the blood of their people”.

Cardinal Dolan also reports that during the synod he has been inspired by the African bishops. “We in the west” are tempted to dilute the teachings, to worry about our popularity. However, said Cdl. Dolan, the Africans know they are not called to be popular but “to propose the truth”. The American cardinal declared the African testimonies as “prophetic.”

On radio Thursday,  I had a roundtable on the Synod, parsing the reports and news stories and documents so far released for whatever we could learn and clarify for others. Word On Fire’s Fr. Steve Grunow repeatedly emphasized this: The language of doctrine is clear and settled. The Synod is working on the language of encounter.

Fr. Robert Barron, Founder of Word On Fire media ministry, published this commentary the other day, to calm concerns while we wait for documents to come out of this Synod that will continue to be considered for the next year until the next synod is held.

What has just appeared is not even close to a definitive, formal teaching of the Catholic Church. It is a report on what has been discussed so far in a synod of some two hundred bishops from around the world. It conveys, to be sure, a certain consensus around major themes, trends that have been evident in the conversations, dominant emphases in the debates, etc., but it decidedly does not represent “the teaching” of the Pope or the bishops.

One of the great mysteries enshrined in the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church is that Christ speaks through the rather messy and unpredictable process of ecclesiastical argument. The Holy Spirit guides the process of course, but he doesn’t undermine or circumvent it. It is precisely in the long, laborious sifting of ideas across time and through disciplined conversation that the truth that God wants to communicate gradually emerges. If you want evidence of this, simply look at the accounts of the deliberations of the major councils of the Church, beginning with the so-called Council of Jerusalem in the first century right through to the Second Vatican Council of the twentieth century. In every such gathering, argument was front and center, and consensus evolved only after lengthy and often acrimonious debate among the interested parties.

In the immediate term, we’ll see whether some consensus evolves in Saturday’s final document. Final, that is, for now.

Synod report: Is there a seismic shift in Catholic approach to marriage?

No. There’s no change whatsoever in the Catholic Church’s teaching and doctrine on marriage and sexuality, contrary to what you may be hearing.

The Synod on the Family is wrapping up its second and final week for now, making news by the day and even by the hour it seems. Some of it is generated by ravenous media bereft of information and even opportunities for the feeding frenzy of press briefings other than what individual bishops will give them after the sessions.

Just when I was cheering on Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama speaking boldly to the West about trying to export ideas about marriage, family, human life that are foreign to African’s ideas, for trying to make Africans accept the West’s ideas and adopt them in Africa in spite of their direct conflict with what Africans’ believe and stand for in defense of human life and dignity, Germany’s outspoken Cardinal Kasper speaks out again, on the record with Zenit.org, about how “impossible” it is to reason with people of such beliefs.

The problem, as well, is that there are different problems of different continents and different cultures. Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects.

(However, it sounds like he just did.)

ZENIT: But are African participants listened to in this regard?

Cardinal Kasper: No, the majority of them [who hold these views won’t speak about them].

ZENIT: They’re not listened to?

Cardinal Kasper: In Africa of course [their views are listened to], where it’s a taboo.

See? An admission that the African contingent is simply rendered irrelevant, not listened to, except among themselves, on their own continent. How dismissive.

ZENIT: What has changed for you, regarding the methodology of this synod?

Cardinal Kasper: I think in the end there must be a general line in the Church, general crite

ria, but then the questions of Africa we cannot solve. There must be space also for the local bishops’ conferences to solve their problems but I’d say with Africa it’s impossible [for us to solve]. But they should not tell us too much what we have to do.

That’s interesting, given that Archbishop Kaigama said he same thing days earlier.

We get international organizations, countries, and groups which like to entice us to deviate from our cultural practices, traditions, and even our religious beliefs. And this is because of their belief that their views should be our views. Their opinions and their concept of life should be ours…

We have been offered the wrong things, and we are expected to accept simply because they think we are poor. And we are saying poverty is not about money. One can be poor in spirituality, poor in ideas, poor in education, and in many other ways.

So we are not poor in that sense. We may be poor materially but we are not poor in every sense. So we say no to what we think is wrong. And time has gone when we would just follow without question. Now, we question. We evaluate. We decide. We ask questions. This is what we do in Africa now.

Catholic scholar and Vatican expert George Weigel was my guest on radio Wednesday, and said “These northern European bishops seem not to have understood that conceding to the zeitgeist, conceding to the sexual revolution, which they have been trying to do since Humanae Vitae, is one of the reasons why their churches are empty. There is no future for dumbed-down Catholicism in this culturally challenging moment. The notion that the way you deal with this cultural tsunami that is sweeping across the western world is to bend before it, is foolishness of the first order. And that is what the African bishops are saying to the Europeans: ‘Don’t you impose your Western decadence on us,’ and good for them for saying it.

Weigel referred to Kasper’s interview as trying to silence the Africans by telling them ‘shut up, we’re not listening to you.’ Which he called “astonishingly arrogant,” and “which I hope he gets called to task for severely, publicly.” He called the expressions scandalous, and added that he’s “frankly glad it’s out in the open.” But he strongly asserted that Cardinal Kasper’s brother bishops and cardinals need to respond to those remarks. “This was an act of cultural snobbery.”

Weigel had just published a good piece in National Review trying to calm nerves over what is and isn’t happening in Rome at this Synod.

For the better part of a half century, the New York Times, and similarly situated purveyors of news and opinion, have eagerly awaited the Great Catholic Cave-In: that blessed moment when, at long last, the Catholic Church, like many other Christian communities, would concede that the sexual revolution had gotten it right all along and would adjust its teaching and practice to suit. A Times “breaking story” on October 13, under the headline “Vatican Signals More Tolerance Toward Gays and Remarriage,” might have struck the unwary or uninformed (or those equally committed to the Times agenda in these matters) as a signal that Der Tag, the Day, had finally arrived.

Thus Elisabetta Povoledo wrote that “an important meeting at the Vatican used remarkably conciliatory language on Monday toward gay and divorced Catholics, signaling a possible easing of the church’s rigid attitudes on homosexuality and the sanctity of marriage.” It would be hard to cram more misinformation into one sentence.

Weigel proceeds to dismantle the false reporting in the piece, and all other false ideas of Catholic teaching not up for amendment in this synod.

The 2014 synod is an agenda-setting exercise that was intended by Pope Francis to help prepare the work of the 2015 Synod on the Family. The pope knows full well that marriage and the family are in crisis throughout the world. In his own remarks before the synod, he said that he hoped the synod would lift up the beauty of Christian marriage and Christian family life in a world too dominated by what he’s often called a “throwaway culture,” the throwaways all too frequently including spouses and children…

The synod fathers are wrestling with difficult questions. How does the Catholic Church best approach, in a pastoral and charitable way, those who are living in what the Church has no option but to consider, objectively speaking, irregular situations? How does a Church of sinners — which is what all of us Catholics are — call people in those situations to the conversion to which all Christians are constantly called? How can it bring people to see the truth of their situation, and how can it best help them deal with that? These are not simple matters; matters of the heart rarely are.

Similarly, Princeton Professor Robert George published this commentary in The Public Discourse with the challenging question ‘Has the Catholic Church Changed its Teaching on Sex and Marriage?’

When you went to bed this past Sunday evening, the Catholic Church taught the following:

Marriage is indissoluble.

Catholics who attempt marriage following a divorce—without a declaration that their first bond wasn’t after all a valid marriage—enter a (presumptively) adulterous relationship. So long as they maintain a sexual relationship with their new partner, they cannot judge themselves to be in a state of grace and therefore cannot worthily receive Holy Communion.

To return to the sacrament, the partners must repent—which requires ending the new sexual relationship—and be absolved.

Marriage is the conjugal union of sexually complementary spouses—husband and wife.

Non-marital sexual acts, including all same-sex sexual acts, are seriously sinful.

Same-sex sexual desires are intrinsically disordered: that is, not ordered to the good of conjugal union. Experiencing such desires or inclinations is not sinful, but acting on them is.

The next day, Prof. George wrote, you would find that the Catholic Church teaches exactly the same.

“Hang on there, professor. Haven’t you heard? On Monday the Catholic Church changed its teachings on marriage and sexuality. There has been an ‘earthquake,’ a ‘seismic shift.’ Things will never be the same. The Church now welcomes remarried people to communion, has dropped its objections to homosexual conduct, and denies that homosexual desires are ‘intrinsically disordered.’ Or it’s about to do all of that. Francis is a new kind of Pope, and it’s a new day. He has brought Catholicism into line with the teachings of the Episcopal Church USA, the Unitarian Universalists, and the New York Times editorial board.”

If you are indeed thinking something like that, it’s because you’ve heard about something called a relatio post disceptationem, a document released on Monday as an interim report on discussions occurring at a Vatican synod of bishops (called an “extraordinary” synod because it is preparatory to a larger synod—an “ordinary” synod—that will occur next year) on contemporary challenges to the family.

The relatio, then, is raw material for this week’s discussion, which will prepare for next year’s discussion, which may provide fodder for a document by the Pope.

So it’s conducive to something preparatory to something (possibly) advisory.

It has no teaching authority whatsoever.

What’s more, it proposed no changes—none—in the doctrine or moral teaching of the Church.

Why did some people think it did? More on that next time. (Short answer for now: translation.)

Synod on the family makes big news

What we’re hearing and reading is coming largely from the synod of the media.

Well before the official 2014 Vatican Synod on the Family began in Rome over the weekend of October 5th, it began in news stories, blog posts, Facebook comments and Twitter posts with rampant speculation based on advance publications and comments by some cardinals about the Church’s teaching on marriage and divorce, re-marriage and communion, and homosexual relationships.

On the eve of the actual event, Rocco Palmo aptly noted the hoopla and reminded everyone to settle down.

Lest anyone got confused amid the spectacles in the gathering’s run-up, most of what’s transpired until now doesn’t mean terribly much – dueling Europeans and North Americans do not a Synod make… nor, for that matter, a universal church, either.

At the Mass opening it all, after reflections on the Gospel about cultivating the vineyard, Francis said this:

We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the vineyard of the Lord. The Synodal assemblies don’t serve to discuss beautiful or original ideas, or to see who’s the most intelligent one… They serve to care for and maintain better the Lord’s vineyard, to cooperate in his dream, in his project of love for his people. In this case, the Lord asks us to take on ourselves the care of the family, which from its origins is an integral part of his design of love for humanity. (emphasis added)

We are all sinners, eh?, and for us too there can be the temptation of “seizing upon” the vineyard, born of the greed that’s never lacking in us humans. The dream of God always clashes with the hypocrisy of some among his servants. We can “frustrate” the dream of God if we don’t let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us the wisdom that is apart from science, to work generously with true freedom and humble creativity.

Brothers of the Synod, to care for and guard well the vineyard, we need for our hearts and minds to be guarded in Christ Jesus, from whom comes “peace from God which is beyond all understanding”…

However, frustrations have abounded at times in the first week, and factions have claimed the Holy Spirit is either working anew in this Synod or missing from it, which is a reiteration of old arguments from Vatican II.

Even after Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI dedicated their entire pontificates to finally realizing the teachings of that council, after decades of those same old arguments. With Benedict still living on the grounds within the walls of the Vatican, sometimes enjoying the visits of Francis who comes to confer with him, one wonders what he’s thinking of these proceedings.

To come up to speed, here are some of the best updates at the start of the second and final week for now of this extraordinary event.

This post explains things rather clearly, especially the nature of the closed sessions which shut out all media access, leading to the abundance of speculation.

Pope Francis gave a very clear indication of the method the synod should follow: bishops should speak frankly. Without any reverential fear. Even without being afraid of not coinciding with the Pope’s own opinion. The synodal fathers, instead, have opted for confidentiality. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, General Secretary of the Synod, warned them, «You can speak with whomever you want, but your texts are the synod’s property.» One bishop underlined that «we also had to commit to keep the discussion confidential. We can speak about the topics we have addressed during the assembly, and also give our impressions, but we cannot give out the names of the people who have spoken.»

This is the reason why very little is known about the discussions in the synod. Reading the media, it seems the synod is a sort of referendum on Catholic divorce, or at least on the access to Communion for divorced remarried. The temptation to divide in categories (progressives against conservatives) is quite strong. Left in the about discussions in the synod, the media looks for contrasts that, it seems, bear no correspondence to what is actually taking place in the Synodal Hall.

What is reportedly happening in the synodal hall sometimes even includes boring discussions.

Judging from media reports about eruptions over doctrine and pastoral practice, they’re not reporting on the real Synod.

In the background, one can read the eternal debate about a Church that must spread a message and the way the Church presents this message to the world…

Until now, the media has somewhat led the discussion on the family. The absence of any texts on the interventions of the synodal fathers, the impossibility of knowing who said what, undermines rather than stimulates the discussions. It is then easy for the media to take the lead of the conversation…

The point that the crisis of the family represents the crisis of Catholicism….This same crisis that Pope Francis rightly identified as a central issue…

The risk is that of making of the synod more than what it is, by describing it in political terms which are alien to it; presenting it as a struggle that in fact is lost in nuances; or by expecting changes to the doctrine.

These are false expectations. The synod is a consultative body, not a deliberative one. It does not decide on doctrine.

And that’s a key point missed in the secular media. This two week session is a closed door exchange, a listening session, and nothing will be changed in the process.

That’s a dramatic counter-narrative to the Monday headlines found everywhere that an ‘earthquake’ was happening in Rome at the Synod. Not so, reports my friend Kathryn Jean Lopez, accurately.

Commenting on some of the headlines covering the synod on the family and the working summary document that was released and discussed today, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan emphasized that doctrine isn’t being changed in Rome right now.

On his weekly radio show, Dolan was joined Fr. Jonathan Morris from the Archdiocese of New York and Nigeria’s Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama — who has some choice words for Western insistence that aid be contingent on adopting Western sexual mores. Kaigama stressed the fact that it is but a mere conversation and one that will be ongoing for a year. “We were just looking at it!,” he said. “A draft is a draft. It’s a draft; draft means you are still working on it.” somewhat perplexed by media reaction, and that it was even released “I wonder what that is going to achieve,” he said.

Kaigama has been such a needed, clarifying voice in this world body of church leaders, helping the West to think outside our borders.

The synod is not a referendum. We’re not here to vote on this, on that. It’s a discussion, a conversation about our faith. And it is a year-long conversation because we are having another synod in October next year. What we decide or talk about now is also going to be part of what we shall talk about in a year’s time. So there’s nothing definitive that is going to be issued from this synod in the sense that this is the law, this is the doctrine, we change all the doctrines, change everything. No, no, I don’t think that is the aim of this synod. It is about talking.”

And listening. And exchanging freely the ideas about how best to reach people in the modern world, wherever they are, on the peripheries or in the mainstream, with a message of love and mercy and justice. Kathryn Lopez seized the media language of ‘mercy and justice’ leading to an ‘earthquake’ of rupture in Church teaching on marriage and divorce and related issues, and deftly wove it into this.

The most unfortunate headline of the day so far about news out of Rome on a working document that has been released by the ongoing synod on the family in Rome might have been this one from NBC: “Vatican Synod Told Gays Have Gifts and Qualities.” Our very lives are gifts and did anyone really need to be told that any person has qualities?

More than qualities, they are made in the image and likeness of God: that is our common identity.

“It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.”

That was from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

But there is an obvious difference in the language being used in the draft from the synod on the family that was released today. The working draft reflects the fact that it is 2014 and we have some real pastoral challenges and obstacles to evangelization. How do you overcome them? With a language, with gestures that are inviting people to Church teaching. With a language that acknowledges that same-sex marriage didn’t break marriage, decades of practical surrender to the sexual revolution did.

As with when Pope Francis said “Who am I to judge?,” for the world to finally begin to hear that Catholic Church teaching is really truly rooted in love, is a tremendous opportunity. The misunderstandings that are legion will be clarified if people have real-life and cultural exposure to Catholics living loving witness to the Gospel, living according to Church teaching and finding joy in it.

This will be a very interesting week, as the synod continues these sessions and wraps up. Plenty more to come.

Supreme Court on marriage; Synod on family

Maybe it’s the vortex of the perfect storm.

God knows, marriage and family, and therefore society, have been in crisis over these past years and that cultural breakdown has wrought great damage to individuals and societies. What are the factors behind it all? How do we get marriage right and serve the fundamental institution of the family on which a healthy and thriving culture is based? Competing views of both marriage and family have been going at it for decades, and that battle (I hate the pugilistic terminology these days, but it’s more a battle than a struggle) has escalated in the past few years faster and more furiously than before. The stakes are so high. For civilization.

So we arrive at a confluence of events this week.

Pope Francis convened an Extraordinary Synod on the Family at the Vatican over the weekend, an unusual event in the life of the Catholic Church. It didn’t as much  launch as continue a multi-year concentration of energies and focus on problems and issues in modern culture that required something far bigger and more momentous than a symposium, or a written document, a declaration of sorts. Here’s why.

The social and spiritual crisis, so evident in today’s world, is becoming a pastoral challenge in the Church’s evangelizing mission concerning the family, the vital building-block of society and the ecclesial community. Never before has proclaiming the Gospel on the Family in this context been more urgent and necessary.

(emphasis added)

Concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago have arisen today as a result of different situations, from the widespread practice of cohabitation, which does not lead to marriage, and sometimes even excludes the idea of it, to same-sex unions between persons, who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children. The many new situations requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care include: mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman; the caste system; a culture of non-commitment and a presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary; forms of feminism hostile to the Church; migration and the reformulation of the very concept of the family; relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage; the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life; underlying trends of thought in legislative proposals which devalue the idea of permanence and faithfulness in the marriage covenant; an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire); and new interpretations of what is considered a human right.

Which precisely gets to the marriage redefinition movement that has very successfully built momentum with high profile support and endorsements from celebrities in Hollywood, media, sports, politics, academia, the arts, and the culture at large. The movement to redefine marriage in law has claimed marriage as a human right, a new rendering of an ancient institution, recognized by government up to the recent past as one the State has an interest in preserving and upholding as a union of one man and one woman.

So fast forward past years of litigation in the courts, to the decision by the High Court on Monday, as the Supreme Court opened its new session. It shocked just about everyone. Its effect is being celebrated by proponents as so sweeping, it “could signal the inevitability of the right of same-sex marriage nationwide”, as the New York Times reported it. The Christian Science Monitor called it a ‘Supreme Mystery.’

Why didn’t the US Supreme Court agree to hear any of the seven petitions urging the justices to settle the contentious debate over same-sex marriage?

Speculation abounds.

The justices offered no hint of an answer in Monday’s orders list. The document unceremoniously announced that petitions from each of the cases from five different states had been denied…

It is even more puzzling because the Supreme Court had several times earlier this year issued stays to block orders by lower courts that sought to immediately allow same-sex couples to marry in states where a ban was struck down. Why would the justices seek to preserve the status quo for several months only to apparently change their mind now?

Sometimes justices who believe the court should decide a particular case will file a dissent and explain to the public why the court should take up the case. Nothing like that was presented on Monday.

And therein lies a clue as to what happened in this decision. It’s just one idea, but an insightful one, by Ed Whelan.

For what it’s worth, here’s my theory explaining yesterday’s order denying review in the SSM cases:

One or more of the three conservative justices who might most be expected to object to denial—that is, Scalia, Thomas, or Alito—instead concluded that denial was the best course. Why? Because that justice (or those justices) became convinced that Kennedy was beyond persuasion and that he was a certain fifth vote to invent a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. On that understanding, the least-worst option would be to deny review and thus (for the time being, at least) prevent the Supreme Court from placing its formal imprimatur on the developments below.

(Meaning those that came out of the lower courts, which they by necessity would have had to review and decide in the High Court.)

I think that this is the only theory that adequately explains why none of these three justices publicly registered a dissent. In particular, I don’t think that a competing theory—that the Chief Justice voted to deny but that Scalia, Thomas, and Alito all voted to grant—can explain the absence of a public dissent.

I don’t think that there’s any difficulty explaining why the four liberals would go along with the denial. Even if they’re equally confident of Kennedy, it’s much easier from their perspective to let the lower courts do the spadework and to intervene only if and when a court rules against a constitutional SSM right.

It makes sense. Whelan seems to offer the only – or best – plausible explanation for this stunning decision. There will be consequences, as we know already.

Which gets back to the Synod at the Vatican, dedicated to healing the world of hurt over ruptures in societies and civilization in this historic turning point. Vatican expert George Weigel (another EPPC scholar, like Whelan) posted a heartfelt request for a Synod of Affirmation. Weigel gets to the point, a couple of them in fact.

The collapse of marriage culture throughout the world is indisputable. More and more marriages end in divorce, even as increasing numbers of couples simply ignore marriage, cohabit, and procreate. The effort to redefine “marriage” as what we know it isn’t, and to enforce that redefinition by coercive state power, is well-advanced in the West. The contraceptive mentality has seriously damaged the marriage culture, as have well-intentioned but ultimately flawed efforts to make divorce easier. The sexual free-fire zone of the West is a place where young people find it very hard to commit to a lifelong relationship that inevitably involves sacrificing one’s “autonomy.” And just as the Christian understanding of marriage is beginning to gain traction in Africa, where it is experienced as a liberating dimension of the Gospel, European theologians from dying local churches are trying to empty marriage of its covenantal character, reducing it to another form of contract.

Rome, we have a problem.

Pope Francis understands the crisis of marriage culture in its multiple dimensions, just as he understands that the family, which begins in marriage, is a troubled institution in the post-modern world; that’s why he’s summoned two Synods on the topic of the family. And that’s why the Synod, fully aware of the gravity of the situation, should begin, continue, and end on a positive note, offering the world a pearl of great price: the Christian understanding and experience of marriage.

The Synod discussion, in other words, should take the crisis of marriage and the family as a given and then lift up Christian marriages, lived faithfully and fruitfully, as the answer to that crisis. The Synod should begin with what is good and true and beautiful about Christian marriage and Christian family life, and show, by living examples, how that truth, goodness, and beauty respond to the deepest longings of the human heart for solidarity, fidelity, and fruitful love.

It’s quite obvious that the Church faces real pastoral challenges in dealing with broken marriages and their results. But to begin the discussion of marriage and the family in the twenty-first century there is to begin at the wrong end of things. For it is only within the truth-about-marriage, which was given to the Church by the Lord himself, that compassionate and truthful solutions to those pastoral problems can be found.

This is only the middle of week one of two weeks of this Extraordinary Synod on marriage and the family. And just two days after the Supreme Court decision not to decide the marriage questions. Stay tuned, these are interesting times.