A Good Opening Day for Catholicism

At the first press briefing for the Synod on the Family at the Vatican on Monday, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris André Armand Vingt-Trois stated – rather forcefully – that anyone who came to Rome expecting to see “spectacular changes” in Catholic doctrine was going to be “sadly disappointed.” Quite true, replied Archbishop Bruno Forte – author of the troubling passages on Communion for the divorced and remarried and on homosexuals in last year’s synodal documents – but at the same time “we won’t just do nothing. We will seek new pastoral approaches.” So, you might be tempted to think: here we go again. Yes, these two options are still in play; but no, not in exactly the same proportions. Some things seem to have definitely changed

To begin with, Pope Francis gave a stimulating and encouraging homily at the Sunday Mass for the opening of the Synod. After a year of worries and anguish about just where everything was headed, it was good to have his good words, at the outset, which strongly pointed towards complete faithfulness to the tradition on marriage.

In a way, it was a providential moment. The Gospel reading for the day was precisely that passage (Mark 10) where Christ reverses Moses on divorce, and proclaims the indissolubility of marriage. That, as we know, scandalized even the Apostles, and the Jews of the time more generally, one of several proofs that this is a special teaching of Jesus Himself, something not to be ignored or explained away.

But Francis went further. Read the full text of his homily to appreciate what he is thinking. Perhaps most important for those worried about deviation from the Church’s constant teaching on marriage was this: “Jesus responds in a straightforward and unexpected way. He brings everything back to the beginning of creation, to teach us that God blesses human love, that it is he who joins the hearts of two people who love one another, he who joins them in unity and indissolubility. This shows us that the goal of conjugal life is not simply to live together for life, but to love one another for life! In this way Jesus re-establishes the order which was present from the beginning.”

He quotes both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a clear sign that he is aligning himself with those brilliant and holy men who preceded him as successors of Peter. And most particularly he says this about the Church’s duty: “To carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions. The truth which protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds. ‘Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love.’” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 3).

There are also a few phrases about openness and reaching out to people in difficult circumstances, but – to me, at any rate – relatively little, and utterly swamped by precisely those affirmations of Catholic truth that so many have felt missing from this papacy.

Francis opens Synod 2015
Francis opens Synod 2015

Francis’s opening remarks on Monday at the Synod itself were also encouraging:

the Synod is not a parliament in which to reach a consensus or a common accord, there is recourse to negotiation, to deal-making, or to compromise: indeed, the only method of the Synod is to open up to the Holy Spirit with apostolic courage, with evangelical humility and confident, trusting prayer, that it might be He, who guides us, enlightens us and makes us put before our eyes, with our personal opinions, but with faith in God, fidelity to the Magisterium, the good of the Church and the Salus animarum. [“Salvation of souls”]

When the focus is fidelity and salvation – not some earthly goal or political accommodation – whatever else happens, we are looking in the right, the only necessary, direction.

Budapest’s Cardinal Peter Erdö, the official “relator” of the Synod, made pointed commentary in his opening remarks on the two issues everyone has been discussing, but which are not necessarily the most important items on the bishops’ agenda: Communion for the divorced and remarried, and how to treat people with same-sex attraction or relationships. In language that was quite remarkable for its bluntness, and that some believe he would not have used without prior support from Francis, he said (my translations, since the official English translation has been “delayed”):

As to the divorced and civilly remarried, there should be a merciful, pastoral accompaniment, which does not however leave any doubt about the truth of the indissolubility of marriage taught by Jesus Christ Himself. The mercy of God offers pardon to the sinner, but it requires conversion.

That final word, of course, was what many people sensed was missing from talk about openness and outreach to people in admittedly difficult situations.

And if that doesn’t surprise you, how about this? After a few sentences on the pastoral approach to people with same-sex attractions, the good Cardinal said: “In any event, the Church teaches that, ‘there does not exist any basis for assimilating or establishing analogies, not even remote ones, between homosexual unions and God’s plan for marriage and the family.’” This from the designated “relator” or official reporter on the proceedings of the Synod.

At the same time, one heard through reliable persons, present in the room but who cannot be quoted by name, that Cardinal Reinhard Marx – the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, who publicly announced prior to the Synod that Germany is not a subsidiary of Rome and can do what it wants on its own – was heard privately grumbling about Cardinal Erdö’s opening remarks.

There are three long weeks to go and much can happen between now and the end of the Synod. But as such things have gone recently, a good opening day for Catholicism.