Round Two Ends: Large Questions Remain

The second round of the thirteen small language circle reports was released on Wednesday (read them here) – the ones on the Second Part of the Working Document that the bishops are debating and reworking. This section deals with “The Discernment of the Family Vocation” and, as we reported yesterday, has been widely criticized because it nowhere even provides a clear definition of what is a family. It’s no surprise that the thirteen reports show some differences in what they want to emphasize – or cut. But it is rather surprising that virtually every one of them agrees on one point: they don’t much like the text they’re being forced to work with and are recommending major “restructuring.”

And they want, even if their motives for it vary, to see more of certain things: more Jesus, more Scripture, more prayer and spiritual formation, more discussion of popular devotions to help encourage whole families towards developing a common spiritual life. Less handwringing and jargon. Some want to see the return of the Holy Family, in particular, as a model, which has been all but absent from this odd document, and would have to come into any real consideration of what God intends a family to be and do.

In all the discussion to this point, however, there’s still a notable absence of some of what you might think are the crucial themes of  Christianity: sin, judgement, how to get to Heaven, how to avoid Hell (something Jesus talks about quite a bit). Family life seems to overshadow eternal life. Where is the traditional wisdom that our life on earth is short and we need to look beyond it even to live well here? No text can deal with everything, but it’s remarkable how much of Christianity doesn’t seem to have a great deal to do with family questions.

Still, with a couple of exceptions, the reports move things in a much healthier direction. The Germans are, as usual, most abstract when they are trying to be most pastoral: “The mercy of God is the fundamental truth of revelation, which does not stand in opposition to other truths.” Scripture says things like “In the beginning was the Word,” and it might have been better to start there rather than with what seems a new, modern emphasis. And who knows what it even means? In a Synod on the Family, it essentially offers no help in resolving some of the hard questions that soon will need to be addressed. One of the Spanish groups at times sounds like it’s consulted with an urban life-coach: “Fidelity/indissolubility is a mystery that includes fragility.” Both groups quote Thomas Aquinas, to ends that it’s doubtful he would approve.

But there’s much more in the remaining groups that is quite good and that seeks not only to fix specific points, but to remedy the overall problems like incoherence and lack of a robustly Catholic spiritual dimension in the text.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster (London) tried to offer an explanation why such problems exist yesterday: The final report from last year’s synod, whatever it’s own shortcomings, at least had a unified point of view. This year’s Working Document took that and, rather haphazardly, added to it in an effort to include a diversity of views and topics submitted by many hands.

Perhaps. There may be simpler explanations: a poor job by a drafting committee or a deliberate floating of mutually incompatible possibilities to see whether bishops would go for them. But when even a fairly liberal Synod Father like Cardinal Nichols concedes the radical insufficiencies of the main synod document, that makes it much more likely that the substantive criticisms can’t be ignored by the final drafting committee.

At the same time, as questions have been put to the Vatican Press Office and to particular bishops who have been asked to make public presentations, it seems that there’s an effort being made to keep open as many options for the Holy Father as possible – perhaps because Pope Francis and his advisors are now anticipating a less than wholly congenial final product.


We’ve spoken here several times of the confusion about whether there will even be a final synodal document. Each time that question is asked – it came up again yesterday – possibilities appear to multiply. It’s settled that the drafting committee will present the bishops with the first draft of a final document a week from today (or a little later). Their proper task is supposed to be to reflect the bishops’ views – not to publish, as they did with last year’s Interim Report – some creative confection of their own. Many more people are watching this year, and that alone may make it difficult to introduce innovations. The bishops will work the text over one more time – and a final vote will be taken, paragraph by paragraph, a week from Saturday.

What happens then is where we’re hearing greater possibilities being suggested. As Fr. Lombardi has put it, it may be that: 1) the pope will read it and call for it to be officially published; 2) or he may let it be “published by the Synod,” but not officially by the pope himself or the Vatican (which has happened in previous synods); 3) he may say, thank you your good work and go off to consider what to do next; 4) he may take the bishops’ work as sound advice and decide to use it to prepare a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation (a common practice, but not always); 5) he may decide that the final document not be published at all – not very likely since it would cast a shadow over the whole Synod. And anyway it’s equally unlikely that the final document could be kept from being leaked in this day and age.

Still, the fact that all these possibilities are even being talked about suggests to some of us with experience of these sorts of events that the Vatican is preparing everyone, very early, to accept that the pope has multiple choices, is not excluding any of them ahead of time, and should cause no great surprise whatever he decides to do. Popes have always had such prerogatives, so it’s hard not to think that the emphasis on his freedom has something to do with worries about where the bishops may be heading. They almost certainly will not, for example, approve Communion for the Divorced and Remarried.

Cardinal Nichols mentioned in his remarks Wednesday that he personally hopes that the Holy Father will prepare an Apostolic Exhortation based on the bishops’ work – and that quite a few of his fellow bishops feel the same. In several ways, that would take the burden off them on the thorny points and place the responsibility squarely on the pope’s shoulders. And in truth, it’s hard to say how anyone but the pope could resolve some of the questions that these bishops have been called on to consider.

For example, several observers have been asking for the resolution of a specific question. We know that one of the crucial theological problems raised by both the 2014 and this 2015 synods has to do with whether giving Communion to the Divorced/Remarrieds would be only a pastoral decision or a change in doctrine. The almost unanimous opinion of 2000 years of Catholicism is that it would be a change in doctrine – change of doctrine being something that the bishops, almost to a man, seem to recognize is impossible. Hence, the reassurances from the pope and others that doctrine has not been “touched” in either synod.

But a theological question persists that has nothing to do with mercy vs. legalism, as is often thought. Cardinal Nichols may have muddied – or did he clarify? – matters yesterday by asserting that the whole Synod should be seen in the context of the Year of Mercy that begins December 8. How is that? Reception of Communion has always meant being in a “state of grace.” It’s one of the earliest things children learn in catechism classes: that even Catholics in good standing who have committed some mortal sin that they have not confessed are not supposed to present themselves for Communion. How can we possibly have been considering changing the rules for the divorced and remarried without upsetting wide swaths of sacramental theology?

Declaring that “The mercy of God is the fundamental truth of revelation, which does not stand in opposition to other truths,” is one way – a potentially bad one – of answering the question. It declares there’s no opposition, but in the case of the divorced/remarrieds where does that lead? Bumping such decisions to regional bishops’ conferences, a proposal that comes back again and again in the Synod but hasn’t taken on any precise shape so far, would be a way to duck the whole question.

But the question – change in practice or change in doctrine? – will remain. And it’s looking more and more like the bishops of the world will have to wait for Pope Francis to answer it.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.