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.

  • Morton

    Just finished reading R.R. Reno’s short overview of Instrumentum Laboris. His view was the bishops should throw it out and start from scratch. He said reading it was a depressing experience.
    Yet again there is no mystery how this document came to be and who approved it: the pope did. Whichever pope followed Benedict and John Paul II would have big shoes to fill, no question. Still, the mediocrity of this effort and the willful abandoning of John Paul II’s teachings on the family, which after all were cognizant of the very same social realities as at present, for some non-scriptural and non-doctrinal based solutions, is rather sad and depressing.
    I suppose if Pope Francis was of a similar intellectual stature as his two predecessors, we could wait and see what he could do. Alas, we are all too aware of his intellectual shortcomings: he doesn’t hold a candle to his predecessors intellectually. Instead muddled, unclear thinking rules the day. One would think that a little humility would be in order for this pope given the giants who preceded him but he seems determined to ignore or undo his predecessor’s efforts and along with those whom he places his confidence I see a misplaced hubris instead. Are others seeing the same hubris?
    Many of the cardinals and bishops present at the synod, who’ve seen the masterful pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, should combat this descent into mediocrity with valiant ruthlessness. The Church deserves no less.

    • bernie

      I wish I could have expressed my thoughts as well as you have. Yes!, Yes!, Yes!

  • Chris in Maryland

    Having read many observations on the so-called “Synod on the Family,” and the comment by Morton on Reno’s overview of the IL, I think we are now seeing what happens when men like Cdl McCarrick and Cdl Danneels and Cdl Kasper all “come out of retirement” and team up to elect a Pope who will “change the Church in 5 years” (as Cdl McCarrick stated at Villanova).
    I am thankful for the faithful Bishops and Cardinals who are giving witness to the truth in the face of this clumsy sham called “The-Synod-on-the-Family.” I am thankful for the witness of men like Cdl Erdo, Cdl. Sarah, Cdl Pell and Archbishop Chaput. They stand in contrast to the manipulative, secretive and duplicitous trio above, who would do well to retire…once and for all…and take “the “1960s” with them.

  • Manfred

    Thank you Chris and Morton. All one has to do is Google: Cardinal McCarrick Syndrome, and then ask why this man is invited to speak at Villanova, or any place where decent people gather. See the constant comments of Fr. Rosica.
    It is already being being suggested (cf, Father Blake) that this Synod will go down in history as the Homosexual Synod. That alone explains everything.

  • Rene

    If there is one word that can describe Pope Francis’ pontificate so far, it is “CONFUSION.” The best way the Pope could use to show mercy would be to stop this confusion and to clearly show his support for Catholic doctrine.

  • Chris in Maryland

    That is a chilling statement.

  • Alwaysright

    I say, knowing the German’s intentions to walk away with changes in pastoral approaches with “The mercy of God is the fundamental truth of revelation, which does not stand in opposition to other truths,” the other Cardinals should “clarify” and present a real definition of God’s mercy in also 1/2 sentences; so Pope Francis will have 2 choices to think about what “God’s Mercy” really is.

  • bernie

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of the Fathers suggest some sort of general absolution, Perhaps it would be at the beginning of each Mass. After all, we did have a Rite of Penance at the beginning of Mass in the past. After the Confiteor the Priest would forgive everyone’s (venial) sins. By re- establishing the Rite for the inclusion of serious sins as well, the Pope, some Fathers would suggest, would thus throw the whole problem of the “divorced and remarried” back on to the conscience of the individual in a great act of “mercy”. Perhaps the Pope might be urged to limit the privilege to just the one Year of Mercy. The whole thing would mimic the General Absolution of soldiers about to enter a battle, and done with the proviso that the individual was obliged to bring his serious sins to Confession some time in the future.

    This whole idea is full of irreconcilable doctrinal problems, but some of the Fathers might just say to themselves, “Why not?, let’s give it a try”, the Pope seems willing to consider anything.