2015: The Text and the Context

The 2015 Synod on the Family is done; it produced several lights and not a few shadows. The Final Report, as it now stands, contains some strong spiritual reflections, drawing on the Sacred Scriptures and the traditions of the Church. It also deals realistically with many of the social and cultural and political situations of families around the world – situations that vary greatly: from the sex-saturated hedonistic culture of the West to conditions of war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa. A few paragraphs would have been better left out. Taken solely as a general view of the family, it has value. But the context in which the text was developed is another thing entirely, and will be a sore point for years to come.

A theme often repeated by the Synod Fathers during the past three weeks is that a Church worried about the future of the family today would be taking a very narrow view if it only reflected Western concerns about gays and divorce. One sign of how far the 2015 Synod moved, despite continuing problems, is that there is none of the talk about “accepting and valuing. . .[gay] sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony,” a big walk back from the notorious 2014 Midterm Report. Over the weekend, the BBC said Francis had been “defeated” on gays – not particularly accurate since he’s not a supporter of gay marriage. And besides, the original Working Document, which he had little to do with, said little about homosexuality. But “The Beeb” wasn’t the only news outlet making things up to suit its own obsessions. Beware of such accounts, and the whole media echo chamber.

A good portion of the Final Report is helpful and a testament to a global Church interested in proclaiming the Good News and meeting responsibilities for all the world’s families. When it’s translated, it will be worth spending time with for anyone interested in the troubles at present and hopes for the future of families.

But Communion for the Divorced and Remarried still sucked up most of the oxygen in the First World – especially in the media. It would have been satisfying to be able to say that we know precisely where we are now. The Wall Street Journal has no doubts: “Bishops Hand Pope Defeat on Outreach to Divorced Catholics.” (Which is to say, as many have noted, that there is no explicit mention of Communion for them in the document, and therefore no clear textual support for one strain in the two-year synodal process since Cardinal Walter Kasper’s February 15, 2014 address to the bishops in Rome at Pope Francis’ invitation.) The Roman newspaper Il Messagero received a different message: “Yes, to Communion for Divorced.” Others, who want that to be the message, will claim that as well. In fact, the result was, as it often is under this pope, more muddled.

The bishops chose not to vote yes or no on the document as a whole, but only on the individual paragraphs so that it is, in essence, a series of reflections presented to the pope for his consideration, not a global statement formally approved by the Synod Fathers. We’ll have to wait for Francis himself to tell us what he considers to be the next step. He may have made it harder for himself both by the way the Synod was run and (see below) by his angry reaction to criticisms and traditional believers.

Despite what may be often said in the days and weeks to come, it’s worth repeating: The Final Report of the Synod does not speak of Communion for the Divorced and Remarried. (CDR) If that is what the pope wants, he will have to decide to put it there. As we have been saying here from the beginning, there was clear opposition to that proposition as such.  Because of controversies, there’s also better and clearer language about the relationship of conscience and the moral law in the text than in the earlier Instrumentum laboris. But a couple of paragraphs in the final text – which received the highest number of negative votes – push far into “discernment” of individual circumstances and invoke the “internal forum,” which is to say private direction by a priest or bishop, coming right up to the edge of CDR, but not crossing over into it in so many words.

Some reporters have cast this as strong backing of Church teaching, a too optimistic characterization. But neither is it a hall pass for Catholic liberals. There were efforts in the discussions the final day to clarify that this was not a blanket invitation to changing doctrine or discipline. Fr. Federico Lombardi deliberately emphasized continuity with the teachings of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, less convincingly, pointed to clear criteria that would guide discernment.

There are criteria, but whether they are clear is another matter. When you turn to the text, this is what you find (my translation because an official English text has not yet appeared):

85. St. John Paul II offered a comprehensive criterion, which remains the basis for the evaluation of these situations. “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.”

This is JPII being used to support the idea of more vigorous discernment, which may already be a bit of a stretch given the way discernment is now understood. What’s missing is what JPII says two paragraphs later in Familiaris Consortio: “However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

Pope Francis holds the Gospel Book as he celebrates a Mass to mark the end of the Synod of bishops, in St.Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015. Catholic bishops called Saturday for a more welcoming church for cohabitating couples, gays and Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried, endorsing Pope Francis' call for a more merciful and less judgmental church. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Indissolubility is affirmed elsewhere in the Synod Final Report, and there are passages sprinkled in the text that suggest what JPII stated outright. There are also references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church about “imputability” when circumstances many diminish or even annul personal responsibility. Properly followed, all these citations could mean that we are still under the same regime as always in the Church. But eighty Synod Fathers voted no here, the most against any single paragraph because, without explicitly permitting a change in practice, it has the potential of allowing several loopholes.

The question being fought over is: will discernment be properly guided by those firm moral principles enunciated by JPII? This is where some may come down on the side of the WSJ or Il Messagero. The actual words of the text are these:

86. The course of accompaniment and discernment orients these faithful towards an examination of conscience about their situation before God. The discussion with the priest, in the internal forum, goes together with the formation of a correct judgment about what blocks the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on the steps that would favor it and make it grow. Given that in the same law there is not graduality (cf. Familiaris Consortio 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel’s demands of truth and of charity as proposed by the Church. So that this can happen, there should be guaranteed the necessary conditions of humility, reserve, love of the Church and her teachings, in the sincere search for the will of God and in the desire to achieve a more perfect response to it. [Italics added.]

There are a lot of compromises behind this wording, and the learned theologians will no doubt work it over carefully. But reading them as they are written, and taken apart from the controversial context, you might say that they could have been written by JPII. The phrase I’ve highlighted in italics seems to lean heavily in the direction of the need for a change in life to remove obstacles more than anything else. And when you say that there is no graduality in the law, you’re saying that people gradually come closer to what they are supposed to follow, but the law itself is always constant and cannot be abrogated simply because people are only slowly coming into harmony with it. Still, there’s a reason why sixty-four Synod Fathers voted against this paragraph, perhaps not so much for what it says, as what it could lead to in the current climate within the Church.

But also consider this: the votes for the Synod Council, the governing group for synods going forward. As I reported Friday (though the official results had not been released), these show basically a two-thirds majority for traditional Catholic teachings. Sandro Magister has reported over the weekend that Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia received the largest number of votes of any single person elected, worldwide – though Cardinals George Pell and Robert Sarah also had large numbers. This is very good news. From the Americas, we also have Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet (a solid citizen), and Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga (a close confident of the pope). From Asia, Cardinals Pell, Oswald Gracias (Bombay), and Luis Antonio Tagle (Manila). From Africa, Cardinals Sarah, Wilfred Napier, Gabon Bishop Mathieu Madega Lebouakehan.

Only in Europe is there a rather weak slate: Schönborn, English Archbishop Vincent Nichols, and Archbishop Bruno Forte (strong Italian cardinals such as Scola, Caffara, Bagnasco had large numbers of votes individually, and if the Italians had gotten their act together and picked a single candidate, one of them would have swept to victory). In any event, in so far as the Synod Council will guide future events, there is a preponderance of serious figures – and their selection shows the general mood of the Synod Fathers.

The pope himself was not in an entirely happy mood at the end of the proceedings, though as is usual in Vatican events, the official line was that everything ended in fraternity and synodality, even a standing ovation at his final speech. Among many positive assertions, Francis, however, expressed irritation with parts of the conversation: “In the course of this Synod, the different opinions which were freely expressed – and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways. . . .”

And in his remarks as to what the Synod was about, he said: “It was also about laying bare the closed hearts, which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.”

This is recurrent theme with him. No one would deny that there are authoritarians among those who emphasize traditional teachings – just as there are authoritarians with the opposing theological views. But these are the fringes, and the few. Many clergy and lay people were quite offended – and angered – by this remark. To be fair, he may only have been saying that some traditionalists are hard of heart. But that is not how most people have read it. And it’s likely to exacerbate the divisions that already existed.

This is a reality that we will probably be dealing with for no small while now in the Church. The Final Report is a tolerable text, especially for something produced by a committee of 270. If it had been passed under the papacy of John Paul II, it would have raised little, if any, alarm. But in a context of mutual suspicion and anger, what is tolerable may become intolerable.

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.