Thavis*) In pastoral terms, the document published today by the Synod
of Bishops represents an earthquake, the “big one” that hit after
months of smaller tremors.
post disceptationem read aloud in the synod hall, while
defending fundamental doctrine, calls for the church to build on
positive values in unions that the church has always considered
“irregular,” including cohabitating couples, second marriages
undertaken without annulments and even homosexual unions.
homosexuals, it went so far as to pose the question whether the
church could accept and value their sexual orientation without
compromising Catholic doctrine.
UPDATE below, calls for clarification already coming from some synod
defending the traditional teachings that reject divorce and gay
marriage, the synod said the modern church must focus more on the
“positive elements” in such relationships, rather than their
shortcomings, and open a patient and merciful dialogue with the
people involved. The ultimate aim, it said, is to use these “seeds”
of goodness to bring people more fully into the church.
summed up the pastoral challenge for the church in this way:
is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to
support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to
feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have
experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse
situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic
content of which should be made increasingly better known, be
proposed alongside with mercy."
document clearly reflects Pope Francis' desire to adopt a more
merciful pastoral approach on marriage and family issues. It is
subject to revisions by the bishops this week, and in its final form
will be used as part of a church-wide reflection leading to the
second synod session in October 2015.
The relatio emphasized
the “principle of graduality” – the idea that
Catholics move toward full acceptance of church teachings in steps,
and the church needs to accompany them with patience and
understanding. And it emphasized the opening of the Second Vatican
Council, which leads the church to recognize positive
elements even in the “imperfect forms” found outside of
The relatio said
a “new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting
the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation.” Where
such unions demonstrate stability, deep affection and parental
responsibility, they should be considered a starting point for a
dialogue that could eventually lead to sacramental marriage, it said.
cited situations of couples who choose to live together without
marriage for economic or cultural reasons, or those in Africa who
enter into traditional marriages in “stages,” and said that in
response the church must keep its “doors always wide open.”
such unions, it is possible to grasp authentic family values or at
least the wish for them. Pastoral accompaniment should always start
from these positive aspects,” it said.
dealing with broken families, couples who have separated or divorced,
the relatio said the church must avoid an “all or
nothing” approach, and instead engage in patient dialogue with such
families in a spirit of respect and love.
the question of Communion for Catholics who have divorced and
remarried without an annulment,the
document left the question open for further
theological study and reflection by the church as a whole,
especially on the links between the sacrament of marriage and the
Eucharist. It noted that some synod participants were against
admission of divorced Catholics to the sacraments, while others
foresaw Communion as a possibility, perhaps after a “penitential
out under church guidance.
dealing with divorced and remarried Catholics, it said, the church
must avoid discriminatory language. For the church, reaching out to
divorced Catholics does not represent a “weakening of its faith”
or a weakening of the indissolubility of marriage, but rather an
exercise of charity.
The relatio also
cited the many calls in the synod for a speeding up and streamlining
of the annulment procedures, including the possibility of an
“administrative” decision of nullity made by local bishops
without the need for a tribunal process. The pope has already named a
commission to explore those possibilities.
a section titled “Welcoming
homosexuals,” the relatio clearly
rejected gay marriage but stated:
have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we
capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal
space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that
offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of
providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation,
without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”
denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to
be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of
sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the
partners," it said.
synod framed its “opening” to irregular unions in the context of
evangelization – leading people to the Gospel – and
nowhere in the text is there a suggestion that basic church teachings
are up for debate.
first part of the relatio presents, in fact, a
rather severe diagnosis of the ills that affect the modern family,
citing in particular the dangers of an “exasperated individualism”
that seems to have replaced family cohesion. Other families are
struggling with economic troubles, violence and social upheaval, it
dealing with these problems and failures, it said, the church needs
to open a process of “conversion,” not merely announcing a set of
rules but putting forward values, recognizing the opportunities to
evangelize but also the cultural limits.
the question of birth control, the synod’s relatio had
little new to say. Openness to life is an essential part of married
love, it said, and it suggested a deeper reading of Humanae
Vitae, the 1968 encyclical that condemned contraception, as well
as better promotion of natural family planning methods of birth
as elsewhere, the text said the church needs to use a “realistic
language” that begins with listening to people, and can lead them
to acknowledge the “beauty and truth of an unconditional opening to
life.” It added, however, that the church also needs
to "respectthe dignity of the person in the
moral evaluation of the methods of birth control."
The relatio said
that in caring for “wounded families,” what rang out in the synod
was the need for “courageous pastoral choices” and new pastoral
paths that begin with the situation of the suffering couples or
families, recognizing that, often, their situations are more endured
than freely chosen.
called for improvement of marriage preparation for Catholics, saying
programs should better involve the church community as a whole. The
church also needs to design pastoral accompaniment for couples in the
early years of married life, using experienced couples as a resource,
made a particular point of inviting local Catholic communities around
the world to continue the synod’s discussion and offer their
perspectives, in view of the synod’s follow-up session on the same
theme, which will take place in Rome Oct. 4-25, 2015.
UPDATE: The relatio has
already occasioned some
Following its presentation in the synod hall, 41 bishops spoke about
the content, and several pressed for clarifications on specific
Some asked whether, in the section on homosexuality, there shouldn’t
be mention of the teaching that “some unions are
disordered,” a reference to the phrase the church has used
to describe homosexual relations. That information came from Cardinal
Peter Erdo, the primary author of the relatio, who spoke
to reporters at a Vatican press conference.
Sources said other bishops questioned the analogy the relatio drew
between the principle of finding “elements of sanctification and of
truth outside” outside the visible structure of the church,
expressed in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, and the broader
idea that positive elements can be found not only in sacramental
marriage but also in irregular unions.
At least one bishop asked what happened to the concept of sin. The
word “sin” appears only rarely in the 5,000-word relatio.
the press conference, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines
emphasized that this text was not the final version and said with a
smile, “So the drama continues.”