Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Preliminary Report From The Synod

It’s unnerving to me that the Extraordinary Synod’s preliminary report has been greeted by such descriptions as “ground breaking,” “an earthquake,” and “the worst document ever issued by the Church.”

Some like what they read; others do not.

On October 13 the synodal committee* charged with the responsibility of summarizing the significance of the first week’s discussions issued its relatio post disceptationem (a report on the discussions) regarding the challenges facing families in the context of the new evangelization.

As is expected, the bishops are not unanimous in their responses to the questions surrounding cohabitation, civil unions, homosexual persons, and the divorced-and-remarried.

Some of the bishops are concerned that change in the Church’s attitude toward the persons involved in these difficult situations will undermine basic and immutable principles of ethics, morality and dogma.

Others, perhaps the majority of the 190 bishops who vote on these matters, are concerned about application of these principles without denying Church teaching on divorce, homosexuality, or sexual morality in general.

Also as expected, many in the media and even many Catholics have so focused on the bishops’ discussions about cohabitation, civil marriages, the-divorced-and-remarried, and homosexual unions that they have neglected or ignored the context in which these discussions have taken place.

They overlook Pope Francis’ reminder that to address today’s challenges, we must maintain “a fixed gaze on Jesus Christ” and “return to the source of the Christian experience.” It is in this attitude that “new paths and undreamed of possibilities open up.”

Pope Francis, like St. Paul, wants to turn the Church’s primary focus to Jesus rather than to law. Perhaps The Letter to the Galatians should be required preliminary reading for those discussing family challenges in the context of  the new evangelization.

 Law is necessary but its necessity is balanced by the realization that it is the spirit that gives life (cf 2 Cor 3:6).

The Narrow Edge

The synod is walking the narrow edge between principle and pastoral application.

One of the principles operative in the bishops’ discussions has been gradualism, or the principle of gradualness. Pope John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortitio in 1981 noted that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.” Pope John Paul  used the terms “ex gradualitatis” and “gradualis perfectus” in reference to this gradualism.

He said, “Married people too are called to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God” (34).

He made it clear that he did not mean “gradualness of the law,” the idea that there are different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals or situations” (34). He did however recognize that couples are at various stages of understanding the law and are called to press on to implementation of the law of Christ.

The synodal discussions supported the idea of taking people where they are and helping them to progress. The preliminary report notes, “It is not wise to think of unique solutions or those inspired by a logic of ‘all or nothing.’ The dialog and meeting that took place in the synod will have to continue in the local churches…the guidance of the Spirit, constantly invoked, will allow all God’s people to live the fidelity to the Gospel of the family as a merciful caring for all situations of fragility” (40).

There was general agreement among the bishops that procedures for diocesan marriage tribunals which render judgments about cases of nullity need to be more accessible and flexible and there needs to be “a speeding-up of the procedure” (44).

Without changing the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and homosexual unions, the synod recognizes that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community” and then asks whether we are capable of welcoming them (50).

The English translation (provided by the Vatican’s press office and labeled “unofficial”) goes on to ask whether our communities are capable of welcoming them, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony” (50). Some bishops at the synod and other critics have objected to the word “valuing” in the above translation, noting that the Italian says valutare, which can also be rendered as evaluate, consider, appreciate, understand.

Change in Attutude

Several statements in the Relatio suggest a definite change, not in dogma but in attitude:

--Speaking of the law of gradualness as “typical divine pedagogy” (13).

--The need for spiritual discernment regarding cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced-and-remarried persons (20).

--Evangelizing as the shared responsibility of all God’s people (26).

--A repeated insistence on renewal of programs for training priests and other pastoral associates through a greater involvement in families themselves (32)
 --A clear call in the synod for  the necessity of courageous pastoral choices (40).

It is noteworthy that some of the language in the preliminary report reflects the language of the instrumentum laboris, the working paper that was developed from the worldwide surveys which Pope Francis called for in preparation for this year’s synod. The voice of God’s people has been heard.

Also noteworthy is the poverty of the English translation the Vatican press office provided. It could be a computer generated translation, for several sentences are awkward and do not reflect what we might call “Church language.”

Nevertheless, that a Church document that seeks to be pastoral and to bring the Gospel into the lives of all people should be hailed as “an earthquake” or as “the worst document in Church history” is a sad commentary on how we have been behaving for too long.

It is essential, of course, to recall that this “Relatio post disceptationem” is a preliminary report on the synodal discussions and is not the final verdict. A synod will meet in October of 2015 to evaluate these initial discussions.


* The synodal committee, assisting Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, included  Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (Vatican), Cardinal Donald Wuerl (United States), Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez (Argentina), Archbishop Carlos Agular Retes (Mexico), Archbishop Peter Kang U-ll (South Korea) and Father Adolfo Nicolas Pachon (Spain).

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