Comment Comment and Features

The cracks widen at the family synod

Pope Francis flanked by adviser Bishop Marcello Semeraro (AP)

The family synod which ended on Sunday has provided much material for observers of the inner working of the Catholic Church. Over the past three weeks there were rapid and sometimes dramatic developments which gained widespread media attention – the prospect of significant change in the Church and infighting between high-ranking prelates which spilt over into public squabbling and acrimony. All under a Pope who many expect radically to transform Catholicism.

The synod of bishops was put in place after Vatican II to help the pope of the day govern the worldwide Church with an ear to the needs and views of the episcopate spread over the five continents. Hence it acts, in part, as a kind of counterweight to the Eurocentric Roman Curia. Importantly, its function is not to take divisions but to advise the pope.

Until now, most of the synod’s gatherings have been sedate. Their deliberations have unfolded along carefully laid out lines, and some might say they have been stage-managed in order to avoid radical challenges to the status quo. They have usually produced a document with recommendations for the pope, to which he responds afterwards with a document known as an “apostolic exhortation”. These texts rarely made anything of a stir.

The advent of Pope Francis has changed all that. Many began to hope for far-reaching changes from the new pope, going beyond mere differences of tone and embracing concrete changes. In no field were such changes more likely to grab attention than in the theme which had already been chosen for the 2015 gathering, that of marriage and the family. A synod on the same topic in 1983 led to the publication of St John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. This reaffirmed that those Catholics who had divorced and remarried civilly could not approach the confessional or the Eucharist until they had amended their life. This provoked disappointment from many countries in which a contrary practice had evolved.

Among the theologians advocating a relaxation of the rules was a certain Walter Kasper, who was not seen as radically unorthodox but as a centrist or moderate liberal. He and others advocated allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Communion without reneging on the teaching that marriage is indissoluble. Surely, he argued, if those in this painful situation undertook to live a time of penance involving exclusion from the Eucharist, they should be received into Eucharistic fellowship in recognition of their good faith and humble acceptance that they had failed.

John Paul II and the future Benedict XVI rejected this argument. All knew that the issue would not be reopened under John Paul II, and Benedict’s election in 2005 once more disappointed the advocates of change. Then came Pope Francis, who publicly praised Kasper (who was made a cardinal by John Paul in 2001). Suspicions that the divisive issue would be back on the agenda were soon confirmed. Cardinal Kasper was invited by the Pope to relaunch his proposal before the college of cardinals.

Pope Francis called an “extraordinary” meeting of the synod in October 2014 to prepare for the already scheduled “ordinary” session of 2015, and he made it clear that nothing was off the table. Almost overnight, the synod seemed to become part of a bold plan to bring the Church into a more accommodating position towards prevailing mores.

The 2014 meeting proved a tumultuous affair. Its preparation was put into the hands of prelates known to be sympathetic to what was becoming known as the “Kasperite agenda”. Synod organisers announced that deliberations would not be made public in order to encourage participants to speak with the parrhesia, or bold frankness, which Francis made it clear that he wanted to promote. Suspicions that there was an underhand process aimed at subverting traditional Catholic teaching grew when a mid-term report seemed to endorse Cardinal Kasper’s ideas, and indeed went beyond them in speaking of positive aspects of relationships other than marriage, including homosexual unions. The report had not been presented beforehand or approved by the assembly, and accusations of manipulation and rigging were heard even on the synod floor.

In the end, the synod concluded with a document which was essentially a compromise. It drew back from some of the more advanced positions of the mid-term report, but included more carefully phrased expressions which were deemed too daring to receive the required two-thirds majority of the bishops. The Pope insisted that they be included in this year’s discussions anyway. Everybody knew that the 2015 synod would be tense and momentous.

So what actually happened in the past three weeks? It was certainly a gruelling experience for the prelates involved. Many of them (especially those not among the most outspoken members of what has come to be seen as two diametrically opposed camps) have insisted that the discussions, while lively, were in fact serene and constructive. Both on the synod floor, and in the small groups in which most of the real work was done, the deliberations were amiable and apparently fraternal. But enough has transpired of what went on behind the scenes to establish that there is a real fracture within the Catholic hierarchy, divergences in theological outlook and, more worryingly, an apparent breakdown of trust.

From the start of this month’s synod, there were accusations of a lack of transparency and an undue desire on the part of the organisers to steer the assembly towards a pre-determined outcome – one that would satisfy the desires of Cardinal Kasper and his allies. Thirteen cardinals wrote to the Pope to express concerns to this effect. Reports on their identity diverged a little, but it is certain that the Australian Cardinal George Pell was their chief spokesman. The Pope intervened on the synod floor to address their worries, in a manner with which they expressed themselves satisfied but which failed to convince some conservative commentators.

What was astonishing was not only that private correspondence with the Pope was made public by unknown persons, but that this was then used to attack the signatories, making them out to be a cabal against Pope Francis, determined to frustrate his will and undermine his papacy. Since a cardinal’s job is to advise the Pope, and not merely to “rubberstamp” his desires, real or supposed, this was a puzzling accusation.

The leak revealed a poisonous atmosphere, in which some prelates sought to discredit others by accusations of disloyalty. It is noteworthy that some of those who have promoted this narrative, and spoken as if even the wishes and opinions of the Pontiff were beyond questioning, were not so Ultramontane when certain circles in the Vatican were undermining Benedict XVI.

As the synod went on it became apparent that Cardinal Kasper’s proposal was unlikely to be retained. In the event it was apparently rejected by a decisive majority. The synod fathers were also asking for a document of a more doctrinal character, presenting the positive side of Catholic teaching on the family and not merely a sociological analysis concentrating on what is problematic. These concerns do seem to have been reflected in the final document which received the required two-thirds majority in voting on Saturday.

So, to answer the question that most observers seem to want to ask, who won? Did Cardinal Kasper and his progressive allies prevail, or did Cardinal Pell and his fellow conservatives win the day? Of course, the answer is not so simple. The synod fathers strove to achieve a consensus, and any consensus involves compromise. The final document is finely balanced.

Impressively laden with a solidly biblical theology, it insists on the Catholic doctrine of the family as the cornerstone of God’s plan for man. While the primacy of conscience is affirmed, it’s stressed that conscience must be informed by a sound formation based on objective truth.

The problem is that few people will read this splendid document in full, let alone carefully. The media, and indeed probably most Catholics, will flick straight through to the sections dealing with the divorced and remarried.

The Italian press proclaimed almost unanimously after the synod approved the text that Communion was to be given to the remarried after a “discernment” carried out with their confessor. In fact, the document does not make this clear. It speaks of such a process as leading to a full “reintegration” into the life of the Church. Progressives are claiming victory, but conservatives say nay. Consensus has clearly been achieved only by means of ambiguity, and any hope for clarity has been the price that has been paid.

Whether full integration includes Eucharistic Communion is being fiercely debated. The competing claims are still dividing commentators along mostly predictable lines. That means that the Pope will have to decide. Remember, the synod is only consultative.

What will he decide? Either way he is in an unenviable position. Either he disappoints those who present themselves as his friends and supporters, or he risks fomenting opposition which will put into the shade the hitherto discreet rumblings of dissatisfaction with his governance which are circulating among conservative churchmen.

Many complain that he has shown partiality in his management of this affair and it is difficult to deny any substance to this complaint. The most controversial paragraph in the report gained the required majority by just one vote – and it has been pointed out that a large proportion of the participants were directly appointed by the Pope rather than elected by their brother bishops. Francis’s closing speech, in which he insisted at length that those who are presented as the guardians of orthodoxy are sometimes rigid and unloving, confirmed this impression for many.

Behind the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried loom larger questions of orientation for the Church. The Pope has made it clear – and reiterated during the synod – that he favours an evolution to a more collegial, or “devolved” method of governing the Church. This was seen by some as a back door by which national episcopates might be able to operate a liberalisation deemed impossible in the Universal Church, where sensibilities diverge often along cultural lines. Francis referred to this in his closing speech as a question that needs to be addressed. Expect more debate, then, on the issue of regional diversity, and how far diverging practices are compatible with a universal doctrine.

Then there is the still more fundamental question of how vital doctrine is as the binding rule of pastoral action for the Church as a whole. The Pope’s closing remarks, in which he said pointedly that “the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas, but people”, does seem to use a language which sits ill with the direction in which Benedict XVI wanted to take the Church. And Benedict still has his supporters, especially among young and committed Catholics who need to be kept on board as the Church faces an uncertain future.

Perhaps the lasting impression given by the synod so far is one of a divided Church still unable to find a way of speaking clearly and unambiguously to a world which in any case is not listening. Will that world start to listen? Will the Church itself be able to reconcile the apparently conflicting needs of unity and diversity in a way which will be coherent and credible?

Whatever the merits and the limits of “devolution”, in the Church the Bishop of Rome alone will always have the status and authority to provide a unifying vision. To do so, he needs to stand above factions, and propose a vision which reconciles doctrine and mission in a compelling synthesis. Let us pray that our Pope and his successors find a way to lead and unite us in pursuing that vision.

Fr Mark Drew is priest in charge of the parish of Hornsea in Middlesbrough diocese

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (30/10/15)

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