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Family synod: mid-term report is hailed as a ‘pastoral earthquake’

Pope Francis attends the first full day of the family synod (AP)

A document summing up the synod so far has been described as a “pastoral earthquake” by a leading Vatican commentator.

The document, called the relatio post disceptationem, was read aloud in the synod hall this morning. It has been drafted by synod fathers selected by Pope Francis and can be read in full here.

The document calls on the Church to build on the “positive aspects” of relationships that are deemed irregular – such as between remarried couples or same-sex partners – and keep the “doors always wide open” to people in those relationships.

The relatio says that the Church reaching out to divorced Catholics does not represent a “weakening of its faith” but an exercise of charity.

The document cites calls by many synod participants to speed up the annulment process.

Regarding people who are gay, the document says: “Homosexuals 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?

“Without 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.”

The document also emphasises the “principle of graduality”, the idea that Catholics move towards full acceptance of Church teaching in steps, and that the Church needs to accompany them with patience and understanding.

It speaks of “accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation”, noting that such unions can reach “a notable level of stability through a public bond” and be “characterised by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests”.

It says: “Realising the need, therefore, for spiritual discernment with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons, it is the task of the Church to recognise those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries. Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man, the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.”

The document stresses the need for a positive approach, saying that “in 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.”

On the question of Communion for the divorced and remaried, the document has left the question open for further theological study. It says that some participants at the synod were opposed to the admission of the remarried to Communion, while others saw it as a possibility, perhaps after a “penitential path” undertaken under Church guidance.

The document says that “the situation of the divorced who have remarried demands a careful discernment and an accompaniment full of respect, avoiding any language or behaviour that might make them feel discriminated against. For the Christian community looking after them is not a weakening of its faith and its testimony to the indissolubility of marriage, but rather it expresses precisely its charity in its caring.”

The document also refers to the Second Vatican Council. which affirmed that “although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure … these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity”.

The text describes itself as a tool that is meant to be used in preparing for the bigger family synod in October 2015.

“The reflections put forward, the fruit of the synodal dialogue that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015,” it says.

“These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view.”

Joshua McElwee, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said that the synod’s interim document has “a decidedly different tone” from many Church statements in recent years.

It calls for the Church “to listen more, to respect people in their various struggles, and to apply mercy much more widely”, he said, adding that “the document acknowledges bluntly that the strict application of Church doctrine is no longer enough to support people in their quest for God”.

He said that the document “also appears to reflect a move among the prelates from legal exactness in adherence to Church teaching to gradualism, a theological notion that people can grow in their holiness or in their adherence to Church teaching over time”.

Austen Ivereigh wrote that the interim report “masterfully holds in balance the various issues in contention while resolutely breaking new ground in the Church’s approach to those who do not live up to its teachings”.

He went on: “While containing no great surprises — most of its ideas had already emerged in the course of the synod — the most newsworthy element may be its synthesis of opposed views, which is designed to enable the Church to discern answers to difficult questions over the next year, and its call for a new missionary approach to marriage and family.”

But he says: “The real ‘news’ of the relatio, however, is not easy to capture in headlines, because it calls for a new mindset on the part of the Church. It is a mindset captured by the call in Evangelii Gaudium for a more ‘pastoral’ and ‘missionary’ approach.”

He points out: “There is (by Church standards) fiercely strong language, for example, in paragraph 40, calling for better care of what the document calls ‘wounded families’.”

“What rang out clearly in the synod was the necessity for courageous pastoral choices,” he said. “Reconfirming forcefully the fidelity to the Gospel of the family, the Synodal Fathers felt the urgent need for new pastoral paths, that begin with the effective reality of familial fragilities, recognising that they, more often than not, are more ‘endured’ than freely chosen.”

Blogger Irene Niravalambana said the report “gives me great joy, as it is a mature expression of the absolute need [to] make every single person feel loved by us, the Church. There are clear challenges and solutions still need to be studied and formulated, but the direction that Pope Francis has indicated in Evangelii Gaudium is being applied here not only to a renewal of how we think and speak about the family, but about God himself – as merciful Father, tender Mother and close Brother – a God who is family (as St John Paul II put it) and whose family members constitute all of humanity.”