VATICAN CITY (RNS) — As a major Vatican meeting on the church’s approach to sexuality and family life enters its decisive week, two top American archbishops offered contrasting views about what course the synod should take — providing a window into the dilemma facing the gathering, and a reminder of the divisions that could endure in the U.S. after the meeting ends.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 16, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said “anxiety about the final product runs high” at the synod, where 270 churchmen from around the world are racing to synthesize their views into a concluding document they can give to Pope Francis.
The pontiff, who has been presiding over the often tense debates, called this three-week meeting to help foster dialogue in the church while also looking at ways to adapt church practices to the realities of modern family life.
Chaput, an outspoken conservative in the U.S. hierarchy, said in his column that while reformers swear they are not looking to change doctrine, their repeated claims to fidelity may mask plans to alter pastoral practices that could, for example, allow divorced and remarried Catholics to take communion.
“The more some synod fathers claim that no doctrinal change is sought on matters of divorce and remarriage — only a change in ‘discipline’ — the more other synod fathers worry,” wrote Chaput, one of four bishops elected by his fellow American prelates to be a synod delegate.
“And for good reason. Practice inevitably shapes belief.”
Chaput’s concerns reflected worries shared by many in the orthodox camp. Some of them have delivered forceful public ultimatums, saying any changes would be tantamount to heresy, while 13 others lodged their protests about the synod’s process — and the working document they are debating — in a secret letter to Francis that was published earlier this week.
Later Friday, however, Archbishop Blase Cupich, a reform-minded prelate picked a year ago by Francis to head the Chicago archdiocese, said Chaput and others should, in effect, chill out.
“I don’t share the anxiety at all,” Cupich told reporters at a briefing.
Cupich then recounted how the pope called him over during a break in the proceedings to chat. “He just looked so refreshed, calm, at peace,” Cupich said. “That, I think, is the attitude that we should all have.
“If the Holy Father is at peace with the way things are going, I think each one of us should put aside the fears or anxieties that might be ... present in our hearts and pay attention to” Francis’ example.
As for concerns expressed by Chaput and others that the synod’s working document is too slanted toward the reform agenda, Cupich said that the synod was in fact amending and editing that document.
He also noted that the working document was the product of a synod held last year, as well as months of consultation with bishops from around the world.
“If the bishops don’t like it maybe we are the only ones to blame, in a sense, because it did come from us,” he said.
Cupich argued that the synod should allow for pastoral flexibility on the two most controversial topics under debate here — communion for Catholics who have remarried without an annulment, and finding ways to be more welcoming to gays and lesbians.
Now, Catholics who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment are viewed as living in adultery and thus cannot receive communion unless they vow to abstain from sex. Many in the synod — prompted by direct suggestions from Francis — are pushing for ways around that ban.
In his remarks Friday, Cupich stressed the primacy of the individual conscience in making decisions about whether to receive communion, and he argued that the pope and the synod could grant bishops and pastors leeway to treat each couple on a case-by-case basis.
“General principles are important. But there’s a limitation on how that allows us the freedom to address real-life situations,” Cupich said, adding:
“I do think we can’t ignore the fact that there are a lot of people who feel stuck. And we have to look for a way in which we are going to reach out to them.”
He said the much same about gay people.
“We have to make sure that we don’t pigeonhole one group as though they’re not part of the human family, so there’s a different set of rules for them. That would be a big mistake,” he said.
“We do have to believe in the mercy of God, and the grace of God to trigger conversion, rather than having it the other way around, as though you’re only going to get the mercy if you have the conversion.”
Those comments were also a notable contrast with Chaput’s views, which he elaborated on in his weekly column, published on Friday in the Philadelphia archdiocesan paper.
Chaput wrote that while he feels compassion for gay Catholics and the divorced and remarried, “mercy without truth is a comfortable form of lying.”
“The central issue is, do we and they want Jesus Christ on his terms or on ours? If we can’t in principle accept the possibility of discomfort, suffering and even martyrdom, then we’re not disciples. We can’t rewrite or overlook what Jesus requires in order to follow him.”
Chaput and Cupich are two of eight American bishops at the synod.
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, were elected by their fellow bishops, like Chaput.
Cupich was chosen as an alternate by the USCCB members, then named last month as a special delegate by Francis. Also picked by Francis were New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Bishop George Murry of Ohio’s Youngstown diocese.