VATICAN CITY (RNS) — The most significant and contested gathering of Roman Catholic bishops in the last 50 years formally ended on Oct. 25 after three weeks of debate and dispute, but the arguments over who “won” and who “lost” are only beginning.
The synod of 270 cardinals and bishops from around the world was the second in a year called by Pope Francis to address how and whether Catholicism could adapt its teachings to the changing realities of modern family life. Traditionalists had taken a hard line against any openings, especially after last October’s meeting seemed to point toward possible reforms.
While the delegates made hundreds of suggestions on a host of issues, two took centre stage, in part because they represented a barometer for the whole question of change: Could the church be more welcoming to gays, and was there a way divorced and remarried Catholics could receive communion without an annulment?
The synod was never going to provide definitive answers; it is only an advisory body to the pope and cannot legislate, or bar changes in church policies.
Yet some on the right saw the lack of an explicit recommendation to allow divorced and remarried Catholics a pathway to communion as evidence that “conservatives basically ‘won’ this synod,” as Damian Thompson wrote in The Spectator.
“(D)ivorced and civilly remarried Catholics can’t receive the sacrament and that’s that,” Thompson wrote. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal’s report called the document passed Saturday evening “an embarrassing defeat” because it did not specifically authorize the pope to approve communion for the remarried and for his “liberalizing agenda.”
The lack of almost any opening to gays and lesbians was certainly a setback for progressives who had been cheered last fall that so many top churchmen had used unprecedented language in speaking in positive terms about gays and same-sex couples.
But the broader reality is that conservatives, as many of them acknowledged, did not get what they wanted or needed at this synod, and their prospects going forward look even dimmer.
The final report from the synod contained key phrases about individual Catholics in “irregular” situations — such as being remarried without an annulment — using the “internal forum” of their conscience, in consultation with a pastor, to consider their status in the church.
For decades the Vatican had effectively barred priests and penitents from using the “internal forum” in the remarriage context for fear it would be abused.
Also, the final document doesn’t mention communion explicitly, but it was clear — and numerous church officials confirmed privately — that the language refers to the sacraments and, most important, it gives Francis an opening to take further action, which church officials expect him to do.
Moreover, if the three paragraphs (out of 94) in the final document dealing with the remarried were not problematic, why did so many bishops speak out so strongly against them in the final closed-door session before the vote? And why did those paragraphs get the fewest “yes” votes of all — in one case just one vote above the necessary two-thirds threshold for official passage?
“In the days ahead, conservatives may attempt to spin the final recommendations in a way that supports their position, but they cannot get away with that unless they answer the question, ‘then why did you so fiercely oppose these paragraphs?’” wrote Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst for National Catholic Reporter.
The absence of any breakthrough language on gays was a tactical retreat by progressives who saw that they did not have the support in the synod to get close to a two-thirds threshold.
Even getting close to half would have been hard if not impossible, and would have revealed the deep divisions in the synod on the issue and left the pontiff with an unpalatable option of choosing one side or the other — those who spoke warmly about gay couples and others, such as African Cardinal Robert Sarah, who used harsh and almost apocalyptic language about homosexuals.
“It was better to leave the question open for further study and reflection than blocking it with bad paragraph or bad text,” Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny, a point man for those favouring change, told reporters. “That is a point for next time.”
Bonny was in the same small language group as Cardinal Sarah, for example, and Bonny and others in that group said sentiment against homosexuals was so strong that “there was no way of discussing it in a peaceful way.”
Time may be on the side of those seeking a church that is more welcoming to gays, even if it will never endorse gay marriage.
While many Africans stood out for their blasts at homosexuality, other African churchmen said that their views were developing on this issue and were catching up with the more accepting attitudes in the West.
Conservatives, on the other hand, painted themselves into a corner at the synod by arguing that the only satisfactory outcome was for the synod to reiterate current church teachings and practices and bar any future flexibility. That didn’t happen, and they are left trying to explain.
That change can seem obvious when viewed from the perspective of history, but it’s been a neuralgic point for those who fear that admitting to any evolution can lead to a slippery slope. Francis hammered home the need to change in his forceful closing address to the synod Saturday, in which he declared that “the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit,” and he called on the church to adapt to different cultures and conditions.
“A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts,” as he said in his closing homily at mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday.
Many cardinals and bishops welcomed what they said was an end to a judgmental church and the start of a more pastoral church that considers people first and rules second.
But change is never easy for the Catholic hierarchy.
“We are discombobulated. Some defend the past, others dream of a different future,” Cardinal Francesco Montenegro of Sicily, a strong supporter of the pope, said in explaining the reactions of some of his brother bishops. “The fact that there have been so many reactions is a sign that what he is proposing is something new and powerful.”
This synod ended, but synodality — the ongoing process of dialogue, discernment, collaboration and collegiality that leads to new approaches and possibly even doctrinal shifts — isn’t over.
Francis made that clear in what was viewed as a landmark talk during the synod to mark 50 years since these meetings were begun after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But synods had become routine, almost “rubber-stamp” affairs. No longer.
The pope said that the “church and synod are synonymous” and that the journey of discernment is ongoing. Church leaders were free to speak their mind, whereas in past years they would have been silenced. Once the flock hears pastors disagreeing and speaking openly about, for example, the value of families led by gay couples or single parents, it’s hard to “unring” the bell.
“The real takeaway from this synod is that Pope Francis has changed the way the church goes about reflecting on her pastoral ministry. That’s no small thing,” Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl said on Sunday. “You had all this open discussion about issues that the church is struggling with. You’re not going to be able to close that door in the future.”
That’s not to say that the future won’t be messy at times, and anxiety-producing, especially for traditionalists and for those who prefer a neat and tidy church.
As long as Francis is the pope, he makes the final call, and he is expected to take the suggestions he has heard in this synod, and in last year’s synod and the various consultations he has held since he was elected in March 2013, and use them as a launchpad for further, more concrete reforms.
Perhaps the biggest question is how long Francis has and how many like-minded cardinals and bishops he can appoint before he dies or retires. He turns 79 in December and openly acknowledges that his may not be a long papacy.
Vatican expert and author John Thavis last week crunched the numbers and found that Francis has appointed just 13 per cent of the world’s active bishops in his 31 months in office and 26 per cent of the voting members of the College of Cardinals who would elect his successor.
At this pace, the pontiff would probably need six or seven more years to reach a tipping-point majority of cardinals and bishops.
“I’m sure the pope realizes that, for quite some time, he will have to work with an episcopate that may at times act as a check on his innovative pastoral proposals,” Thavis wrote.
Francis likes to say that “time is greater than space.” The synod gave him space, but he may need much more time to do with it what he wants.