Peter Novecosky, OSB

New style at synod

Two weeks of open discussion at the synod of bishops in Rome is over. It captured the attention of the world — perhaps moreso than any previous synod. No doubt, this was because the subject matter — the family — touches everyone’s life.

The synod also captured the world’s attention because of changes in family relationships. In the last half century statistics show that divorce rates are up, birthrates are down, more children are born out of wedlock, more couples are cohabiting, strict gender roles have broken down and same-sex marriage and polygamy are debated issues in different parts of the world.

It is evident that fewer couples accept the church’s teaching on sexuality, marriage and family. The church wants to regain some of that lost influence and wisdom by speaking a language that is good news for families and that addresses their daily concerns.

The media hyped the wide diversity of opinions expressed at the synod. This, however, was the express wish of Pope Francis who opened the synod encouraging the bishops and auditors to be “fearless” in speaking their minds and not to confine themselves to what they thought the pope wanted to hear.

He reiterated this in his concluding address where he welcomed the assembly’s expressions of disagreement. “Personally, I would have been very worried and saddened if there hadn’t been . . . these animated discussions . . . and if everybody had agreed or remained silent in a false and quietistic peace.”

Such diversity of opinions is familiar in discussions among the general public or among students in classroom debates. Such frank discussion and diversity of opinion among church leaders at this level, however, has not often been seen.

This new style surprised many observers and commentators, accustomed to more controlled synods in the past. No doubt Pope Francis is still acting on the advice cardinals gave in the discussions leading up to his election, where cardinals indicated they wanted a more open style, which is what Pope Francis is accustomed to.

There was misunderstanding by the media and public at large about the intent and scope of this synod. Many had the impression that this synod would change doctrine or church teachings about homosexuality or would allow communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. There were free discussions on these topics, but this synod was always intended only to set the agenda for a second one on marriage and family in 2015.

In a global view of family, the issues of same-sex marriage, homosexuality and allowing communion for civilly remarried couples is a focus for some pressure groups, but they were mentioned in only three of the 62 paragraphs of the final document. They gained a simple majority of votes by the synod members but not the two-thirds majority given the other parts of the document.

Pope Francis ordered the final report to be published. It will form the basis for discussion, not only among bishops’ conferences, but also among Catholics at large.

In an interview on the Vatican Insider website, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, one of the synod presidents, commented: “The most important elements in a synod are listening and a freedom to express different opinions on any given situation. The synod is not a battle, nor is it the result of a strategy. Some may have viewed it as such but this is not how the synod sees itself.”

Putting this extraordinary synod into context, he said it represents “just one leg of the journey.”

Hot-button topics in western countries, like pastoral care for remarried Catholics and for homosexuals, need further discussion and understanding. No doors have been closed. But windows have been opened.

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