During the month of October 2014, an international meeting in the Vatican sparked a number of headlines in the mainstream news media with buzz words such as “earthquake”, “ground-breaking”, “rejection”, “deep divisions” etc. Below is a look beyond the hype at The Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the issues that caused controversy and where to from here.
1. The Synod is not a new thing
Well, unless you consider 50 years as new, this is how long these kinds of meetings have been going on. The first meeting took place in 1967 and there has been one every three or four years since and each discusses a particular issue. After the last Synod in 2012 (which was on The New Evangelisation), a synod was called for in 2015. On top of these ordinary synods, there can be extra ones called extra-ordinary synods. In late 2013, Pope Francis called for an extra session to take place one year before the regular 2015 Synod, and so what that took place in October 2014 was an extraordinary synod taking place one year before the ordinary synod in 2015.
2. Purpose of Synods
The word “synod” comes from Greek meaning a “coming together”, it is a gathering of bishops from around the world together with the Pope during which there is interaction, sharing and debate on ideas, experiences and proposals on a specific topic. The role of the synod is to be a representative group of all the bishops of the world providing advice to the Pope. For this reason, the synod usually consists of a first week of speeches by the participants followed by open-debate sessions. At the end of the first week, an interim report is prepared of what was discussed in the first week and, during the second week; the bishops revise the interim report and vote on a final report which is presented at the end of the second and final week of the synod. Within a year or two after the synod, the Pope will write a document in response to the final report of the synod.
3. What was the format of Synod 2014?
In all, there were 253 participants at the Synod which included the bishops as well as married couples, representatives from other Christian denominations and others who presented speeches to the bishops on the topic of family. During the first week, a total of 265 speeches were delivered including open-debate sessions. At the end of the first week, the interim report was prepared and then revised among the bishops. At the end of the second week, a revised form of the interim report was formed, and each paragraph of the revised report was voted on. Of the 61 paragraphs in the revised report, three did not receive the required two-thirds majority.
The Controversial Topics
The three paragraphs of the interim report that did not receive the required support, then, were those of greatest contention. Of these, two were related to opening up the possibility of Holy Communion for divorced persons who have remarried without an annulment. The third paragraph dealt with the Church’s pastoral approach to homosexuals.
1. Holy Communion for divorced persons who have remarried without an annulment
This issue does not apply to divorced persons who have not remarried or those who have remarried after an annulment has been granted. The final report retained the paragraphs that made it clear that those who have undergone divorce but have not remarried are able to continue to partake in Holy Communion in the same way. Civil divorce, in itself, deals with the civil legal effects of marriage without necessarily breaking the marriage bond. Jesus taught clearly that the bond of marriage cannot be broken and remarriage without an annulment clearly and publicly breaks the marriage bond.
The controversy over this issue began in February when Cardinal Kasper gave a speech to a gathering of cardinals and the Pope in February 2014. In his two-hour speech, there were five sections and one was devoted to the issue of Holy Communion for divorced persons who have remarried without an annulment. This sparked public debate among cardinals and bishops in the lead up to the synod and surfaced during the synod. The interim report mentioned in one paragraph that, while some bishops at the synod were in favour of the current practise, others felt that a case-by-case penitential process under the direction of a local bishop could be introduced. This paragraph did not reach the required two-thirds majority as well as a second paragraph proposing further study into this issue.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (published in 1992) makes it clear the Catholic Church’s official approach to homosexuality, which operates between two poles. On the one hand, homophobia is wrong as well as any form of unjust discrimination based on sexuality and, on the other hand, any sexual acts outside of marriage are wrong whether they be heterosexual or homosexual. In other words, the Catholic Church accepts that people do experience homosexuality and proposes that their sexuality does not make them less able to live the same standards as other people. These are high standards but not unrealistic in light of the action of God’s grace in our imperfect human nature. It is up to the individual whether to accept or reject the invitation to live these standards. Still, the Catechism makes it clear that homosexuals, like everyone, are not to be rejected but to be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity while also being called to fulfil God’s will in their lives including the trials and difficulties that are part of every life.
How this is put into practise was raised in direct terms in the interim report. Part of the controversy was that apparently only one of the 265 speeches given in the first week of the synod actually touched on homosexuality and yet this topic took up three out of the 58 paragraphs of the interim report. This was revised and reworked substantially in the final report to two paragraphs. The first paragraph dealt with the topic in general terms but still could not receive the required majority. Still, it should not be seen as a narrowing of accepting homosexuals as already laid out in the Catechism but the lack of support for this paragraph could have been due to the wording of any part of the paragraph or the paragraph’s place in the document. The second paragraph which called on the international community neither to pressure priests and bishops to recognise same-sex unions as marriages nor to pressure nations with financial aid to do likewise received sufficient support.
Where to from here?
Pope Francis said at the beginning of the synod that he wanted all to listen humbly and speak openly without any fear or hesitation. It seems, that is what he got with this synod. There has been large speculation in the media about the Pope’s true thoughts on the views expressed during the synod. However, in the week after the Synod, Pope Francis, speaking in a question and answer session with thousands of pilgrims, mentioned that Christian marriage and family life has never been under attack so much as now. He also spoke of priests needing to stay close to families without being scandalised by what happens in families, the importance of inner holiness as the primary way to reform the Church rather than in external ways and also the importance of a freedom of spirit and not closing ourselves up in rules and regulations.
It can’t be overlooked that the bishops agreed on over 90% of what was raised at the synod on issues related to the importance of the family, the indissolubility of marriage and accompanying and caring for families especially in the early years and where there are difficulties. Above all, we have to keep in mind that the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church since its beginnings through previous periods of even greater controversies and will continue to do so in the present and well into the future.