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Synod on remarried Catholics, consensus in ambiguity

Vatican City

All right. Let’s get it over with. I was too pessimistic in my prediction of how the synod would end. I should have trusted the Spirit.

I was convinced that the opposition to allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to go to Communion (unless they had annulments) was so strong that the synod could not do anything. The best I hoped for was that the bishops would recommend further study of the possibility. The worst outcome would have been the synod saying definitively that church practice could not change.

My mistake was writing my column before the German-language small group made its report. To the amazement of all, the Germans reached unanimous agreement on their report that included a discussion of the internal forum.

"There must be perhaps a way of going with the people in these situations, with the priest to look if and when they can come to a full reconciliation with the church," explained Cardinal Reinhard Marx, speaking of divorced and remarried persons. "That is the proposal."

This unanimity was significant because in the German group were theologically sophisticated cardinals representing different points of view, including Cardinals Walter Kasper, who originally proposed the idea of the “penitential path," and Gerhard Muller, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, known to oppose that path.

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That these cardinals could agree meant their recommendation carried great weight with the synodal fathers. Muller was especially crucial in bringing around bishops who were on the fence. "If the head of CDF says it is OK, it must be OK," was the thinking.

What did the synod finally say about divorced and remarried Catholics in its final relatio or recommendations to the pope?

Like the Germans, the synod suggested the use of what is called the "internal forum," where the document says priests can help remarried Catholics "in becoming conscious of their situation before God" and in deciding how to move forward.

"The conversation with the priest, in internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct decision on what is blocking the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the church and on steps that might foster it and make it grow," states the document.

"For this to happen, the necessary conditions should be guaranteed of humility, discretion, and love of the Church and its teachings in the sincere seeking of the will of God and in the wish to give a more perfect response to it," the document continues.

What is remarkable about the three paragraphs dealing with divorced and remarried Catholics is that the words Communion and Eucharist never appear. Yes, that’s right, they never mention Communion as a conclusion of this internal forum process.

So what does it mean? A conservative might interpret it as closed to Communion because it was not mentioned in the text. A liberal might interpret it as including Communion since it is not explicitly excluded in the text.

I think that the truth is that Communion was not mentioned because that was the only way the paragraphs could get a two-thirds majority. Like the Second Vatican Council, the synod achieved consensus through ambiguity. This means that they are leaving Pope Francis free to do whatever he thinks best.

Hats off to the drafting committee that found exactly the right language to achieve consensus even if it does not give a definitive answer to our questions.

Josh McElwee also reports that the document touches on artificial contraception, quoting Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae that prohibited the practice. But the Synod document also calls for a "consensual dialog" between spouses when considering children.

The document also speaks of taking decisions about having children after reflecting on what one is hearing in conscience, quoting the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes to say: "The responsible choice of procreation presumes the formation of conscience, which is 'the most secret core and sanctuary of a man where he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.'"

Apparently, the original text from the drafting committee was tightened up slightly in order to get consensus.

Finally, on the other controversial topic, homosexuals, the synod said they are part of our families and quoted church documents saying they should be "respected in their dignity and received with respect, with care to avoid 'every type of unjust discrimination.'" The synod did not progress beyond where the American bishops were in 1997 in the pastoral message, "Always Our Children."

The document also criticized international organizations that condition financial aid to developing countries on the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

So who won?

  • Clearly the drafting committee which would have been embarrassed if its text had been rejected.
  • The Germans who proved to be true churchmen willing to keep talking until they reached agreement rather than hurling condemnations at each other.
  • Pope Francis who got a synod where ideas were exchanged and debated with complete openness.
  • Catholic families of all types, who got the undivided attention of the synodal fathers during these three weeks.

Who lost? Those who wanted to emphasize the law over mercy, who were opposed to any changes in church practice.

Why do I know they lost? Because it was they who fiercely attacked the paragraphs dealing with divorce and remarriage, but they were defeated when the votes were counted.

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?”

I have often said that as a social scientist, I am a pessimist, but as a Christian, I have to have hope. The synod did not do everything I wanted and consensus had to be reached through ambiguity, so my pessimism was not completely wrong.

On the other hand, the synod did point the church in the right direction, and as Pope Francis reminds us, synodality is not just a three-week experience, it is at the heart of how he wants to see the church operate in the future. That gives me hope. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is


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In This Issue

October 21-November 3, 2016

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