Should we be encouraged or discouraged by the synod?

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Two recent articles in the National Catholic Reporter reflect dramatically different answers to this question. In the first article cited, Douglas Kmiec says that nothing has changed. He says that the Synod answered Francis’ question, “Who am I to judge”, by saying that the bishops will be the ones to judge. Francis got nothing that he was asking for.

A priest, James Ewens, says in the second article that by bringing forth the well established concept of the internal forum, the Synod has found a way to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. I want to explore Ewens article first.

Ewens notes the use of the idea of epikaia to highlight the primacy of individual conscience. It is interesting to me that Ewens was ordained in 1970. My ordination class would have been 1969. Epikaia was also considered a significant topic in my Moral Theology class. Even the example of being at a traffic light at 2 a.m. was mentioned. Maybe we will see more of those concepts which received extensive attention during the Vatican II era returning to a place of greater prominence.

There are many good things that can be said about the internal forum. It addresses the primacy of conscience and lets Catholics know their individual conscience guided by the church ought to determine their appropriate choices. It provides an avenue for properly circumventing outdated and unreasonable church teachings. It has worked well, especially in the venue of birth control which almost all Catholics have concluded is something they will decide upon for themselves.

There are also, however, some problems with the internal forum approach. First of all, it represents merely an acknowledgement of a reality that has always been part of church teaching. It might also result in a tendency to search for a priest who agrees with your point of view. Additionally, there may well be mean spirited Catholics who will spread stories about certain divorced Catholics who are suddenly going to communion. Unlike birth control, where no one can say for certain whether someone is actually practicing birth control, members of the parish will know who is divorced and remarried. It would be clear if someone started receiving communion after years of not participating.

In the pre-Vatican II church of the 1950’s one of the worst things you could do was judge someone on the basis of their receiving or not receiving the Eucharist. That was seen as no one’s business. In the post-Vatican II church, however, some elements in the church hierarchy have at times encouraged telling on individuals, clergy, and bishops, if they were not toeing the line. Maybe one good thing that could happen now is to return to leaving such issues to God, the priest, and the individual involved. There is no way the internal forum could work otherwise.

Douglas Kmiec’s article offers a discouraging assessment of the work of the Synod. I had felt earlier that if Pope Francis didn’t at least get communion for divorced and remarried Catholics the Synod could not be considered a success. According to Kmiec’s assessment it would have to be considered a failure.

There is truth to this assessment. The conservatives did in fact hold sway. The bishops did reaffirm church teaching on traditional marriage and on same-sex marriage. It is difficult to see what can be said positively.

The German bishops moved the discussion to the internal forum as a way of salvaging the Synod. The fact that conservative Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, agreed, suggests this movement did not represent significant change. It is, however, at least an acknowledgement of the internal forum, and recognition that church teachings may not always be applicable to every individual case.

Of course the next step will be determined by what Pope Francis does with this report from the Synod fathers. The most he can do is make clear that primacy of conscience and the internal forum is open to all Catholics. He can encourage Catholics who have concerns to seek out a priest who can help them with their doubts and difficulties. He can try to create a church that is more comfortable recognizing the difficult problems many of the faithful face through no fault of their own, and demonstrate a willingness to do something to make things better for them. Francis can bring the idea of the internal forum out from behind some seminary Moral Theology class taught by a liberal professor and into the light of day for ordinary Catholics.

We know that the church changes, and also that it changes ever so slowly. Is this a beginning? Are we headed inexorably toward a more welcoming church? The next few years will help answer that question, and we can only hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will begin to change hearts and move church leaders in a more positive direction.

In the meantime we are faced with a sad reality. The failure to see measurable progress hurts the most faithful of Catholics. Most progressives will continue making choices for themselves that they deem appropriate in their own circumstances. The faithful in the pews who were waiting for the church to acknowledge their pain, the almost impossible circumstances they find themselves in, and the need for relief, will find little comfort from the smug and complacent conservative members of the hierarchy.

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