Synod a win for Francis and for openness

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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As people analyze and debate the final relatio or report from the synod on the family, there is a danger of missing the forest for the trees. It is true, the welcoming language toward gays was dialed back from what was expressed in the October 13 draft, and Communion has not yet been granted to divorced and remarried Catholics.

But while we are spilling a lot of ink (or electrons) comparing the final report with the earlier draft, let's not forget the big picture: The synod was a victory for openness and discussion in the church and the final document is an invitation for everyone in the church to join that discussion. This is exactly what Pope Francis wanted.

The bishops as pastors faced a fundamental conflict: How to have the church be a loving mother while at the same time being a clear teacher. Every parent can relate to that problem.

True, there were some ideological traditionalists who did not want any change. Those the pope referred to in his final address as zealous traditionalists or intellectuals who have "certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve."

But most of the bishops are pastors who worry that if they appear too welcoming or accommodating then people will think that all sexual unions are equal and there is no reason to get married in the church. These bishops simply need more time to figure out how to be a loving parent and a clear teacher. For too many years they only worried about being clear.

True, there were African bishops who feared how a welcoming attitude toward gays would be perceived in their cultures. Will conservative Muslim clerics use it in propaganda against the church?

At the same time, we are seeing change in the African church. For example, the president of the Nigerian conference of bishops made clear at the synod that while the Nigerian bishops oppose gay marriage, they also oppose the criminalization of homosexuals. In Africa, that matters.

Some are portraying the final report as a defeat for Francis. I don't think so, and he certainly does not think so. If he wanted to be a dictator, he could have just ordered whatever he wanted. Rather he invited the bishops into an open, collegial discussion.

Unlike we journalists, he has not obsessed over the language of the report but has been much more focused on the process. He set the tone at the beginning by encouraging the bishops to speak freely. At the end, in summing up the synod, he showed that he had been listening carefully, and like a good Jesuit discerning the Spirit in the process.  

This is not the end of the process. The report, and hopefully the pope's final address, will become the point departure for a much richer discussion of the family during the coming year until the next synod in October 2015. The synod was a big win for openness and for Francis.

[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 Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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