Family synod's real work will be done over the next 12 months and beyond

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

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Have we just witnessed a "pastoral earthquake" at this year's extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family?

That's how one veteran Vatican-watcher described a new report Monday that attempted to summarize the general direction the world's bishops seem to be leaning in their effort to revitalize the church's applied teaching on marriage, sexuality and family life.

John Thavis, retired Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service, said the report -- read aloud at the start of the second half of the synod's two-week gathering -- was not just any earthquake. He called it "the 'big one' that hit after months of smaller tremors."

In essence, he's absolutely right. There has never been a statement from the Vatican quite like this one. It openly acknowledges that "homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community." And it even recognizes that there can be positive elements in same-sex partnerships. "Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners," the mid-term report says.

Called the relatio post disceptationem ("report after the discussion"), it recaps the interventions and free debate of more than 180 bishops and 60-some experts, observers and ecumenical guests at synod.

Another earth-shaking admission in the new text is that there is something good to be celebrated even among people "living in sin," as the traditional Catholic language described cohabiting couples, divorced and remarried couples, and those in irregular unions.

In a section of the report titled "Positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation," we read: "Realizing the need, therefore, for spiritual discernment with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons, it is the task of the Church to recognize those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries."

Sound familiar? It's a new application of the same principle the Second Vatican Council adopted when it acknowledged that seeds of truth and sanctification could be found outside the Catholic church; that is, in other Christian denominations, religions, and throughout the world in general.

The two examples cited above seem to denote a dramatic openness toward issues that long have been closed to further discussion. But it is too early to speak of a pastoral earthquake. The mid-term synod report -- as one of its main authors, Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, noted -- is only a working draft that the synod participants will be debating and amending for another week. They will then vote on a revised text Saturday.

"Whatever text is published will have no binding effect, not even as guidelines, but will only provide the basis for further reflection," he said at a press conference Wednesday.

And the further reflection, study and discussion on all the issues in that text will take place over the course of the coming year, leading up to October 2015, when the bishops will gather again in Rome for the ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family.

So what may have appeared in these days as an earthquake might be better described as an icebreaker. Pope Francis has succeeded in cracking open a frank and lively debate among bishops in the church on issues that many of them were told (by Francis' predecessors) were not up for discussion, such as Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

In doing so, Francis has begun to chip away at a huge pastoral/theological glacier that has been hardening over the past few decades. While reform-minded Catholics and an unclear number of bishops (which seems to be increasing) have embraced the pope's effort, it has deeply unsettled other bishops and their supporters in the more traditionalist, "no change" wing. At least that is the clear impression one gets from interviews with some of their leading proponents, such as American Cardinal Raymond Burke or the head of the Vatican's doctrinal office, Cardinal Gerhard Müller.

Reformers have criticized the German cardinal for his opposition to any change or development of doctrine on certain issues, such as Communion for divorced and remarried people. But those calling for change would rightly applaud him for encouraging more transparency at the synod. He told journalists he believed the speeches in the hall should be made public. "All Christians have the right to be informed about [the] intervention of their bishops," he said.  

Instead, the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, and several other people have been giving journalists daily summaries of the issues being discussed in the synod sessions. But they do not attribute the remarks to anyone or even indicate who has spoken. In the past, the synod office issued summaries and names of each speaker. Synod officials justify this new method as a way of ensuring that the bishops will enjoy the necessary privacy or confidentiality ("riservatezza") that allows them to speak candidly. But it also shields the bishops from any real accountability to their people, and on issues so central to their lives.

However, Pope Francis is not letting the bishops off the hook easily. He's mapped out the first synod experience of his pontificate to be a "work in progress," as Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte, the synod's special secretary, called it on Monday.

The "in progress" part not only means that the notion of "synodality" must develop and extend throughout the church, but that the two assemblies on the family (now and in 2015) must discern carefully that rejects simple answers.

"It is not wise to think of unique solutions or those inspired by a logic of 'all or nothing,' " the mid-term report said. But more importantly, it stated: "The dialog and meeting that took place in the Synod will have to continue in the local Churches, involving their various components, in such a way that the perspectives that have been drawn up might find their full maturation in the work of the next Ordinary General Assembly."

Plain and simple: The real work must take place in the weeks and months ahead, between the sessions, as occurred at the Second Vatican Council. But the experts ("periti") the bishops should be calling upon to be involved in the intersessional seminars, studies, conferences and consultations should principally be the Catholic faithful of all walks of life and of varying experiences, not just priest-theologians. There are many hundreds of married male and female Catholics today in theological faculties around the world. They should be included. And so should gay Catholics, including those in stable partnerships and leadership roles in the church. They exist and should be recognized openly.

Just as Pope Francis opened the current synod assembly by telling participants he wanted them to speak with parrhesia (openness or frankness), so bishops throughout the church must allow their priests and people to engage in brutally honest conversation about the realities of family life, marriage and human sexuality in a spirit of respectful and humble dialogue.

No topic related to these issues should be feared. None should be excluded from discussions.

The pope has only broken the ice. Soon the real work will begin.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Robert Mickens' column, A Roman Observer, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

A version of this story appeared in the Oct 24-Nov 6, 2014 print issue under the headline: After synod's icebreaker, the real work must begin.

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