Archbishop Martin: Synod developing church doctrine

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

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The global meeting of bishops on the family must show that Catholic teaching can develop to address contemporary concerns of family life, an Irish archbishop participating in the event said Saturday.

"This synod can't simply repeat what was said 20 years ago," said Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, referring to the Oct. 5-19 meeting, known as a synod of bishops.

"[The synod] has to find new language to show that there can be development of doctrine, that there has been a willingness to listen to what emerged in the questionnaire that went out, and what was said in the synod itself," he said.

Martin, who is attending the synod in his role as vice-president of the Irish bishops' conference, spoke Saturday during a Vatican press briefing.

His comments seem to reflect a difference among prelates in whether the synod may result in changes to church family life doctrine or practices, as several other bishops and cardinals have said the synod is not intending to issue any such changes.

In one example, Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama said Oct. 8 that the synod might only be changing the church's pastoral approach.

"The doctrines remain the same," said Kaigama. "We are not going to invent new doctrines ... or suppress doctrines that the church has practiced for years."

Unlike previous synods, the Vatican is not releasing texts or summaries of the prelates' talks but is instead providing daily briefings with three spokesmen who are attending the synod and summarizing events: official Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, in Italian; Chicago archdiocesan Fr. Manuel Dorantes, in Spanish; and Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, in English.

Joining the spokesmen for the briefing Saturday were Martin and Valérie Duval-Poujol, a Frenchwoman who is attending the synod as a fraternal delegate for the Baptist World Alliance.

During his remarks Saturday, Martin spoke frankly about a number of the issues the synod has confronted and how the bishops in the meeting have been working, and sometimes disagreeing, with one another.

Referring to Francis' speech to the group Monday, in which the pontiff asked the prelates to "speak boldly and listen with humility," Martin said: "The pope at the very beginning said he didn't want anybody going away feeling they couldn't speak their mind."

"I believe bishops have done that," he continued. "Some have done it with great clarity."

"Everybody has been listened to with great respect and the arguments that are being presented on various sides are the arguments that had to be addressed," said Martin.

Speaking specifically on one issue that has grabbed attention -- the question of whether the synod might provide a way for divorced and remarried Catholics who have not obtained annulments to take Communion -- Martin said there was agreement among prelates that the Catholic process for annulments needs to be changed.

"The current procedures are difficult," said Martin. "And they sometimes end up in long delays."

"Even in a fairly developed country ... they're too slow because it's so difficult to get teams of judges and experts together," he said. "There's a recognition of that fact."

Martin also said the prelates are considering approaches by Orthodox churches to second marriages -- where some churches allow couples to have non-sacramental second unions.

"I think in the discussions that everybody is looking at different possibilities," said Martin. "There isn't ... a simple Orthodox position which everyone would be completely agreed which could be transferred."

"The idea of looking at looking at it -- people are open to it," he said.

But, the archbishop continued, "everybody" at the synod is in agreement that the Catholic notion of indissolubility of marriage is "something which the Catholic church cannot change."

Relating the remarks of one synod father on indissolubility, Martin said that father spoke directly to Francis during the synod debates, saying: "You can't change it. This is something that belongs to revelation."

Martin also said that one of the changes in the debate of this synod from previous synods is in how the synod fathers understand the importance of marriage to the church.

"There's a move away from simply an understanding of the church's teaching on marriage as something that is taught to people -- and a greater understanding of the fact that sacramental marriage is an ecclesial reality," he said.

"It's not just a blessing on two spouses," Martin continued. "The couple who are married sacramentally develop an ecclesial status for their own lives, but also, as in every other sacrament, for the building of the church."

"So in many ways we have to find a way in which the lived experience of this ecclesial reality of marriage ... is almost in its own way something that the church learns from rather than simply tries to carry out an external survey of it," said Martin. "That's certainly one of the changes."

The archbishop also said the synod fathers are struggling to tie together the notions of truth and mercy in their discussions.

"In the long term, I think, there's fundamental agreement that they go together," he said. "It isn't that truth is a dogma and mercy is something on the sidelines of Christian teaching. We have to find real ways of bringing these together and it's not easy to."

Mentioning an interview Francis gave last year to the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica, in which the pontiff referred to two poles in the church of rigorist and lax adherence to church teaching, Martin said most people do not live at either extreme.

"Most people live their lives in the gray area between those two and we have to exercise our pastoral responsibilities in the gray area, not falling into either extreme," he said.

Approximately 190 prelates are at the synod and will be able to vote in the discussions. Some 60 others, mainly non-prelates, have been selected in other roles and are able to contribute to discussions but not to vote.

Last week, the members spent most of their time during the synod's sessions discussing as one assembly different aspects of family life. On Friday, the synod members moved from meeting in one assembly to meeting in several small working groups, divided up by different languages.

Over the weekend, some members of the synod are drafting a document summarizing the discussions so far, for presentation at a Vatican press conference Monday morning.

While that document was originally to be written by only three officials -- Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, who is serving as the synod's relator, along with two others -- Francis announced late Friday that he had appointed six other synod members to the drafting group.

Among the added members are several known to have close connection to the pontiff. Those added:

  • Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture;
  • Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl;
  • Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina;
  • Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Mexico, president of the Latin American bishops’ conference;
  • South Korean Archbishop Peter Kang U-Il; and,
  • Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, superior general of the Jesuit order.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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