Pope calls synod to speak 'boldly'; cardinal defends current teachings

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.
Archbishop Louis Sako of Baghdad, Iraq, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, center, and other prelates leave the opening session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family Monday at the Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Prelates leave the opening session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family Oct. 6, 2014. At that session, Pope Francis told delegates to speak freely and without fear. (CNS/Paul Haring) 

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis opened discussions at his worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops Monday by telling the prelates they should speak openly, without fear of upsetting him or limiting discussions to things he would want to hear.

Using the Greek term parrhesia -- meaning to speak candidly or boldly and without fear -- the pope told the some 190 prelates gathered in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall they should "speak with parrhesia and listen with humility."

Working in a synod, the pope continued, does not mean prelates should say only what Francis wants to hear. "This is not good!" he said.

"A general condition is this," the pope said. "Speak clearly. Let no one say: 'This you cannot say.' "

"You need to say all that you feel with parrhesia," he continued. "And, at the same time, you should listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say."

Francis was opening discussions Monday at the Synod of Bishops, one of two worldwide meeting of bishops for 2014 and 2015 the pope has called to focus on issue of family life.

The meetings have raised expectations that there may be changes coming to certain church practices regarding family life, particularly how the church treats Catholics who have been divorced and remarried without first obtaining an annulment from the church.

Yet Monday's morning session -- the only session of the meetings of the Oct. 5-19 synod to be televised and the only to release the texts of the speakers -- was a mix of exhortations from prelates that the synod should see open discussions on the one hand, but no substantial changes to church teachings on the other.

In one example, the prelate who leads the Vatican's Office for the Synod told the synod fathers they should use a "broad freedom of expression" in their discussions.

"Expressing one’s convictions is always positive as long as it is done in a respectful, loving and constructive manner," Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri said.

"In fact, it is important for a person to express himself without fear or suspicion," the cardinal continued. "Feeling free to express what is believed or what it is doubtful shows what distinguishes a human being from other creatures."

"When differences arise, participants in their various roles are called not to stress their own interests or point of view but to seek the truth," Baldisseri said.

But one prelate seemed to draw a line of protection around current church teachings, especially those prohibiting divorce and remarriage in the church.

Referring to the call for mercy that some Catholics, including German Cardinal Walter Kasper, have used to argue for reconsideration of remarriage by the church, Cardinal Péter Erdő said clearly: "Mercy does not take away the commitments which arise from the demands of the marriage bond."

"This means that, in the case of a consummated sacramental marriage, after a divorce, a marriage recognized by the church is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive," said Erdő, who gave the longest talk, nearly an hour, of the day.

Erdő, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in Hungary, is serving as the October synod's general relator, a role that makes him responsible for guiding the synod's discussions.

In his talk Monday, the cardinal sought to summarize the process undertaken by the Vatican's Office of the Synod of Bishops in preparing for the meeting, drawing together global responses to a questionnaire released by the synod office last year regarding issues of family life.

In large part, Erdő defended current church family pastoral practices, focusing a broad critique on the state of modern society.

"Many people today have difficulty in thinking in a logical manner and reading lengthy documents," the cardinal said, opening his talk.

"Many look upon their lives not as a life-long endeavor but a series of moments in which great value is placed on feeling good and enjoying good health," he continued. "From this vantage point, any firm commitment seems insurmountable and the future appears threatening."

The cardinal also stressed the importance of making clearer the church's teachings.

"The specific aspects of doctrine and the church's magisterium on marriage and family are not always sufficiently well-known by the faithful," Erdő said.

"This does not mean that the teaching, in principle, is put in doubt by the vast majority of believers and theologians," he continued. "In the form in which it is presented by the Second Vatican Council ... this teaching enjoys a broad consensus among practicing Catholics."

"This is the case particularly with regard to the indissolubility of marriage and its sacramental nature among those who are baptized," Erdő said. "This teaching on the indissolubility of marriage as such is not questioned."

"Therefore, what is being discussed at this synod of an intense pastoral nature are not doctrinal issues, but the practical ones -- nevertheless inseparable from the truths of the faith," he said.

Regarding pastoral care for those divorced and remarried, the cardinal suggested that "the answer ... can be sought in a more comprehensive pastoral care of the young and those in marriage preparation."

"As regards the divorced who are civilly married, many have said that the distinction needs to be made between the one who is guilty for the break-up of the marriage and the innocent party," he said. "The church's pastoral care should extend to each of them in a particular way."

Yet Erdő said responses to the synod office's questionnaire gave "a rather broad consensus in favor of simplifying marriage cases from the pastoral point of view."

Suggesting one line of thinking for how the synod members may approach the issue of divorce and remarriage, the cardinal listed several options for how the church might change its annulment process to allow more Catholics to remarry if the church considers their first union invalid.

In fact, apparently suggesting that the church has wide freedom in that area, Erdő said "it does not seem hazardous ... to believe that many marriages celebrated in the church may be invalid."

"Many feel that the [annulment process] needs review," said the cardinal. "[But] a possible solution ... should avoid any type of mechanics or impression of granting a divorce."

Giving one suggestion for reform, Erdő proposed that the process for granting annulments in the church could be moved from the Vatican to "conclude with a declaration of nullity by the diocesan bishop," effectively granting bishops around the world more latitude to declare marriages invalid.

Erdő also touched the subject of the church's teaching prohibiting use of contraception, saying that Pope Paul VI's encyclical which addressed the matter, Humanae Vitae, "needs to be reread" as it was intended to be read by Paul.

"The moral norm cited in the document needs to be considered in light of the 'law of gradualness' ... keeping in mind that each person is a historical being, who 'knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good in stages of growth,' " said Erdő, quoting from the encyclical and Pope John Paul II's later apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio.

Erdő also touched upon same-sex marriage, saying responses to the synod office's questionnaire were "quite clear that the majority of the baptized -- and all episcopal conferences -- do not expect that these relationships be equated with marriage between a man and a woman."

"Nor," the cardinal continued, "is there a consensus among a vast majority of Catholics on the ideology of gender theories."

The bishops' work during the synod continues Monday afternoon.

There are approximately 190 prelates who are present and will be able to vote in the discussions. About 60 others, mainly nonprelates, have been selected in other roles and are able to contribute to discussions but not to vote.

Monday afternoon through Thursday evening, the bishops will open each of their meetings with an announcement of the theme for that session, followed by a testimony by a married couple on the theme.

After one week of their meetings, the bishops are to create a draft of a working document for the synod that will then be worked on during the second week of meetings to result in a final document for the synod, to be delivered to the pope.

Following sessions will take place behind closed doors, without release of the speakers' texts, summaries, or even the names of who was speaking. Instead, the Vatican press office is hosting daily briefings with spokespeople who will be attending the sessions and will summarize the discussions broadly.

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

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