At synod, bishops say doctrine won't change, share 'best practices'

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

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Bishops meeting at the Vatican to discuss issues of family life have shared "best practices" for helping families around the world and are continuing to focus on the notion of mercy in church life, according to Vatican observers.

During the discussions, Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica said, "there was no sense of doom or gloom or despair," but a desire among the estimated 190 prelates to share ideas that are working to promote church teaching.

One idea shared among the bishops, Rosica said, is using the image of God as a "kindly light ... that walks in the middle of people and leads them on the journey."

Rosica, a Canadian priest, briefed reporters Wednesday at the Vatican on the Oct. 5-19 meeting, known as a Synod of Bishops.

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 Rosica, in English.

Joining the spokesmen Wednesday were two synod members: Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama and Archbishop Victor Fernández, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina. Fernández is one of the 26 synod fathers Pope Francis specifically appointed; Francis also made the theologian, 52, a bishop in one of his first acts as pope.

Rosica said some other "best practices" being mentioned by the prelates revolved around understanding the limited impact bishops sometimes have on peoples' lives.

"We are not doctors who can heal every single disease or illness," said Rosica, summarizing one of the synod talks.

Kaigama, who heads the central Nigerian archdiocese of Jos, said the prelates are not looking to change specific church doctrines.

"It is what the Holy Spirit dictates that will determine the decision," said the archbishop, who is also head of the Nigerian bishops' conference.

"What we are trying to examine is the pastoral approach that could be done differently," he continued. "The doctrines remain the same. We are not going to invent new doctrines ... or suppress doctrines that the church has practiced for years."

Fernández, who is said to have helped Pope Francis draft his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"), said the prelates are not looking to redefine the church's notion of the indissolubility of marriage.

"No one wants to destroy the indissolubility of marriage," he said. "It's not possible."

But, Fernández continued, the building of doctrine regarding marriage is continuing and "is not closed."

Referring to Francis' speech to the group Monday, in which the pontiff asked the prelates to "speak boldly and listen with humility," Fernández joked: "The pope told us to speak frankly. This means we don't have to worry about Cardinal [Gerhard] Müller coming after us."

Müller is the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Asked if the synod's reflections will result in homosexuals being "fully accepted" in the church, Kaigama said: "We are animated by the spirit in our reflections."

"I'm sure those questions will come just like the question of polygamy has come," he said. "It doesn't mean we will have answers, but definitely there will be inspirations."

"By the grace of God, we're going to deal with them the best way possible for the good of the church and the salvation of souls," he said.

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

Asked by NCR how things were inside the synod hall as he was walking in Wednesday morning, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl responded with one word: "Warm."

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.

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

Among those who gave pre-written addresses during Tuesday's afternoon sessions: Lesotho Bishop Gerard Lerotholi; Senegal Bishop Benjamin Ndiaye; Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy; Bishop Salvatore Fisichella, prefect of the council for the new evangelization; Mexican Cardinal Francisco Robles Ortega; and Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, president of the Governorate of the Vatican.

Included in those who gave "free" remarks Tuesday afternoon: Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias; Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity; Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica; Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; German Cardinal Reinhard Marx; and Müller.

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

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