Synod releases document with new tone, calling for mercy, listening

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

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Taking a decidedly different tone than many church statements in recent years, the worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops on family issues has released a document calling for the church to listen more, to respect people in their various struggles, and to apply mercy much more widely.

Summarizing the work of the continuing meeting, known as a synod, the document acknowledges bluntly that the strict application of church doctrine is no longer enough to support people in their quest for God.

"It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations," states the document, released Monday morning.

"This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy," it continues.

The document, known as a relatio post disceptationem, is a summary of the discussions held at the synod so far, which is meeting from Oct. 5-19. It was read Monday morning to the some 190 prelates attending the synod by Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, who is serving as the synod's relator, or secretary.

Among the many changes in tone in the document are how it addresses Catholics who are divorced and remarried, how it addresses gay people, how it addresses contemporary culture -- and, more widely, how it asks for a church that is always open.

At one point, it quotes Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"), stating: "The Church is called on to be 'the house of the Father, with doors always wide open ... where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems' and to move towards those who feel the need to take up again their path of faith."

The synod, one of two called by Francis on family issues for 2014 and 2015, has attracted wide expectation that it might change aspects of the church's family practices, particularly the prohibition against taking Communion for people who have been divorced and remarried without first obtaining an annulment of their first unions.

But beyond that expectation, Monday's document also appears to reflect a move among the prelates from legal exactness in adherence to church teaching to graduality, a theological notion that people can grow in their holiness or in their adherence to church teaching over time.

Devoting a whole subsection of the 12-page document to the subject, it states: "Jesus looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God."

"In considering the principle of gradualness in the divine salvific plan, one asks what possibilities are given to married couples who experience the failure of their marriage, or rather how it is possible to offer them Christ's help through the ministry of the Church," the document continues later.

Answering that question, it turns to the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium, saying that document provides a "hermeneutic key" when it states that "many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of [the church's] visible structure."

"The doctrine of levels of communion, formulated by Vatican Council II, confirms the vision of a structured way of participating in the Mysterium Ecclesiae by baptized persons," the document continues.

"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," it continues.

The document also calls for the church to have a conversion in the way it teaches about the family, referencing Jesus' parable in the Gospel of Matthew of a sower who drops his seed in both rocky and fertile ground.

"In the light of the parable of the sower, our task is to cooperate in the sowing: the rest is God's work," it states.

It also states that church must not be theoretical and must address real-world problems.

"What is required is a missionary conversion: it is necessary not to stop at an announcement that is merely theoretical and has nothing to do with people's real problems," states the document.

Addressing "wounded families" -- specifically, couples that are separated, divorced, or divorced and remarried -- the document says, "what rang out clearly in the Synod was the necessity for courageous pastoral choices."

"The Synodal Fathers ... felt the urgent need for new pastoral paths, that begin with the effective reality of familial fragilities, recognizing that they, more often than not, are more 'endured' than freely chosen," states the document.

The document then calls on the Catholic church around the world to continue the synod's discussion on finding those "new pastoral paths" before the beginning of the 2015 synod.

"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," it states.

In particular, the document asks the church to listen to those "wounded families."

"Each damaged family first of all should be listened to with respect and love, becoming companions on the journey as Christ did with the disciples of the road to Emmaus," it states. "What needs to be respected above all is the suffering of those who have endured separation and divorce unjustly."

Addressing specifically those who have divorced and remarried without obtaining annulments, the document states that their situation "demands a careful discernment and an accompaniment full of respect, avoiding any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against."

"For the Christian community looking after them is not a weakening of its faith and its testimony to the indissolubility of marriage, but rather it expresses precisely its charity in its caring," it states.

Showing disagreement among the synod members about allowing such people to take communion, the document continues: "As regards the possibility of partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering."

"For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path -- under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop -- and with a clear undertaking in favor of the children," states the document.

"This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances," it continues.

Regarding changes to the church's annulment process, the document states that "various fathers underlined the necessity" to reform that process, which is used to determine whether a marriage was valid or not -- and, subsequently, if the parties could then be able to marry others inside the church.

Giving several options for how the process could be reformed, the document cites specifically that such reform "requires an increase in the responsibilities of the diocesan bishop, who in his diocese might charge a specially trained priest who would be able to offer the parties advice on the validity of their marriage."

The document also recognizes that marriages outside of the church and cohabitation are simply realities in many parts of the world that church cannot change.

"A new dimension of today's family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation, taking into account the due differences," it states.

"Indeed, when a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage," it continues.

"Imitating Jesus' merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm," states the document.

Continuing on the theme, it states again: "All these situations have to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk towards the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel."

"They need to be welcomed and accompanied with patience and delicacy," it states.

The document also seems to frankly change the church's tone toward gay people: While it re-emphasizes church teaching against same-sex marriage, it also asks blunt questions of the wider church.

"Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?" it asks.

"Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home," it continues. "Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"

Yet the document clearly reaffirms church teaching banning same-sex marriage.

"The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman," it states. "Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology."

Indirectly addressing Catholics' use of contraception, widely banned in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, the document states: "Being open to life is an intrinsic requirement of married love."

"What is required is a realistic language that is able to start from listening to people and acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional opening to life as that which human life requires to be lived to its fullest," the document continues.

"It is on this base that we can rest an appropriate teaching regarding natural methods, which allow the living in a harmonious and aware way of the communication between spouses, in all its dimensions, along with generative responsibility," it states.

"In this light, we should go back to the message of the encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, which underlines the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control," the document continues.

Restating the timeline of the two synods called by Francis for 2014 and 2015, the document concludes that it is meant to be used as a tool in preparing for the 2015 synod.

"The reflections put forward, the fruit of the Synodal dialog that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015," it states.

"These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view," the document continues.

"All the same the collegial path of the bishops and the involvement of all God's people under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will lead us to find roads of truth and mercy for all," it concludes. "This is the wish that from the beginning of our work Pope Francis has extended to us, inviting us to the courage of the faith and the humble and honest welcome of the truth in charity."

Monday's document was released after a week of meetings by the prelates, which saw speeches given by them on the subject in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall.

Approximately 190 prelates are at the synod and are 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.

Following the week of meetings, Monday's document was to be prepared by Erdo; Archishop Bruno Forte, the synod's special secretary; and Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, head of the Vatican's office for the synod of bishops. But, in a sign that Francis perhaps took a personal role in the document, the pontiff late Friday assigned six other synod members to the document's drafting committee.

Through the rest of this week the synod members are to meet in small groups, divided by language, to discuss and edit Monday's document in view of creating a final document for the synod for submission to Francis.

That final document is expected to be released to the public and to be used as the blue-print of sorts for the 2015 synod.

Among the added bishops added to the drafting of Monday's document are several known to have close connection to the pontiff. The added bishops:

  • 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.]

A version of this story appeared in the Oct 24-Nov 6, 2014 print issue under the headline: Striking a different tone.

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