Vatican City — The Catholic prelates attending the worldwide meeting of bishops on family have again revealed what appear to be rather significant differences of opinion on how the church should approach families, particularly over whether and how it should use more open or inclusive language in its teachings.
Where some prelates are expressing primary concern that any new language must clearly and directly outline church doctrines and disciplines, others are stressing that the church’s parlance must be less legal and more accessible to the men and women of today.
Participants of the ongoing Oct. 4-25 Synod of Bishops made their observations Wednesday with the second release of reports from 13 different small discussion groups that have been helping guide the meeting’s discussions.
The groups are organized by language preference and are split into circles of French, English, Italian, Spanish and German.
The four English language groups -- led respectively by Australian Cardinal George Pell, British Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Irish Archbishop Eamon Martin, and Canadian Cardinal Thomas Collins -- take different approaches towards what the prelates should be doing.
The first two groups particularly mention the language the church uses towards families, but seem to take very different tacks.
Pell’s group, being co-led by U.S. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, stresses a primary concern on clarity of church doctrine.
“Though every effort should be made to provide for streamlined, attractive language, a primary concern was the clarity of well-grounded explanations of Church teaching on marriage and the family,” wrote that group.
Nichols’ group, being co-led by Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, stated that they wanted to “search for a language accessible to the men and women of our times.”
That group even proposed modification of one key term that has often surfaced in discussions about the synod: the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
“We propose alongside the term ‘indissolubility’ to use a language which is less legal, and which shows better the mystery of God’s love speaking of marriage as a grace, a blessing, and a lifelong covenant of love,” they wrote.
Nichols sought to downplay any disagreement among the some 270 prelates participating in the synod meeting during a mid-day press briefing Wednesday, saying that use of the word “stalemate” was inappropriate.
"That is not my experience at all,” said the cardinal. “I do not think it is like that. There is a lot of energy in the synod. There are differences of opinion because … we’re a family and families have differences of opinions.”
"I myself have no sense of stalemate,” he said. “I have a sense of real willingness to explore in depth some of these really difficult issues. And that will continue. It’s hard work. It’s half way. But there is no sense of negativity in the synod.”
The Synod of Bishops is meeting over three weeks in a mix of general sessions and discussions in the 13 small groups. Wednesday’s reports are the second of three to be released from the small groups, which are discussing part-by-part a working document being used by the synod.
The discussions among the prelates have attracted a wide range of interest, and a certain amount of intrigue over what the synod might be considering. While the Vatican is providing daily press briefings on the deliberations, the meetings themselves are closed to the press.
The issue of the church’s language is known to have surfaced in discussions, particularly regarding the church’s stance towards divorced and remarried persons and gay people.
Nichols’ group focused their reflections on various themes: “The Divine Pedagogy, the Word of God in the Family, Indissolubility and Faithfulness, The Family and the Church, Mercy and Brokenness.”
That group defined marriage as having three “basic characteristics:” monogamy, permanence, and equality of the sexes.
Commenting on Jesus’ attitudes towards families, Nichols’ group said that Jesus often did what was considered inappropriate for his time -- giving examples that he spoke to a Samaritan woman and did not condemn another woman who had committed adultery.
“He dirtied his hands through work, but not with stones to throw at others,” said the group, writing of Jesus' ministry.
That group also asked the synod put a particular focus on God’s mercy towards humanity.
“All of us need God’s mercy,” they wrote. “In many societies today there is a sense of self-sufficiency, whereby people feel that they have no need of mercy and no awareness of their own sinfulness.”
“At times this is due to an inadequate catechesis on sin, not recognizing sin as a wounding of our relationship with God and with each other, a wound which can be healed only through the saving power of God’s mercy,” they continued.
“The group felt a strong need for a deeper reflection on the relationship between mercy and justice,” the group stated. “We should always remember that God never gives up on his mercy. It is mercy which reveals God’s true face. God’s mercy reaches out to all of us, especially to those who suffer, those who are weak, and those who fail.”
Eamon Martin’s group, being co-led by Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge, wrote that they identify a “need to see more clearly how the Church through the ages has come to a deeper understanding and surer presentation of the teaching on marriage and the family which has its roots in Christ himself.”
“The teaching has been constant, but the articulation of it and the practice based upon that articulation have not been,” they wrote.
That group also highlighted a need for the church to speak differently to different cultures, perhaps obliquely referring to proposals that certain issues of church authority could be handled by regional or local bishops’ conferences.
“A great richness and challenge of our discussions continues to be the different modulations of marriage and the family in the various cultures represented in the group,” they wrote.
“There are certainly points of convergence, arising from our shared sense of God’s plan which is inscribed in creation and which comes to its fullness in Christ crucified and risen, as proclaimed by the Church,” they continued. “But the different ways in which that mystery takes flesh in different parts of the world make it challenging to balance the local and the universal.”
“That remains an overarching task of this Synod,” stated the group.
Collins’ group, being co-led by U.S. Archbishop Charles Chaput, said they were concerned that the synod’s working document does not clearly define marriage.
“This is a serious defect,” they wrote. “It causes ambiguity throughout the text.”
Suggesting a definition, the group printed a half-page-long section of the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et spes defining marriage.
Collins’ group also praised four types of witness families today give, identifying them as: holiness in prayer, not being self-referential, being sensitive to environmental issues, and living together in charity, in shared, everyday life.
That group also said some bishops in the group “noted the importance of women in the life of the Church and the need to focus more attention on giving them appropriate leadership roles.”
At the Vatican briefing Wednesday, Nichols said he hoped that instead of issuing its own final document that Francis would later issue an apostolic exhortation on behalf of the synod.
"My hope is certainly that he will complete this process because it seems to me that it will need bringing to a conclusion, and there's only one person who can do that,” said the cardinal.
Nichols also praised the universality of the church in his remarks, saying that the local church has to “strive for is a kind of critical distance from its local setting, its particular culture."
"The church has to have a critical distance, a bit like an arc light,” he said. “If there’s going to be some light, then the two elements have to be at a critical distance. The universality of the church holds the local church to a critical distance, otherwise it gets too close to the prevailing culture and the light disappears.”
The Synod of Bishops is meeting Wednesday-Friday in open session. The prelates will resume meeting in small groups Monday and Tuesday.
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]