As the synod on the family reached the midway stage on a positive note, Pope Francis took the unprecedented and highly significant decision to add six highly qualified synod fathers to the team that will write its Final Report. That decision could prove to be a game changer.
At almost all of the synods over the past 49 years the Final Report was drafted by the Relator, the Special Secretary and the Secretary General. It had been presumed that the Final Report of the 2014 synod would follow suit and be drafted by the Hungarian cardinal Peter Erdo (the Relator), the Italian theologian-archbishop Bruno Forte (Special Secretary), and Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri (Italy), the Secretary General who is attending the synod for the first time. That is no longer the case.
The Vatican announced today - October 11,that Pope Francis has decided to add six highly qualified synod fathers to assist them in that onerous and all important task. They are: Cardinals Gianfranco Ravasi (Italy, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture) and Donald William Wuerl (Archbishop of Washington D.C), Archbishops Victor Manuel Fernàndez (Rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires and the Pope’s main theological advisor at Aparecida in 2007), Carlos Aguiar Retes (President of CELAM), Peter Kang U-IL (President of the Korean Bishops’ Conference), and Father Adolfo Nicolas Pachon (Father General of the Society of Jesus).
The Final Report will be the key text to emerge from this extraordinary synod, and will be based on what has emerged in speeches and discussions during this 2014 synod. It is a most important document as it will provide the basis for discussion in Bishops’ Conferences and Churches around the world between now and the synod of October 2015. It will serve as the equivalent of a Working Document in preparation for the next synod which is expected to come up with important proposals regarding the pastoral approach to the family in the 21st century, including those regarding how the Church will respond to the questions of cohabitation, the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics, other irregular situations, same-sex unions and much else.
The Jesuit Pope took this important decision as the first part of the synod on the family ended on an upbeat note and participants moved into the crucial second phase where they will discuss, in ten small language groups, the key issues and then express their majority and minority views on them.
In this first week the 253 synod participants spoke either from prepared texts or spontaneously on one or other topic of the Working Document that had been assigned for that particular day. They have now concluded that part, but already several things stand out that are worth mentioning.
To begin with, participants who have attended previous synods confirm that the climate of freedom and the method that is operative here is significantly different to that of past synods, and they confirm this is producing positive results.
Every participant that I have spoken to in private, as well as those who met the press, gave fulsome credit to Pope Francis for creating a climate of freedom in which everyone has felt totally free to say what they really think on a given topic. “People are very relaxed, and even make jokes”, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin commented. He said the Pope has contributed greatly to this climate not only by advocating that they speak freely and boldly on the first day but also by arriving early each day, greeting participants when they arrive, and mingling with people at the coffee breaks.
It is well known that in past synods a discreet but effective censorship was exercised by Vatican officials, but what was even more serious and damaging to the realization of an open and honest debate was the “self-censorship” exercised by the bishops themselves at these gatherings. Archbishop Jose Maria Arancedo, President of the Argentine Bishops Conference, stated this frankly in an interview on October 9 when, referring to past synods, he said, “The worst censorship is self-censorship”.
A second very important factor that differentiates this synod from previous ones is that “the inductive” rather than “the deductive” method has prevailed. Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, President of the Canadian Bishops Conference, highlighted this particular aspect at a Vatican briefing on October 9.
“What’s going on in the Synod is we’re seeing a more inductive way of reflecting, starting with the real situations of people… and finding that the lived experience of people is also a theological source, a place of theological reflection", he stated.
“The bishops are speaking as pastors”, many participants confirmed. They are speaking from personal experience and honest conviction on a wide variety of issues. At times they are doing so with great passion, also from their experiences of the happy or broken marriages of their own parents.
Bishops from the Middle East and Africa, as well as married couples from that part of the world, spoke often in heart-breaking ways about the terrible impact of war and violence on families, while bishops from Asia, Africa and Latin America spoke of the destructive effects on poverty and immigration on countless families.
A great many bishops spoke about the plight of children in broken marriages - “the ping-pong children” who shuttle between their separated parents, and those in situations of war, violence and as a result of immigration. They spoke about how the Church is responding in different countries to such situations and what more it might do.
Several bishops reaffirmed that the Church must show love and respect for homosexuals and lesbians. There was consensus that the Church cannot consider the union of people of the same sex as marriage, but they made clear that there should be no discrimination against children of such unions.
Many synod fathers and some married couples underlined the need for proper preparation of couples who wish to get married in church, and the need to support couples after they marry and have children. Others underlined the need to be close to widows and widowers, and those who have no families.
There is consensus on the question of the indissolubility of marriage, but there are a variety of positions when it comes to applying this principle to concrete cases. “We have to exercise our pastoral responsibilities in the grey areas”, Archbishop Martin said at a Vatican press briefing on October 11.
It came as no surprise to see that different positions have emerged among the synod fathers on such issues asthe relation between doctrine and pastoral practice, how to marry mercy and justice, how one measures faith when a couple wish to contract marriage, and the possibility of a penitential path that can open the door to the reception of the sacraments of reconciliation and communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. As was evident before the synod started there are two different positions on the question of the admission to communion of divorced and remarried Catholics; what is not yet clear is the level of support for each position.
Pope Francis has long favored the inductive method; it was the one that worked well at the 2007 Aparecida gathering of the Bishops Conferences of Latina America and the Caribbean (CELAM), where he was the editor-in-chief of its final document which is now a fundamental text for understanding his thinking. He is convinced that the process of synodality can bear fruits – even unexpected ones - if all the synod fathers participate in it with hearts and minds that are open to what the Spirit is saying in the different situations in today’s world.
It is noteworthy that this climate of freedom fostered by the Pope and the methodology of synodality that he has promoted, has helped avoid polarization at the synod, and it has led participants to think that a synthesis and eventual consensus can be reached even on the most controversial issues by the end of the synod process in 2015.
On Monday, October 13, Cardinal Peter Erdo, the synod’s Relator, will present a Report to the plenary assembly summarizing the more than 240 speeches or written presentations given during the first week. His report will provide the basis for 15 hours of discussion in 10 language groups (3 Italian, 3 English, 2 French and 2 Spanish) over the following three days. It will also prove the frame for the synod’s Final Report.
The input from the ten language groups will be inserted into that frame and will result in the Final Report, mentioned earlier, which will be drafted by the synod fathers mentioned earlier (the original team of three plus the six new members appointed by the Pope).
The synod fathers will vote on and approve the Final Report on the afternoon of October 18. That text will then be given to the Pope, and eventually sent to the Bishops’ Conferences and Patriarchates worldwide, and is also expected to be released to the press.