The Synod on the Family has brought to light a spectrum of positions regarding how the church should approach three pressing pastoral issues: Should divorced and remarried Catholics be allowed to receive the Eucharist? Can the church recognize some positive values in cohabitation? How can the church take a more positive, welcoming approach to homosexuality?
Although there are a vast number of as important, if not more important questions under discussion at this three week international assembly, the answers that the 270 fathers come up with to these questions will reveal whether or not they have been able to resolve the contrasts between the doctrinal and pastoral aspects, and arrive at a broad consensus on a pastoral approach centered on mercy which opens new possibilities and horizons.
Many fathers began to glimpse the possibility that such a consensus might be reached after the German language group, that included Cardinals Kasper, Muller and Schonborn, agreed unanimously in the discussion on Part II of the working document that the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas offers a way ahead.
Strong resistances have to be overcome, however, in the coming week, as some assert there is absolutely no possibility of an opening on the three pastoral issues mentioned earlier.
The Polish-born bishop of Astana (Kazakhstan), Tomash Peta, stated this clearly when he told the plenary assembly on Oct. 10 that “the smoke of Satan” had entered the hall at the 2014 synod with three ideas: “the proposal to admit to Holy Communion those who are divorced and living in new civil unions; the affirmation that cohabitation is a union which may have in itself some values; the pleading for homosexuality as something which is allegedly normal.”
Archbishop Peta said, “some synod fathers have not understood correctly the appeal of Pope Francis for an open discussion and started bringing forward ideas, which contradict the bi-millennial Tradition of the Church, rooted in the Eternal Word of God.” And, “unfortunately, one can still perceive the smell of this ‘infernal smoke’ in some items of the "Instrumentum Laboris" (the working document).” He called for a clear affirmation of the church’s teaching on marriage and the family, and concluded that “it is not allowed to destroy the foundation, to destroy the rock” as that does not help anybody and would damage families.
While his talk gave rise to many jokes, it was in fact a very serious declaration and, sources told me, it also reflects the thinking of the many Polish bishops at the synod. At the press briefing, Oct. 15, the president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Stanislaw Gadecki, confirmed their total opposition to admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist, a point he had made forcefully in his earlier speech to the plenary assembly.
This thinking – particularly the total closure on the question of the divorced and remarried – is shared by several other prelates, including cardinals Eijk (Holland) and Pell (Australia). It is shared too by many prelates from Africa and, most publicly, by Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who sources told me had exercised a very strong influence on the 50 African bishops (including five cardinals) that participated in the pre-synod meeting on the family, held in Accra, Ghana, June 8-11, 2015. There, he urged them to defend the traditional church teaching on marriage and “to speak at the synod with clarity and just one voice.”
While nobody at the synod is suggesting a change in doctrine, and Pope Francis has clearly ruled this out, several fathers believe there could be another route between the polarized positions, as Australian archbishop Mark Coleridge told the assembly in one of the hour-long “free discussion” sessions.
In his highly informative and much read blog on Oct. 11, Coleridge summarized what he told the synod:
I tried to say that during the Synod discussions and those preceding there was a sense at times that it’s a matter of all or nothing – that we have two options: either to abandon the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family or to leave things exactly as they are, saying and doing what we’ve said and done for a long time. I suggested that neither of these was a real option. We weren’t going to abandon Church teaching; but it was unthinkable that we would simply say and do what we’ve always said and done. Why bother with the time, energy and expense of two Synods and all that’s gone with them if nothing whatsoever is going to change? The impression at times is that there’s really no space between the two extremes, when in fact there’s a huge space – space for all kinds of pastoral creativity. We need, I said, to expand our vision of possibility, think laterally, outside the square. That’s the task of this Synod and the real challenge to our corporate apostolic imagination...
One of those looking for a creative solution was the Archbishop of Berlin, Heiner Koch. Referring to the question of not allowing divorced and remarried people to the Eucharist, he told the synod “that many people question the Church and her mercy in this regard. More than a few people concerned leave the Church with their children on the basis that they see this as rejection. Ultimately and most profoundly it is much more about the Christian faith and God and His mercy. For many the question of admittance to the Eucharist makes them doubt God.”
A creative proposal in this regard came from the Archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, O.F.M., who has also served as a bishop in the United States. On Oct. 15, he told the synod fathers “that those who have divorced and remarried civilly could enter ‘the order of penitents’ through participation in those ‘places of encounter with Jesus,’ in a gradual and discerning journey which would take them to sincere steps along the moral life of faith.”
He explained, “This is not only a juridical act; it is the most dynamic help in the life of the Christian that accompanies him/her on the path of conversion and strengthens the purpose of amendment. We put for his/her consideration that the proposal of amendment which, after an honest and accompanied penitential journey, should be understood in these extraordinary cases that s/he (or the penitents) would commitment themselves to live in fidelity with the present partner. It’s a proposal based on right intention and evident signs. It’s a new opportunity that is just, merciful and pastoral, ‘a second baptism.’”
The Puerto Rican archbishop recalled that “Jesus does not refuse the encounter; nor do mistakes have the last word.” “With this renewed purpose of amendment," he said, "these brothers and sisters, in time, when the conditions that the Church establishes are verified, may go again to the Eucharist. It will not be a prize because one is good, rather it will be his/her strength, viaticum and medicine on the journey.”
Going beyond specific individual proposals, the Bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, Johan Bonny, who once worked in the Vatican like Coleridge, told the assembly that “it’s important that the Synod give space and responsibility to the local bishops to formulate suitable answers to the pastoral questions of that part of the people of God which is entrusted to their pastoral care. The individual bishops’ conferences have a special role in this.”
His proposal gained many supporters and it was included in the one of the language group reports too, as I mentioned in an earlier article.
While many are holding to very rigid positions at this stage of the synod’s journey, others are of the view that the German report mentioned earlier, and the proposal from Belgium’s Bishop Bonny, could perhaps offer a way ahead not only on the three vexed questions, but also for a profound renewal of pastoral praxis.
At today’s plenary session, the call for a development in pastoral praxis was made forcefully by a Mexican bishop when he told the story of a child whose parents were divorced and remarried and so were not allowed to receive communion. But they took their child every week to catechesis to prepare him for communion. The child was very sensitive to the fact that they could not receive communion, and so on the day of his first Holy Communion when he was given the host, he broke two small pieces off and gave one to each of his parents.
On hearing this, the synod assembly applauded strongly.