The 318 participants attending the synod of bishops on the family have raised or discussed a wide range of topics during the first four days of this gathering. High among them are the terrible, destructive impact that war, armed conflict, poverty, unemployment, persecution, violence against women and children have on families across the globe.
Participants also gave considerable attention to theme of “inclusion” and what this means in terms of the family and the church, also in relation to couples who are cohabiting or divorced and remarried civilly. In this context, they discussed the church’s approach to homosexuality and homosexuals, and the great need to empower women in the church. Again and again, they emphasized the urgent need for the church to develop an appropriate language with which to speak to the modern world, and to communicate the Gospel message.
The list of topics seemed endless, and only a fraction can be mentioned here. The reader, however, can find most, if not all of them in the first four chapters of the synod’s Working Document ("Instrumentum Laboris”).
Many synod fathers confirm that there is consensus in the assembly that a rich, positive affirmation of the Christian family must be reflected in the final synod document. Many affirm that the final text should reflect a merciful approach and openness to those that are not reaching the Christian ideal or are in difficulties of various forms, while others are insisting on a strong affirmation of the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and the family. It’s far from clear at this stage how the Final Document will cope with these differing emphases.
One of the topics that was emerged strongly at the synod is the dramatic situation of the Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq and the exodus of Christians, especially young people from that whole region, and the negative impact of all this on families and what the church in other parts of the world might do to help. At the press briefing on October 8, the Patriarch of Antioch of the Syrians, Ignace Youssif III Younan (Lebanon) spoke with passion and grief about the members of the different Christian churches “who want to get out of this hell because they are persecuted, taken hostage, by the ISIS terrorist state.”
“For us it’s a catastrophe,” he stated.
A number of fathers touched on the issue of violence against women. One African bishop told the plenary assembly that “in some African countries women are subjected to conditions of violence and dehumanization” due to situations of war, ethnic violence, domestic violence, situations of polygamy, separation and divorce and “the discrimination of the girl child.” He urged the church to help promote women through education, and other means.
Canada’s Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher drew attention to this problem too in his talk, citing World Health Organization statistics that show that “nearly a third of women worldwide are victims of domestic violence.” He said the synod should make clear that Scripture does support violence against women. He and others emphasized the need for the church to do more to address this whole problem, and protect and empower women. He went onto address another important issue—the role of women in the church. He suggested that the church consider opening to “women deacons,” and assign more posts of responsibility and decision-making to women.
A very important discussion took place on the question of “inclusion.” The discussion was rich and went in many different directions. It was evident that the message of Pope Francis on this subject is being warmly embraced by many bishops worldwide.
One prelate criticized the WD for being too focused on “problems.” He reminded the assembly that “the family is what people treasure most, care about most passionately.” He emphasized that “many families give a powerful witness to the church,” and “most families never withdraw a loving welcome home, even if they are dismayed by certain behavior (of some members).” He told the synod that “the entire church, must learn this pathway of ‘tough love’ a love that is compassionate, honest and always seeking to find and nurture all that is good.”
Another participant from the old continent recalling what Pope Francis said in “The Joy of the Gospel” regarding exclusion and inclusion, emphasized that “this principle of inclusion is very important to face the challenges of the family today.” He proposed that in addition to the categories of people already mentioned for inclusion in Chapter 3, others too should be named there, and in particular “those whose marriages have broken, those who have remarried and welcomed children in a second union” as well as “homosexuals, whether chaste or celibate, or in relationships, as well as their children” because “they (all) belong to families, our families, the human family and the family of God.”
He said it was important for the church “to discern the reasons for the responses it offers in the light of the principle of inclusion.” He told the assembly that “much debate has reduced the arguments involving these complicated situations to an ‘either-or,’ a choice between the austerity of justice and the growth offered by mercy.” “This," he said, "runs the serious risk of exclusion and missing the relation between the church and the world and the men and women of today, which is so central to Vatican II’s “Gaudium et Spes”—the document on the church in the modern world.
On this topic also, another bishop expressed his conviction that “where renewal is most required is within the framework and language with which our faith is communicated at a public level. When people hear themselves as being an object of judgment rather than a subject of worth, rejection is most felt.” He underlined the need for “a sense of mercy” in the church’s approach to people, one that recognizes the goodness than is in people.” This approach is important, he said, especially “when we come to consider a particular category of those who suffer rejection: persons with homosexual tendencies” because “the mercy for which they year is not one of pity but of comprehension of the truth of who and how they are.”
A European synod father argues that it is necessary to welcome couples and families “in their concrete (existential) situations” and “to imagine paths of integration and reconciliation,” while one from East Africa hoped it would be possible “to lead couples along a gradual journey towards the goal that is a good Christian marriage.”
Not all synod fathers, however, think it is a good idea to affirm “the good” that exists in what they call “irregular situations” (a term Pope Francis does not like); they argue that to do this in the case of couples living together before marriage, or in new unions following divorce and civil remarriage, somehow obscures the distinction between "good" and "evil."
One bishop, speaking of the situation of Catholics in Africa who marry persons of other religions, including Islam, emphasized the need to accompany them. “We know that exclusion is never a pastoral solution, especially in a church that promotes an ‘open door’ policy towards couples in difficult situations.”
Among the many interesting dynamics at the synod, one could note the difference of perceptions between bishops from different cultures, languages and regions of the world. The difference is sometimes a question of language, but at times it can be more than language. Thus, for example, some prelates from the West seem to be of the view that synod fathers from Africa are impeding or blocking progress on questions that are important in their region of the world such as how the church should approach homosexuality and homosexual people, or the vexed question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics may be admitted to the Eucharist. Some African bishops, on the other hand, have asserted that the synod’s working document reflects a rather European or Western perspective when, for example, it speaks about a decrease in the number of people getting married, something that is not true in Africa.
Asked about this alleged tension at a Vatican press-briefing, October 8, Archbishop Gabriel Palmer-Buckle (Ghana) said, “We are not here to block anybody. We are here to share what we have as a value to the greater good of the universal church. Africa is here to say what it feels about the pastoral problems in the church. Africa is only proposing what it feels.” He noted that the working document tends to speak mostly of "the nuclear family," but in Africa there is also the reality of "the extended family." But, he said, whenever a church in one part of the world has a problem, then it’s also a concern or a problem for the whole universal church, since the church is a family.
As for the issue of homosexuality, the Ghanaian prelate recalled that the when the pope, on flight back from Brazil, made his comment – “Who am I to judge if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?”, it created many problems in his country, but “we endorsed it” at the meeting of the continental bishops’ conferences.
"People who are different from us are sons and daughters of God and we have to welcome them and be able to open the doors of the church to them. They are human, they have human rights and their human rights and dignity should be respected and upheld," the archbishop stated. He told the press “We are doing what we can. It takes time for individual voices like that to be heard—when you are dealing especially with something that is culturally different” but “I'd like you to know that we must underline that the rights of all sons and daughters of God are to be upheld by the church everywhere."
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle went on to focus on a topic that has gained much attention in the synod: the phenomenon of migration. He spoke about the flood of migrants from Africa to Europe and highlighted “the destruction that families are going through because of bad governance in Africa” which is driving so many young people – “the brains of our countries”—to leave the continent.
A bishop from the other side of the continent drew attention to “the enormous number of refugees and migrants who are now living” in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia, and “the uncountable numbers of migrants that are running away from situations of war, persecution, poverty and inequalities that threaten their life” and the impact all this has on countless families “that remain separated from their loved one, experience rejection wherever they go, and are sometimes subjected to conditions of great abuse.”
A prelate from across the globe told the synod that “when people are caught up in destructive and hurtful situations, they need friends.” He said the church “must always be a friend” to people in such situations. “Families struggle with faith and moral issues,” he said, “and as a consequence are often torn apart and don’t know how to say sorry and be reconciled.” In this context he suggested that the synod recommend that in this Jubilee Year of Mercy the possibility of using General Absolution (The Third Rite of Reconciliation) be explored.
“I believe," he said, "if we give our people the chance to be reconciled to the church and to one another, there will be a greater uptake of the First Rite of Reconciliation”—that is confession—“and a measure of peace may be found for hurting families. They in turn will become agents of God’s mercy to other families. “
It remains to be seen whether his proposal finds its way into the synod’s final document.