The Synod of Bishops on the Family concluded its work on Saturday evening, Oct. 24, by approving the final document by a two-thirds majority. While re-affirming traditional church doctrine on marriage and the family as expected, the synod significantly closed no doors, despite a strong push to do so, instead it cleared the way for Pope Francis to respond to the unanswered questions in a future magisterial text.
The approval of this consensus document has greatly strengthened the hand of Pope Francis in his effort to build a church whose “first duty,” as he said in his speech after the vote, “is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.”
The synod fathers, in their introduction to the text (so far only in Italian) offered the pope “the fruit of our reflections, with an awareness of the limits that these present”—in fact they provided more questions than answers. And in the last paragraph (n.94) they ask him “to evaluate the opportunity” to write “a document on the family.”
The approved text is “a document of consensus,” Cardinal Christoph Schonborn (Austria) told the press in a briefing at the Vatican before the synod actually voted. That is already an achievement given the hard discussions during the three week assembly which the pope referred to in his speech (and which I will report in a separate blog).
Part 3, which was the most discussed and disputed section, looks at the mission of the family in today’s world, under the title “Family and Pastoral Accompaniment.”
Indeed, the most heated discussion in the synod revolved around one theme in this chapter: the controversial question of whether Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried could, under certain circumstances, receive communion. A sizeable group of synod fathers, including three cardinals heading Roman Curia Offices (Ouellet, Sarah and Pell), sought to totally exclude this possibility from the text but in the end they failed.
“Discernment” is the key word to understand the synod’s approach to this question, Cardinal Schonborn told the press. He said the synod gives “great attention” to their situation, which is so diversified that “there is no black and white answer, no simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’” as some insisted, instead “it’s necessary to discern in each case.” He recalled that this was exactly what John Paul II had advocated in his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family, "Familiaris Consortio." Moreover, he added, “discernment” is something that Pope Francis knows a lot about; with his Jesuit background of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, he has been doing it all his life.
This key word—“discernment”—appears in several paragraphs, three of which (83-84-85) encountered very strong opposition from a group of synod fathers that wanted to totally exclude the possibility that the divorced and remarried could ever be allowed to receive communion.
The first significant appearance of "discernment" comes in Paragraph 51 where the synod states that when "faced with difficult situations and wounded families, 'Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations'"(Familiaris Consortio, n. 84). It asserts that "the degree of responsibility is not the same in all cases, and there are factors that can limit the capacity of decision. Therefore, while the doctrine must be expressed with clarity, judgments must be avoided that do not take into account the complexity of the different situations, and it is necessary to be attentive to the way in which persons live and suffer because of their condition."
The synod returns again to this key word in paragraph 84 when it speaks of “discernment and integration” of the divorced and remarried civilly into the life of the church. This paragraph (approved by 187-72) states:
The baptized that are divorced and remarried civilly must be integrated into the Christian communities in the various possible ways, avoiding every occasion of scandal. The logic of integration is the key of their pastoral accompaniment, so that they not only know that there belong to the Body of Christ which is the Church, but that they also can have a joyful and fruitful experience. They are baptized, they are brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit has given in them gifts and charisms for the good of all: the Church needs them. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services: it’s necessary therefore to overcome various forms of exclusion that are at present practiced in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional fields. The should not only not feel themselves excommunicated but (they should feel) that they can live and mature as a living member of the Church, feel her as a mother who welcomes them always, takes care of them with affection and encourages them in the journey of life and of the Gospel. This integration is necessary also for the care and Christian education of their children, who must be considered as the most important. For the Christian community, to take care of these persons is not a weakening of her own faith and witness about the indissolubility of marriage: instead, the Church shows her charity precisely in this caring.
Again in Paragraph 85—the most contested paragraph of the whole report (approved 178-80)—the synod returns to "discernment" in this way:
Saint John Paul II has offered a criterion for the evaluation of these situations: "Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid."
In the view of the synod
It is therefore the task of priests to accompany the interested persons on the path of discernment according to the orientations of the bishop. In this process it will be useful to make an examination of conscience, through moments of reflection and repentance. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves how they have behaved towards their children when the marriage went into crisis; whether there were attempts at reconciliation; what is the situation of the abandoned partner; what consequences has the new relation on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; what example that offers to young people that have to prepare for marriage. A sincere reflection can reinforce trust in the mercy of God which is never denied to anyone.
Furthermore, the synod asserts that
one cannot deny that in some circumstances "the imputability and the responsibility of an action can be diminished or annulled" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1735) because of the different conditionings. Consequently, the judgment of an objective situation must not lead to a judgment on the "subjective imputability" (Declaration of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, 24 June 2000, 2a). In certain circumstances persons find great difficulty in acting differently. Therefore, while maintaining a general norm, it is necessary to recognize that the responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment must address these situations, while taking account of the rightly formed conscience of persons. Also the consequences of the acts that have been done are not necessarily the same in all situations.
The word “discernment” is present again in Paragraph 86 (approved by 190 -64) where the synod affirms that
the process of accompaniment and discernment orients these faithful to becoming conscious of their situations before God. The conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a right judgment on that which blocks the possibility of a full participation in the life of the Church and about the steps that can favor it and make it grow. Given that in the law there is not graduality (See "Familiaris Consortio," n. 34), this discernment cannot ever prescind from the demands of truth and charity of the Gospel proposed by the Church. For this to happen, the necessary conditions of humility, confidentiality, love of the Church and her teaching, have to be guaranteed in the sincere search for the will of God and in the desire to reach a response that is more perfect to that.
Through these three paragraphs (84-95-86) the synod recommends to the pope that the path be opened for the integration of the divorced and remarried into the life of the church. Nowhere does it close the door to the possibility that Catholics who are divorced and remarried may, under certain circumstances, be allowed to receive communion. The synod has handed this open question and many others to the pope for him to address in a future magisterial document.
On another contested subject, the church’s approach to homosexuals, Cardinal Schoborn acknowledged that “there’s not much about homosexuality in the text” since it only looks at this question within the context of the family, where a member—“a brother or sister”—has homosexual tendencies.
On this question Paragraph 76 has this to say:
The Church conforms her attitude to the Lord Jesus who in a love without frontiers offered himself for every person without exception. When faced with families that live the experience of having within them persons with homosexual tendencies, the Church reaffirms that every person, independent of their own sexual tendency, must be respected in their dignity and welcomed with respect, (and) with care to avoid "every mark of unjust discrimination (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; considerations about the project for legal recognition of unions between homosexual persons, 4).
The synod added that “special attention is reserved for the accompaniment of families in which persons with homosexual tendencies live." As for the projects of equating the union of homosexuals to marriage, “there is no foundation whatsoever for assimilating or establishing analogies, not even remotely, between homosexual unions and the plan of God for marriage and the family” (from the same CDF document).
Furthermore, the synod stated that “it considers it totally unacceptable that the local Churches are subjected to pressures in this matter, and that international organizations condition financial aid to poor countries on the introduction of laws that establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.”
Apart from these hot-button issues, the synod’s finals document is divided into three parts and covers much ground. One can only offer a rapid overview here of a text which reaffirms that Christian teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, who commit themselves to a lifelong union that is open to having children, and that it is indissoluble.
In part 1, the synod looks at the challenges facing the family both in the socio-cultural and religious context today, amid anthropological changes in society. Here, as in the working document, it refers to the resistance of young people to definite commitments, and speaks of the falling birthrate in many places. It speaks of an “exasperated individual culture” and the “ideology of gender,” which denies the natural difference and reciprocity between man and woman. It affirms that “in the vision of faith, the human sexual difference bears in itself the image and likeness of God.”
The text shows great sensitivity to the poverty and economic difficulties which so many families are living in, difficulties that also prevent young people from marrying. It insists that the state should develop economic and political policies that are supportive of the family, which is fundamental cell of society and a school of humanity. It also emphasizes the state’s duty to create the jobs and the conditions that enable young people to have a future and start a family. It draws attention to the fact that “that today’s economic system produces different forms of social exclusion” and families suffer greatly.
The synod gives particular attention to migrants, refugees, the homeless, the itinerant people, the untouchables and those affected by illnesses that bear a social stigma. It emphasizes the church’s duty here to assist them, and especially migrant families.
It speaks too about the family and ecology exactly as the pope’s encyclical does. Indeed much of part 1 echoes what Pope Francis has been saying in his catechesis on families over the past year, especially in regard to the elderly, widows and widowers, those with disabilities, and those who are persecuted and forced to become refugees, and it mentions in particular the situation of Christians in the Middle East. It gives a lot of attention to children, and the many ways they suffer, starting when their parents separate.
It devotes a whole paragraph to women, saying their dignity must be protected from all forms of discrimination and violence, and mentions in particular the violence they suffer in families. The synod also talks about the role of the man, and especially as father in the family.
The document speaks about the biotechnological revolution in the field of procreation and the problems this raises.
Part 2 focuses on the vocation of the family, and looks at this from a biblical perspective. It speaks about the church’s teaching on the family, starting from the Second Vatican Council and going through Paul VI’s encyclical, "Humane Vitae," and refers to the magisterial teaching of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. It reaffirms the indissolubility of marriage.
In paragraph 63, speaking on responsible parenthood, it emphasizes the role of conscience, and speaks about children as “a gift of God.” It describes adoption as “a form of authentic family apostolate. The synod rejects all forms of coercion by the state in favor of contraception, sterilization and abortion. It gives attention too to the education of children."
The Vatican will publish the synod document in English in the coming days.
Correction: Oct. 26, 2015
An earlier version of this article translated the first sentence of paragraph 84 of the synod's final document to read, "The baptized that are divorced and remarried civilly must be integrated into the Christian communities in the various possible ways," leaving out the end of the sentence, "avoiding every occasion of scandal."