Five Things the Synod Just Did

Originally at:

by Fr. James Martin, S.J.

What does the final report of the Synod on the Family mean for the church?

Essentially, the “relatio” (or report) published today, at the close of the Synod, will serve as a starting point for future discussion.  It was also presented with great transparency, including even sections that did not win the necessary votes for complete approval.

Before we look at five things the synod did, it’s important to understand the unique “form” of this unusual final document.  Pope Francis asked to have all of the paragraphs presented in the “final” report, even those that failed to win the majority needed for full passage (a two-thirds majority).  Two of those three dealt with LGBT Catholics, and one addressed divorced and remarried Catholics.  What’s more, the Pope asked that the voting results be shown alongside all the paragraphs, which were voted on separately.  Gerard O’Connell called this a break with 49 years of tradition.

In other words, if the final document was published with only the fully approved texts, those three paragraphs would not appear.

Why might the Pope have chosen to do this?

One the one hand, this could be seen as a smart move by Pope Francis, who by insisting on not only retaining those paragraphs but also showing the vote tallies, ensures two things.  First, that those topics—LGBT issues and the reception of Communion for divorce and remarried Catholics—will be discussed at the next session of the Synod.  Second, that the church will know that these votes, both of which he himself has addressed, were close. This may give encouragement to those in favor of more openness on these issues to rally support and fight more vigorously next time.  (Conversely, it may perhaps strengthen the resolve of those bishops opposed to greater openness.)

Some said that the reason that the three paragraphs on those hot-button issues did not pass was not that the some bishops did not like them, but because they did not go far enough for others.  In other words, those three paragraphs were seen as too timid, so some bishops chose not to vote for them.  For example, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, a Canadian bishop, on his blog today writes, “Why did some Bishops choose not to approve a text which only repeated the Church’s received teaching? I have the impression many would have preferred a more open, positive language. Not finding it in this paragraph, they might have chosen to indicate their disapproval of it. However, it has also been published, and the reflection will have to continue.”

Archbishop Durocher believes that the overall tone of the “relatio” was more pastoral than could have been expected.  So it represents a win for the church.  I agree.  Also, finally talking about some things that had been largely taboo—new approaches to gays and lesbians, divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation—is another win.  (As an aside, a bishop is writing his reflections on his blog the day of the close of the synod should also be seen as something new.)

So what might be the “takeaway” from the Synod?

Here are five things the Synod did:

Dialogue: The synod was an “authentic” synod, as Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said the other day, in that it included actual dialogue.  No one can doubt that.  For many years Vaticanologists had speculated that such synods had been overly “managed,” that is, participants knew what they could and could not talk about, what they could and could not vote on, and more or less what the final outcome would be.  This was clearly not the case at Synod on the Family.  In his opening address to the participants, Pope Francis specifically asked the participants to speak freely, and prayed for the gift of parresia (a Greek term meaning, roughly, “openness”).  Dialogue is now a part of the church, at the very highest levels, and this is to the good.

To me, this seems a rather “Jesuit” model of decision-making.  Jesuit superiors know, and explicitly say, that the Holy Spirit can work through everyone—both the superior and those men in his care.  It is not simply a “top-down” method of governance.  So in Jesuit decision-making there is always great deal of discussion and dialogue, which can often continue for a considerable length of time.  At times, it’s uncomfortable.

Pope Francis mentioned this kind of discernment explicitly today in his final talk to the Synod, and referred to his Jesuit ideals:  “Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace. Instead, I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parresia [openness]

Division:There are fairly clear divisions in the church on many of issues related to the family (and sexuality), between what one cardinal termed those who focus on doctrine and those who focus on mercy.  Of course one could say that our doctrine is merciful and that mercy is part of our doctrine.  But you know what I mean: certain bishops favor a firmer application of laws already in existence (or a clearer explanation of them), and others prefer the “medicine of mercy,” as John XXIII had said at the opening of Vatican II.  (I also wrote earlier this week of two different models of welcoming people into the church: The “John the Baptist” model of conversion and then communion, and the “Jesus of Nazareth” model of communion and then conversion.  These are complementary, not competing models, but they give rise to disagreement over how the church will best live out its mission.)

These divisions spilled into the public forum, and then those divisions were taken up by various Catholics worldwide.  Frankly, I was shocked at how vitriolic things became, particularly on social media.  (For my part, I’ve never received more “hate tweets” than in the last two weeks.)  At times even prelates moved beyond the usual politesse of the Roman “bella figura” that one associates with Vatican affairs.  On the other hand, this is what the Pope invited, and probably expected, when he called for openness.

Transparency.  This synod brought us the following: lively daily press briefings with vigorous questioning from reporters, extremely candid comments from many bishops (Remember Cardinal Wilfrid Napier’s terming the interim report as “irredeemable,” and Cardinal Reinhard Marx noting that “obviously” church practice could change), an interim document that was made public, as well published notes from the working groups, and a final document published almost immediately after the voting—with the votes attached.

All this shows the Pope’s desire for transparency.  And all this is good.   It helps to clear the air of the scent of secrecy that attends many of these gatherings, increases the sense of accountability, and, also shows that the church is less afraid of openness.

LGBT: One of the biggest issues in the media’s coverage was the emergence of LGBT issues at the Synod—which was, in the run-up to the synod, anything but a sure thing.  That is, the synod participants could have avoided it.  But from the day that a married couple spoke of their experience with another couple they knew who had a gay son, it was on the table.  And to my mind, the media’s focus on the change in tone in the interim “relatio,” on these and other topics, released earlier this week, was entirely justified.  The first “relatio” included language about gays and lesbians that was new—dramatically new.  (“Welcoming,” “gifts and qualities,” mutual support, “precious” “partners,” etc.)  In addition, some bishops, like Cardinal Schoenborn, who spoke of an “exemplary” couple he knew, went out of their way to praise gays and lesbians.  So it was indeed newsworthy.

The final document (in paragraphs that, again, weren’t fully approved, but will remain topics of discussion) removed those words and, in essence, went back to the Catechism, which asks us to treat gays and lesbians with “respect, sensitivity and compassion.” (Oddly, the “relatio” speaks of “respect and sensitivity,” rispetto e delicatezza, but omits compassion.)

Some will see that as a loss and may be disappointed.  It’s easy to understand why: the interim “relatio,” which garnered so much attention earlier in the week, and which moved me deeply, spoke of “Welcoming Homosexual Persons.” Just the word “welcome” was refreshing.  (By the middle of the week, the new English translation had “Providing for.”)  Now the synod speaks of “Pastoral Care of the Homosexual Person.”  That is quite different.  (Would you rather be welcomed or cared for?)  Moreover, there is no mention of any “gifts or qualities” at all. But again, the topic of LGBT Catholics is now part of the discussion, and by insisting that those paragraphs were retained (even though they were not approved) Pope Francis is keeping them on the table.

Beginning.  Lost in some discussions of the Synod was that the last two weeks represented only Part One.  After this, the bishops and participants will return to their home dioceses and the worldwide church will reflect on these proceedings until the next session, in October 2015.  In the interim, the “World Meeting of Families” will take place in Philadelphia (with Pope Francis most likely attending) with similar topics being raised in talks, articles, homilies and the like.  So there will be further reflection.

Next October, the synod will meet again in Rome.  (With some different bishops, by the way, for example, Archbishop Cupich, now of Chicago.)  And, finally, Pope Francis will issue his “apostolic exhortation” on the Synod, a document which enjoys a high level of teaching authority.  Thus, while the synod is an important consultative body and Francis is very much in favor of “synodality,” his is the final word on all these issues.

At times, when I was getting too involved in the daily press conferences, I reminded myself that, while these discussions are important and show the temperature of the church on certain issues, the apostolic exhortation will be the most important document.  When I read the documents of the Second Vatican Council, for example, I’m not that concerned about what Cardinals Ottaviani and Bea thought at the time, as much as I am with the final product.  I’m more interested in “Lumen Gentium” and “Gaudium et Spes” than one cardinal’s particular “intervention” during one session of the Council.

All in all, the last two weeks have proven a very Jesuit “way of proceeding,” as St. Ignatius Loyola would say.  It’s what we call “discernment,” which includes prayer, as well as much discussion, some division and even some debates.

But in the end one person makes the decisions, and in this case it’s the Pope.  At one point during his concluding speech to the bishops he said, playfully, “I am here and I’m the pope!”

Or as we say in the Jesuits, when it comes to the superior it’s: “You discern, we discern, but I decide.”

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