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Synod’s confusion puts it in real life

VATICAN (SE): Interest in a quiet week at the Synod on Family Life being held at the Vatican from October 4 to 25 was sustained with the revelation a private letter was spirited to Pope Francis containing rumblings about rigged procedures in the synod to ensure the working paper has excessive influence on the final document (Relatio Finalis).

While there was some dissention about the accuracy of the contents of the published version of the letter and some of the 13 cardinals said to have signed it claimed they did not, a letter does exist and some cardinals did sign.

A spokesperson for George Cardinal Pell, who admits signing the letter, said that the cardinal believes that there is good unity in the synod, but minority elements want to change Church teaching on participation in the Eucharist.

He added that Cardinal Pell thinks the composition of the drafting committee is problematic and heavily weighted towards a more innovative view, and believes the process for voting on the final draft is undemocratic.

The Holy See spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi, summarised Pope Francis’ response saying that he wants to emphasise that the procedures of the synod are in keeping with the Extraordinary Synod last year and the working document is faithful to the two reports that were issued from last year’s gathering.

In response to the implication that Catholic doctrine may be up for grabs, Father Lombardi said that the pope stresses that it has not been touched and cautioned against the implication that communion for the divorced is the only issue on the agenda.

He said that the pope also clarified the status of the 10-person committee charged with drafting the final report, saying that the decisions of method were made public and given final approbation by the pope, and cannot come back for further discussion.

Father Antonio Spadaro, from La Civiltà Cattolica, said that the pope added a polemic jab to his retort by telling the synod fathers not to be taken in by conspiracy hermeneutic, which is sociologically weak and spiritually unhelpful.

The 270 synod fathers are re-elaborating the working document from the ground up, but the final re-writing will be the job of a committee appointed by Pope Francis. The committee has been described as innovative, a word which would not be descriptive of the overwhelming majority at the synod.

The president delegate of the synod, Luis Cardinal Tagle, threw a further spanner in the works by suggesting out of the blue that there may not be any final document at all. “We await the decision of the pope,” the archbishop of Manila said.

If no final draft statement is produced, the only option becomes a rehash of the working document, which has been described as rambling and sprawling. 

Vatican commentator, Robert Moynihan, suggests that it would not produce the to-the-point-type propositions of past synods and pose the danger of including motherhood propositions that are difficult to either agree or disagree with, as happened last year.

Father Lombardi also voiced the possibility of not having a final document, saying, “We do not yet have certainty on how the conclusion of the synod will take place. We will see if the pope gives us precise indications.”

Cardinal Tagle pointed to the bright side of the dilemma saying, “The method adopted by the synod has definitely caused a bit of confusion, but it is good to be confused once in a while. If things are always clear, then we might not be in real life anymore.”

There were more calls to find new language to articulate and express the teaching of the Church and Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge added a bit of linguistic colour saying, “Okay, we don’t go to one extreme and say we’re going to chuck Church teaching out the window or the other extreme and say we’re going to do nothing.”

In this context, there were suggestions that the concept of indissolubility should be expressed in more positive and encouraging terms, as currently it is treated and articulated more as a burden than a joy.

The working document leaves small portholes of opportunity for several, mostly overlooked issues, one being for people from the Anglican Communion married to Catholics to receive communion on a regular basis.

However, Archbishop Bernard Longley, a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, said that broadening of the current norms should be looked at first, rather than at a dramatic change.

There was also a call for a better understanding of the sacrament of marriage and the natural structure of marriage, as built on God’s plan from the time of Adam and Eve, as their natural marriage too had its own order of grace.

Some bishops pointed out that the working document does not define marriage and it was suggested that the definition from the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) [No 48] be adopted.

There was also resistance to suggestions of expanding the authority of local bishops’ conferences to make decisions on pastoral practices regarding admittance of the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist, while an intervention from Africa noted that the agenda for the synod is too western in both composition and content.

Among the Christian observers present, Anglican Archbishop Timothy Thornton commented that he finds the working document too focussed on the negative aspects of family, while Estonian Orthodox Metropolitan Stephanos said he hopes for a presentation of marriage as a mystery of life, rather than an institution.

Reverend Roy Medley, from the Baptist World Alliance, observed, “There is no perfect family and no perfect marriage.” 

He described his own Church as one that invites sinners to sit at the table of Jesus.

Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yostinos Boulos Safar said that the Church is centred on the Eucharist, which has healing power, and it should not be withheld as a form of punishment.

It was also pointed out that the working document only mentions forgiveness once—and that is not much!

Archbishop Blasé Cupich, from Chicago, called for calm in the pastoral care of souls, saying, “If people make a decision in good conscience then our job is to help them move forward and to respect that. The conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when we make decisions.”

He concluded by saying, “My role as a pastor is to help them discern what the role of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church and yet at the same time helping them… to understand what God is calling them to.”