From the synod (6): Interim report holds issues in tension while breaking new ground

synod logo[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome]

The ‘interim report’ – full text here — read out this morning by the synod’s Hungarian relator, Cardinal Peter Erdö, masterfully holds in balance the various issues in contention while resolutely breaking new ground in the Church’s approach to those who do not live up to its teachings.

While containing no great surprises — most of its ideas had already emerged in the course of the synod — the most newsworthy element may be its synthesis of opposed views, which is designed to enable the Church to discern answers to difficult questions over the next year, and its call for a new missionary approach to marriage and family.

synod genOn the key neuralgic issue of the reception of sacraments for the divorced and remarried, the relatio post disceptationem makes no mention of the Orthodox model (in which second marriages are blessed but not recognized as sacraments), which indicates that it won’t be studied over the next year as a possible path.

At the same time, the document firmly rejects any notion that providing a welcome to the divorced and remarried somehow weakens the Church’s witness to indissolubility and holds open the possibility of a bishop deciding to re-admit someone to the sacraments after careful discernment on a case-by-case basis.

Overall, however, the issue is kicked into the long grass of further discernment and study. Paragraphs 47 & 48 note:

As regards the possibility of partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering. For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path – under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop –, and with a clear undertaking in favor of the children. This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances.

Suggesting limiting themselves to only “spiritual communion” was questioned by more than a few Synodal Fathers: if spiritual communion is possible, why not allow them to partake in the sacrament? As a result a greater theological study was requested starting with the links between the sacrament of marriage and the Eucharist in relation to the Church-sacrament. In the same way, the moral dimension of the problem requires further consideration, listening to and illuminating the consciences of spouses.

synod genAs many (including here) have been predicting, annulment reform seems to be one definite outcome of the synod, with power being devolved onto the local bishop, and providing a more user-friendly, accessible system for assessing invalidity, possibly via an administrative rather than judicial route. Paras 43 and 44 note:

Various Fathers underlined the necessity to make the recognition of cases of nullity more accessible and flexible. Among the propositions were the abandonment of the need for the double conforming sentence; the possibility of establishing an administrative means under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop; a summary process to be used in cases of clear nullity. According to authoritative propositions, the possibility should then be considered of giving weight to the faith of those about to be married in terms of the validity of the sacrament of marriage. It needs to emphasized that in all these cases it is about the ascertaining of the truth over the validity of the obstacle.

As regards matrimonial suits [i.e. nullity cases], the speeding-up of the procedure, requested by many, as well as the preparation of a sufficient number of operators, clerics and lay people, dedicating themselves to this, requires an increase in the responsibilities of the diocesan bishop, who in his diocese might charge a specially trained priest who would be able to offer the parties advice on the validity of their marriage.


The real ‘news’ of the relatio, however, is not easy to capture in headlines, because it calls for a new mindset on the part of the Church.

Cardinal Erdö

Cardinal Erdö

It is a mindset captured by the call in Evangelii Gaudium for a more “pastoral” and “missionary” approach. There is (by church standards) fiercely strong language, for example, in paragraph 40, calling for better care of what the document calls “wounded families”.

What rang out clearly in the Synod was the necessity for courageous pastoral choices. Reconfirming forcefully the fidelity to the Gospel of the family, the Synodal Fathers, felt the urgent need for new pastoral paths, that begin with the effective reality of familial fragilities, recognizing that they, more often than not, are more “endured” than freely chosen. These are situations that are diverse because of personal as well as cultural and socio-economic factors. It is not wise to think of unique solutions or those inspired by a logic of “all or nothing”. The dialogue and meeting that took place in the Synod will have to continue in the local Churches, involving their various components, in such a way that the perspectives that have been drawn up might find their full maturation in the work of the next Ordinary General Assembly. The guidance of the Spirit, constantly invoked, will allow all God’s people to live the fidelity to the Gospel of the family as a merciful caring for all situations of fragility.

The “all or nothing” stance — either you accept the fullness of the Church’s teaching, or we have little to say to you — has been replaced, in the synod, by a missionary stance, which starts with where people are, and seeks to encourage them by small steps to the fullness of the Gospel of the Family.

The challenge of this new missionary approach is spelled out early on, in paragraph 11:

It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.

Paragraphs 17 to 22 contain the basis of this new approach, seeking to discern in natural or civil marriages (and even cohabitation) positive elements which should be valued as seeds that can be watered and eventually blossom into the sacramental understanding.

Thus para 22 distinguishes between cohabitation “not with a view to a possible future marriage, but rather without any intention of establishing an institutionally-recognized relationship” and a union that “reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests”. In this case, “it may be seen as a germ [i.e. a seed] to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage.” And again, in para 38, the document contrasts “a choice inspired by a general attitude, which is opposed to institutions and definitive undertakings” with “waiting for a secure existence (a steady job and income)”. Pastoral accompaniment, it says, “should always start from these positive aspects”.

synod day 2b


The document is also emphatic about the Church needing to make marriage and family the locus of a new mobilization of energies and resources, not by teaching dry formulas but through the concrete witness of couples. Hence para 31:

Christian marriage cannot only be considered as a cultural tradition or social obligation, but has to be a vocational decision taken with the proper preparation in an itinerary of faith, with mature discernment. This is not about creating difficulties and complicating the cycles of formation, but of going deeply into the issue and not being content with theoretical meetings or general orientations.

Hence the need for better preparation for marriage, requiring “a greater involvement of the entire community privileging the testimony of the families themselves, as well as a rooting of the preparation for marriage in the path of Christian initiation, underlining the connection between marriage and the other sacraments.” But also support for those already married by couples in the parish. Para 35 says:

Of great importance in this pastoral is the presence of experienced couples. The parish is considered the ideal place for expert couples to place themselves at the disposal of younger ones. Couples need to be encouraged towards a fundamental welcome of the great gift of children. The importance of family spirituality and prayer needs to be underlined, encouraging couples to meet regularly to promote the growth of the spiritual life and solidarity in the concrete demands of life. Meaningful liturgies, devotional practices and the Eucharist celebrated for families, were mentioned as vital in favoring evangelization through the family.


Cardinal Burke

Cardinal Burke

Considerable space is also given over to the question of welcoming gay people, which was the subject of a controversy during the synod after the attitude of an Australian couple who spoke to the synod was criticized by Cardinal Burke in a TV interview.

The document doesn’t take sides, but poses the challenge:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

The document also strongly reaffirms marriage as a male-female union and rejects “gender ideology”. But it notes positive elements in some gay unions: “without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions,” it says, “it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners”. It also makes clear that the Church should pay “special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.”

On birth control, the document notes that “economic factors sometimes have enough weight to contribute to the sharp drop in the birthrate which weakens the social fabric, compromising the relationship between generations and rendering the view of the future less certain” while reaffirming that “being open to life is an intrinsic requirement of married love.” It calls for “a realistic language that is able to start from listening to people and acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional opening to life as that which human life requires to be lived to its fullest.”

pope synod day 2The relatio also opens up the likelihood of the Church helping people to live the teaching of Humanae vitae, noting that

help is required to live affectivity, in marriage as well, as a path of maturation, in the evermore profound welcoming of the other and in an ever-fuller giving. It has to be emphasized in this sense the need to offer formative paths that nourish married life and the importance of a laity that provides an accompaniment consisting of living testimony. It is undoubtedly of great help the example of a faithful and profound love made up of tenderness, of respect, capable of growing in time and which in its concrete opening to the generation of life allows us to experience a mystery that transcends us.


The document ends by looking forward to the ordinary synod of bishops, which will begin 4 October 2015, and the year of discernment that precedes it.

Although what in in this relatio “are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view” the synod trusts that “the collegial path of the bishops and the involvement of all God’s people under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will lead us to find roads of truth and mercy for all.”

The document will now be examined and modified in the light of this week’s small-group discussions.


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