From the synod (8): a conversation that is just beginning

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[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome:]

For those who like their bishops to be of one mind, the Church’s teaching to look consistent and timeless, and in general those who prefer tidiness to disorder, this synod has been a nightmare. Ever since Monday there have been elements of soap-opera, even farce. If the confusion needed an icon, it would be two German cardinals at opposite ends of the debate over the divorced and remarried, Cardinal Walter Kasper and Gerhard Müller, each denying remarks attributed to them in interviews.

synod genBut for those who, like Pope Francis, are happy to trade a bit of disorder for the sake of an honest exchange in freedom, the synod has been an undoubted success. The synod fathers who have come out to speak to the press have been consistent in praising the freedom with which they have been able to deliberate sometimes complex pastoral issues, and the space for creative thinking which they have been given.

It has not been tidy. The post-discussion report, released as a working document designed to express and hold in tension the various views, was criticized for failing properly to represent them. It would have been amazing if it had succeeded: as most synod fathers have been pointing out, the task of capturing hundreds of hours of speeches in a working document of a few pages is no small feat, and that if such a document had been broadly acceptable, it would have been a minor miracle.

Still, when it was read out in the synod hall on Monday, many were shocked at certain passages which had been inserted, they claimed, as if from nowhere, while others saw it as shoddy and poorly translated. The criticism of the document is a constant in the reports of the linguistic groups, one of which — the French language group B — slams it as “overblown, rambling, too wordy and therefore boring.”

Cardinal Erdö

Cardinal Erdö

The tensions have been visible in the press conferences: the relator, Cardinal Peter Erdö, for example, clearly distanced himself from the passage on welcoming gay people by making clear that it had been written by his special secretary, Archbishop Bruno Forte; while Cardinal Wilfred Napier, the Archbishop of Durban in South Africa, made clear the unease of many of the fathers at the relatio being published at all (although it is standard practice to do so).

In previous synods, which were carefully controlled by the Roman Curia, those who complained at the method and the process were normally the bishops who wanted to
open up certain conversations. At this synod, the dynamic has been reversed: the accusations of being suppressed have come from those who feel threatened by the “pastoral” direction of the synod. They feel steamrollered (Sandro Magister captures their view well), but their criticisms of the process are almost certainly mixed up with their overall feeling of being carried in a direction they don’t want to travel.

Among the most vociferous has been Cardinal Gadecki, head of the Polish bishops’ conference, who said that the relatio constituted a deviation from church teaching, and American cardinal Raymond Burke, who said that the report had censored the “many bishops who are saying that changes cannot be allowed”. Yet given their starting point, that any opening up of these questions will lead to an erosion of immutable church doctrine, all they can do at this synod is dig in their heels and complain they have been ignored. They have certainly not been deprived space for their views. Cardinal Raymond Burke, for example, has a group of assistants in Rome busy setting up media interviews for him.

Their statements have led to a media narrative of a synod divided between liberals and conservatives. Yet a read of the reports of the language groups (see summaries here and here), who have produced amendments to the relatio which are currently being studied, show a far more complex picture – a series of tensions which are not easily diced into simple liberal-conservative polarities. Indeed, the very idea of there being “liberals” in  the synod is slightly ridiculous, given that almost every bishop here was appointed by Pope St John Paul II and Pope emeritus Benedict, for whom doctrinal fidelity was an essential prerequisite of advancement.

Cardinal Kaigama

Cardinal Kaigama

Many of the tensions reflect the very diversity of a global Church. It is hardly surprising that tensions have broken out over the passages concerning same-sex partnerships, given that in parts of Latin America and Africa the very notion of homosexuality is taboo. (The assertion of the Africans here has been one of the unexpected aspects of the synod.) As one Latin-American cardinal put it, “why should I start a conversation no one in my country wants to have?”

Cardinal Marx

Cardinal Marx

Yet many cardinals have been equally assertive in saying that, just because Africa isn’t ready for this conversation doesn’t mean the synod shouldn’t be. They want the freedom to develop a pastoral approach based on discerning God in the good. In today’s press conference, the president of the German bishops’ conference. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, explained that

Not everything should be regarded in the same way. Gay people who for 30 years have been faithful to each other, supporting each other — these relationships are not recognised by the Church but they are not lacking in value. We have to have nuances. One person who is promiscuous and another who values fidelity: there’s clearly a difference. We can’t say it’s all black or all white. I have seen this as priest and confessor: the students come to confess and speak to me about these matters, and I need to walk with them. We can walk the same path and achieve maturity. How can we say to people: you’re gay so you can’t live the Gospel?

Whatever their theological differences, this discerning, pastoral, gradualist approach is broadly shared by the diocesan bishops of Europe and North America present at the synod. Thus Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna told us yesterday that civil unions, which were unthinkable in his childhood, were now the social norm. “We have to confront this new challenge but with the same principles”, he said, telling journalists that Pope Francis was calling the Church to a “pastoral conversion, to come out of itself”. On welcoming gay people, for example, he said that this “was basic Christian behaviour”.

Cardinal Schonborn

Cardinal Schonborn

One thing is clear: there isn’t going to be agreement on the thorny issues which this synod set out to tackle. The differences are sufficiently great for one commentator to suggest there not be a document at all. But that seems unlikely. The most probable outcome is a document which seeks to hold the disagreements in tension, and which looks to expert commissions – such as the one already set up to consider annulment reform – to submit reports for consideration by the ordinary synod next year.

Expect headlines highlighting division, failure to agree, paralysis and so on. Yet the more accurate reading is that this bold attempt to create a new global pastoral initiative in support of marriage and family is only just beginning, and consensus won’t come quickly or soon. But that was expected. This meeting was never supposed to produce solutions, but to set the agenda. It has begun with honest, free, prayerful discussion. It has not always gone smoothly, but it has been genuine.

This is a new experience for the Church. As Cardinal Schönborn put it, “This is the first time I’ve been a synod at which there was freedom and outspokenness. The method of the synod is developing in a very strong way.”

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