From the synod (11): What to expect from the final week

synod[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome] As the synod begins its final, deciding week, the 270 voting members have gone back into their 13 small groups to thrash out amendments to the final, crucial third part of the Instrumentum Laboris. After discussions today and tomorrow morning, they will hand in their final modi, or amendments, tomorrow afternoon.

On Wednesday, the ten-man commission named by Pope Francis to redact the concluding document, or relatio finalis, will hammer out its first draft, the fruit of three sets of modi submitted by the small groups. (This is no small task: there are well over 1,000 amendments.)

This first draft, known as the progetto, will be read to the synod fathers on Thursday morning. That afternoon, synod fathers will make speeches on the draft, suggesting further changes. On Friday, the drafting commission will refine the draft, and produce the relatio finalis. On Saturday, the report will be read to the Synod, which then votes on it, paragraph by paragraph.

What happens then is still be to be determined. Pope Francis has not yet made clear whether the relatio will be made public together with the voting tallies, as he did last time (although it is a fair bet he will, given his commitment to transparency.)

In his speech on Saturday for the 50th anniversary of the synod, Pope Francis observed that the successor of St Peter has the last word. After listening to the People of God and the bishops to each other, he said, “the synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called upon to pronounce as “pastor and teacher of all Christians,” not based on his personal convictions but as a supreme witness of totius fides Ecclesiae (the faith of the whole Church), of the guarantor  of obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Tradition of the Church.”

How the Pope will pronounce is not clear. Traditionally, a synod has been followed by a pope issuing a “post-synodal apostolic exhortation” about a year after the synod; but that did not happen at the beginning of the modern synod under Pope Paul VI. Only with Evangelii Nuntiandi in 1975 did the practice start, but it’s not mandatory, and it didn’t occur after the 2012 synod on the new evangelization. As Cardinal Donald Wuerl points out in an America magazine interview, “there’s nothing that says there must be an apostolic exhortation, but the Pope can speak on any of the material from the synod that he chooses to. He has lots of different prerogatives, and there’s no one way in which the voice of Peter is to be articulated.”

However, if, as is being widely predicted, the synod does not produce a consensus on some of the issues — not least the question of a pathway to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried — Pope Francis will feel the need to intervene.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, among others, has said he would like the Pope to issue an exhortation and even suggested its title, ‘The Joy of the Family’. On 14 October, he told journalists that this idea was gaining ground in the synod hall. Cardinal Nichols added:

My own instinct is that the Holy Father has asked us and encouraged us to speak very freely because he is very clear about his own role,” adding: “My instinct is that he has established the Jubilee Year of Mercy precisely to create the context in which his reflection or his definitive statement about the theme of this synod can be received. My hope is that he will complete this process because it seems to me that it will need bringing to a conclusion  and there is only one person who can do that.

The vexed question of sacraments for the divorced and remarried

The flagship dividing issue of the synod — whether in some exceptional circumstances remarried divorcees could be admitted to Communion — shows no sign yet of being resolved. But Pope Francis has already made clear that the objective of this synod is not to reach an agreement, as if it were a political negotiation. It is almost certain that, unless the synod comes out definitely against it  — which it is unlikely to do — the final decision on this will fall to Pope Francis.

The end of last week saw the most heartfelt interventions on this topic. Although the east Europeans and the Africans, along with conservative cardinals and bishops in Europe and America, remain adamantly opposed, there have been powerful calls made from both Europe and Latin America. For proponents of a change, Jesus’s demonstration of God’s mercy is as much a non-negotiable as opponents say is his opposition to divorce.

One of the significant developments of the synod — which may turn out to have a far-reaching effect — is what looks like theological agreement in the German group, which includes both vigorous advocates (Cardinals Kasper and Marx) and fierce opponents (Cardinal Müller) of any change.

The German group says in its small-group report from Week II (translated here) that “The mercy of God reveals … the reason and the entire purpose of the work of salvation. The justice of God is His mercy, with which He justifies us.” Therefore there cannot be “one universal principle that accounts for all particular situation”, the group says, adding that this “excludes a one-sided deductive hermeneutic which subsumes concrete situations under a general principle,” they state. Quoting both St. Thomas Aquinas and the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, they say that for both “the implementation of basic principles of prudence and wisdom to the particular and often complicated situations is pending.”

Although Pope Francis’s two motu propio speeding the annulment process should take care of many of these cases, there will always be some for whom the judicial path is inappropriate or impossible.

In his speech to the synod, Cardinal Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, sets out the terms in which he (on behalf of the German bishops) believes the bishop should be given latitude to determine the issue on a case-by-case basis:

Starting from the theological foundations established by the Second Vatican Council we should seriously consider the possibility – based on the individual case and not in a general way – of allowing civilly divorced and remarried faithful to receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion, when common life in the canonically valid marriage has definitively failed and this marriage can not be nullified, the commitments of this marriage are settled, there is regret for the guilt of the end of this marital common life and there is the honest will to live the second civil marriage in faith and raise the children in the faith.

Advocates of this change stress that the pastoral freedom to make a decision for the spiritual good of those (few) people who find themselves in this situation does not threaten the doctrine of indissolubility of marriage. Rather, it starts from the recognition of God’s grace in their lives — there must be evidence of a conversion — and a conviction that the Church’s laws should not block these.

Many of the interventions on this topic were, in effect, testimonies of the power of God’s grace operating in the lives of people whose marriages had failed and who had later found themselves drawn to or back to the Church.

One, oft-repeated concern was for the children of such couples, who cannot understand why their parents cannot receive Communion. The Synod was powerfully moved, for example, by a speech by the Bishop of Piedras Negras in Mexico, Alonso Gerardo Garza, in which he told of a child who had attended Catechism classes taking a eucharistic host to his parents in the pews, and after breaking it in two, giving it to them.

He had learned in Catechism about Jesus’s real presence in the Eucharist, he said, “and he saw that [his parents] were good, and went with him to Catechism classes, and they all went together to Mass. He did not understand why the priest could not give them the Host while he could.”

“Our proposal”, he later said in an interview, “is that these couples who live very close to God and to the Church should be able to undertake a penitential path, and that the Holy See gives the bishops guidelines for discerning in what cases this pathway could be authorised.”

Another advocate of the change, the Archbishop Roberto González of San Juan, Puerto Rico, a Franciscan, told the synod hall that the long line of remarried divorcees who weekly come up to receive a blessing with their arms crossed and heads down, were showing others in the Congregation their irregular situation, and saying, in effect, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa. He went on:

The other faithful recognise in them brothers and sisters in need of divine mercy and the understanding of others. They know they cannot for the time being have access to the sacrament of the Eucharist. They are not scandalized; rather, they pray for them and accept them in the community without discriminating against them. These represent a minority of the civilly remarried divorcés, since in our experience most of them lived far from the Church before and during their marriage, and continue to do so following the failure of their marriage.

Archbishop González said there were ‘many sacred values’ apparently in conflict here: the indissolubility of marriage, human dignity and salvation. “Are we as pastors facilitating all spiritual, juridical and pastoral means to help them resolve this conflict?”

The choice for the synod, one participant said last week, boiled down to three options: “To do nothing; to move towards the ‘penitential way’ outlined by Cardinal Walter Kasper (where the divorced and remarried are concerned); or stand firm and reaffirm the church’s current position”.

Doing nothing, by general consent, is not an option. If the Church’s current position is to be reaffirmed, it will need to be accompanied by a far greater effort on the Church’s part to walking with those in this position. In that sense, it is incumbent upon those implacably opposed to any talk of a ‘penitential pathway’ to demonstrate that they have heard the call for the Church to better demonstrate God’s merciful love to the divorced.

That is already visible in the remarks made to journalists by the president of the Polish bishops’ conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, who as the de facto spokesperson for the opposition to any opening, is in many ways the mirror opposite of Cardinal Marx.

Archbishop Gądecki said he had been impacted by the accent of the discussions on accompanying divorced persons “with love, friendship, [and] affirming in them the desire to be loved by the church.”

“We have always thought of the penitential path in that sense,” he said of the Polish bishops. “Priests have to be in contact with those who are divorced, [and] give them support in their difficulty.”

A jaundiced view

As happened at the last synod, the most strident criticisms have come from a core of synod fathers convinced that the synod has been in some way slanted or rigged.

However, the cheerleader of those critics, Cardinal George Pell, has been heavily toning down his remarks, saying he is more or less satisfied that all sides are being fairly represented. Having earlier told the National Catholic Register that “concerns remain” about, for example, the composition of the drafting committee, Pell told Crux on Friday that he is now reassured that the final report “will faithfully present the views of the synod.”

The idea that the synod is being ‘manipulated’ — asserted, for example, in Edward Pentin’s account of the October 2014 synod — has become an article of faith among a relatively small group who have extreme reservations about ever opening up the issues the synod has been discussing.

As Cardinal Wuerl tells America, their “hermeneutic of conspiracy” — as the Pope called it — has framed the way the synod has been viewed, especially in the alarmist reports of traditionalists.

I think that right now there has been so much tainting of how the synod is being seen. I don’t think the process has been tainted, I don’t think the synod itself has been tainted, but the lens through which it is being seen by many, many people has been tainted, and so I suspect that that will have some impact. It’s not going to be a long term impact because you can only paint something in false tones and have it remain understood incorrectly for so long, after a while the church wins out.  The great maxim—magna est veritas et semper prevalebit—the truth is great and it always wins out, even with all of this propaganda and all of this distortion.

Yet those inside the synod hall report that, as the synod moves into its final phase, there is genuine listening and walking together taking place.

Anyhow, as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna pointed out on Saturday in a superb speech recalling the Council of Jerusalem, bad feeling is not exactly alien to the Church’s synods and councils in the past.

That at times the theological debates were carried out, as still today, with a certain ferocity and obstinancy, and not always in the spirit of listening and seeking to understand the motives of the other — this is all part of the classic temptations of which Pope Francis spoke at the end of [last year’s Extraordinary Synod].

Looking back to the first ‘Council’ of Jerusalem, recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, Cardinal Schönborn said that ultimately the disagreements were resolved not by theological debate, but by Peter recalling what he knew of God’s actions and words. “Peter refers to what God has done in a decisive way. The method Peter uses consists in recounting the actions of God. We can also say: he refers to that which he has experienced as the action of God.”

The point will not have been lost on the synod fathers assembled for the celebration of the synod’s 50th anniversary: if Pope Francis has discerned in the synod the signs of God’s acting and prompting, he will not hesitate to move the Church in the direction he believes the Holy Spirit is prompting.

Cardinal Schönborn concluded:

At Jerusalem the question was not about whether the vote should be consultative or deliberative, but about the discernment of the will and the way of God. Heated discussions, even quarrels, and intense disputes are part of the synodal path. That’s how it was at Jerusalem. But the aim of the debates and of the testimonies is the common discernment of what God wants. Even when we vote (as we do at the end of every synod), it is not a question of a power struggle, nor of forming ourselves into parties (which the media would love us to do), but of this process of communal formation of judgement, as we saw in Jerusalem. The final result, we hope, is not a political compromise, nor an agreement on the lowest common denominator … but to be able to say, at the end: ‘We have decided, together with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 15:28)


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