[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome]
The family synod’s first visible fruit will be evident tomorrow (Monday), when a summary of the week’s intense deliberations will be handed to the 10 circuli menores, or small groups, which began meeting Friday afternoon. Tomorrow, in other words, we’ll get a glimpse of what the synod considers most important, and where the fault-lines lie.
The circuli menores are grouped by language — three in Italian, three English, two Spanish, two French — and include both the 190-odd synod fathers (bishops and cardinals) as well as lay experts. Their job is to scrutinize the document we will see tomorrow — the relatio post disceptationem, or post-discussion report — and their input will inform the drafting of the final document, the relatio synodi.
The drafting of the relatio synodi will be carried out at the end of the week by a team of nine. In addition to those who normally at synods draft the concluding document — the relator or chair (in this case Hungarian cardinal Peter Erdö), the special secretary (Italian theologian Archbishop Bruno Forte) and the synod’s Secretary General (Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri) — Pope Francis has added six others whose judgement he trusts.
They are: his chief drafter at the 2007 meeting at Aparecida, Argentine theologian Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández; the president of the Latin-American bishops’ council (CELAM), Mexican archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes; the Spanish General Superior of the Jesuits, Fr Adolfo Nicolás; the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl; the head of the Korean bishops’ conference, Peter Kan U-Il; and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican’s council for culture.
This, thoroughly global, team have the all-important task of turning the deliberations of the two-week discussions into a document that will form the basis of the year-long discernment by the Church of a whole series of complex and vital issues connected with marriage, family and sexuality. At the moment it looks as if that document will be published a few days after the extraordinary synod ends next weekend.
That, of course, is not the end of the process, but the beginning of a new one, that ends with the ordinary synod in October next year.
It is a format designed to allow spacious thinking.
Whatever else can be said about the synod so far, it’s clear that it has allowed the leaders of 114 bishops’ conferences, as well as cardinals here in Rome, invited observers from other faiths as well as lay experts, to speak freely, honestly and emphatically.
Participants say that’s partly due to Pope Francis himself, who arrives early, and is available and accessible throughout the day, milling just like the other participants at the coffee breaks.
The fact that so many have praised this aspect of the synod is an indication of how constrained and controlled some have felt in previous synods.
Among them is Archbishop John Dew of Wellington, New Zealand, who was one of those who wanted to discuss the issue of reception for the divorced and remarried back in the 2005 Eucharist — which was also attended by the then Cardinal Bergoglio — but was told it was off the agenda.
“I talked about the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried and got a lot of criticism,” he told Vatican Radio. “Now at this Synod its being talked about openly by many, many people”, he said, adding: “People feel freer and you can sense that in the atmosphere.”
No one has made much effort to conceal the fact that exchanges over the communion issue have been sharp and at times bitter. Tensions boiled over on Wednesday afternoon as the two groups at either end of the spectrum faced each other down.
But mostly, say participants, the atmosphere has been characterized by warm and careful listening.
So far all we know is that the issue has not been resolved and is not likely to be anytime soon.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, told journalists yesterday that Monday’s post-discussion report “will draw attention to the differences that are appearing” but added that the differences reflect vintage theological debates that the synod itself won’t resolve.
But while discussion on the issue continues –“everybody is looking at different possibilities” said Martin — nobody disagreed on fundamentals: “everyone, including Cardinal Kasper, is clear that indissolubility cannot be changed”, he said, adding that no one is favour of what he called “Catholic divorce”.
Marriage indissolubility “is something that belongs to Revelation. So we’re starting from a basic agreement.”
A push for better formation
But he said there was consensus that this and other “celebrity issues” should not be allowed to cloud the synod’s overall task, which was to develop better ways of strengthening marriage and family.
A very large number have been speaking not about the celebrity issues around the synod, but the day-to-day pastoral challenges they find. Many of these celebrity issues are there, but there’s a much stronger idea that the synod shouldn’t be hijacked by these and that the solutions to many of the problem areas go back to catechesis and formation.
This is the area where the real change is needed. “This synod can’t simply repeat what was said 20 years ago,” he said. “It has to find a new language to show that there can be development of doctrine.”
At the heart of the new thinking being explored by the synod is the need to respond to the rapid loss to contemporary western society of the core understanding of marriage.
“It’s very hard for a young person to understand what lifelong commitment means when commitment means something else in society,” said Archbishop Martin. “And without a really strong renewal of catechesis it isn’t going to happen.”
But this isn’t just about better or even marriage preparation courses. It is going to require a major mobilization of energies and resources at every level. The synod
has to address the ordinary day-to-day commitment of Catholics in married life, it has to find a way of addressing and talking to young people to help them to understand more what commitment in marriage is all about. Most of the problems won’t be solved in a two-day marriage preparation course; what is needed is a much stronger catechesis of marriage and family life among the Christian community and in society in general.
Interestingly, Archbishop Martin said the Church had to find ways in which young people and those preparing for marriage received formation and support not just from their school, but also their own relatives and the parish community. “If we delegate it purely to the school,” he said, “it won’t work.”
In observations like this it’s possible to view the final results of the synod in a year’s time: a multifaceted, multidimensional, multi-pronged mobilization of the Church’s resources and energies at every level.
The family, say synod delegates over and over, is the vital cell of both society and Church. If Catholics have strong families, these become not just vital transmitters of faith between the generations, but evangelizers of contemporary society.
An example of this was provided by a Latvian bishop earlier this week. In Latvia, the divorce rate is higher than 80 per cent, yet among Catholics, less than 20 per cent. Latvians, said the bishop, were fascinated by this and asked what the Catholic ‘secret’ is.
A global crisis
Martin is one of four synod fathers who also attended the 1980 synod on the family, called by Pope John Paul II shortly after his election. He said he was struck by how, while the same issues were discussed, the difference now was that the crisis had gone global: what alarmed the bishops of Europe and North America then — the rise of divorce and cohabitation — now alarms the bishops of Africa and Latin America too.
Archbishop Martin said the shift also explained why, when the 1980 synod sought to restrict access to annulments, today’s synod wants to make them more accessible, recognizing that culture no longer supplies the basic understanding of fidelity and permanence required for marriage to be valid.
As well as that “anthropological” shift, there was also a crisis of faith: many nowadays “enter into sacramental marriage without any real understanding of the faith dimension.”
Martin confirmed that cultural changes underlay this synod’s willingness to look at annulment reform.
Certainly the current [annulment] procedures are difficult and result in long delays and even in a fairly developed country with canonical expertise it’s too slow. It’s difficult to get teams of judges and experts together to carry out the investigations. I think there’s a recognition [at the synod] of that fact.
The president of the US bishops’ conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, confirmed in an interview with Crux that “anything we can to assist with the annulment process, to streamline it, is worth doing.” That view “has been very strong” at the synod, he said.
He also said there was a desire to make the annulment process less legal and more healing. “Annulment is a canonical process that’s not intended to be therapeutic, but what I’m hearing [at the synod] is that there has to be a pastoral context for it. When a couple or a person comes asking for an annulment, it shouldn’t feel completely bureaucratic.”
A synod with two tasks
If there is one thing clear at the end of the first week, then, it is that the synod sees itself as having two main tasks: to bolster preparation and support for marriage, and to offer paths of healing and welcome to those who have suffered marriage breakdown, notably through annulment reform.
Among the exhaustive range of topics discussed last week, it’s safe to say that those will be the main two areas for translating ideas into concrete proposals: not just this week, but over the next year.