Media Gets It Wrong: The synod is not a revolution — yet

The 2015 Synod on the Family is done; it produced several lights and not a few shadows.

The Final Report, as it now stands, contains some strong spiritual reflections, drawing on the sacred Scriptures and the traditions of the Church. It also deals realistically with many of the social, cultural and political situations of families around the world — situations that vary greatly, from the sex-saturated hedonistic culture of the West to conditions of war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa.

A few paragraphs would have been better left out. Taken solely as a general view of the family, it has value. But the context in which the text was developed is another thing entirely, and will be a sore point for years to come.

A theme often repeated by the synod fathers during the past three weeks is that a church worried about the future of the family today would be taking a very narrow view if it only reflected Western concerns about gays and divorce.

One sign of how far the 2015 Synod moved, despite continuing problems, is that there is none of the talk about “accepting and valuing … (gay) sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony,” a big walk back from the notorious 2014 Midterm Report.

Over the weekend, the BBC said Pope Francis had been “defeated” on gays — not particularly accurate since he’s not a supporter of gay marriage. And besides, the original working document, which he had little to do with, said little about homosexuality.

But BBC wasn’t the only news outlet making things up to suit its own obsessions. Beware of such accounts, and the whole media echo chamber.

A good portion of the Final Report is helpful and a testament to a global church interested in proclaiming the good news and meeting responsibilities for all the world’s families. When it’s translated, it will be worth spending time with for anyone interested in the troubles at present and hopes for the future of families.

But Communion for the divorced and remarried still sucked up most of the oxygen in the first world — especially in the media. It would have been satisfying to be able to say that we know precisely where we are now.

The Wall Street Journal has no doubts.

“Bishops Hand Pope Defeat on Outreach to Divorced Catholics,” it said in a headline, which is to say there is no explicit mention of Communion for them in the document, and therefore no clear textual support for one strain in the two-year synodal process since Cardinal Walter Kasper’s Feb. 15, 2014, address to the bishops in Rome at Pope Francis’ invitation.

The Roman newspaper Il Messagero received a different message: “Yes, to Communion for Divorced.” Others, who want that to be the message, will claim that as well. In fact, the result was, as it often is under this pope, more muddled.

The bishops chose not to vote on the document as a whole, but only on the individual paragraphs so that it is, in essence, a series of reflections presented to the pope for his consideration.

We’ll have to wait for Francis to tell us what he considers to be the next step. He may have made it harder for himself both by the way the synod was run and by his angry reaction to criticisms and traditional believers.

If the pope wants the issue of Communion for the divorced or remarried in the Final Report of the Synod, he will have to decide to put it there.

A few paragraphs in the final text, – which received the highest number of negative votes, push far into “discernment” of individual circumstances and invoke the “internal forum,” which is to say private direction by a priest or bishop.

Some reporters have cast this as strong backing of church teaching. There were efforts in the discussions the final day to clarify that this was not a blanket invitation to changing doctrine or discipline. The Rev. Federico Lombardi emphasized continuity with the teachings of St. John Paul II and former Pope Benedict XVI. Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, less convincingly, pointed to clear criteria that would guide discernment.

There are criteria, but whether they are clear is another matter. When you turn to the text, this is what you find:

St. John Paul II offered a comprehensive criterion, which remains the basis for the evaluation of these situations.

“Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid,” John Paul II wrote.

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: If these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

Indissolubility is affirmed elsewhere in the Synod Final Report, and there are passages sprinkled in the text. There are also references to the catechism of the Catholic Church about “imputability” when circumstances many diminish or even annul personal responsibility.

Another question that ruffled some: Will discernment be properly guided by those firm moral principles enunciated by John Paul II? This is where some may come down on the side of the WSJ or Il Messagero. The words of the text are:

“The course of accompaniment and discernment orients these faithful towards an examination of conscience about their situation before God. The discussion with the priest, in the internal forum, goes together with the formation of a correct judgment about what blocks the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on the steps that would favor it and make it grow. Given that in the same law there is not graduality, this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel’s demands of truth and of charity as proposed by the Church. So that this can happen, there should be guaranteed the necessary conditions of humility, reserve, love of the Church and her teachings, in the sincere search for the will of God and in the desire to achieve a more perfect response to it.

There are a lot of compromises behind this wording, and the learned theologians will no doubt work it over carefully. But reading them as they are written, and taken apart from the controversial context, you might say that they could have been written by John Paul II.

The pope was not entirely happy at the end of the proceedings, though the official line was that everything ended in fraternity and synodality, even a standing ovation at his final speech.

“It was also about laying bare the closed hearts, which frequently hide even behind the church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families,” Francis said.

This is a recurrent theme with him. No one would deny that there are authoritarians among those who emphasize traditional teachings, just as there are authoritarians with the opposing theological views. But these are the fringes, and the few.

This article originally appeared in

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