The 94-paragraph report approved Oct. 24, the last working day of the three-week synod, highlighted the role of pastors in helping couples understand church teaching, grow in faith and take responsibility for sharing the Gospel. It also emphasized how “pastoral accompaniment” involves discerning, on a case-by-case basis, the moral culpability of people not fully living up to the Catholic ideal.
Bishops and other full members of the synod voted separately on each paragraph and the Vatican published those votes. The paragraph dealing specifically with leading divorced and remarried Catholics on a path of discernment passed with only one vote beyond the necessary two-thirds.
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna told reporters Oct. 24 that the key word in the document’s discussion of ministry to divorced and civilly remarried people is “‘discernment.’ I invite you all to remember there is no black or white, no simple yes or no.” The situation of each couple “must be discerned,” which is what was called for by St. John Paul II in his 1981 exhortation on the family, he said.
The cardinal told Vatican Insider, a news site, that although St. John Paul called for discernment in those cases, “he didn’t mention all that comes after discernment.” The synod’s final report, he said, proposes priests help divorced and remarried couples undergoing conversion and repentance so that they recognize whether or not they are worthy to receive the Eucharist. Such an examination of conscience, he said, is required of every Catholic each time they prepare to approach the altar.
As Pope Francis said at the beginning of the synod, church doctrine on the meaning of marriage as a lifelong bond between one man and one woman open to having children was not up for debate. The final report strongly affirmed that teaching as God’s plan for humanity, as a blessing for the church and a benefit to society.
While insisting on God’s love for homosexual persons and the obligation to respect their dignity, the report also insisted same-sex unions could not be recognized as marriages and denounced as “totally unacceptable” governments or international organizations making recognition of “‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex” a condition for financial assistance.
The report also spoke specifically of: the changing role of women in families, the church and society; single people and their contributions to the family and the church; the heroic witness of parents who love and care for children with disabilities; the family as a sanctuary protecting the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death; and the particular strain on family life caused by poverty and by migration.
The Catholic Church recognizes a “natural” value in marriage corresponding to the good of the husband and wife, their unity, fidelity and desire for children. But the sacrament of marriage adds another dimension, the report said. “The irrevocable fidelity of God to his covenant is the foundation of the indissolubility of marriage. The complete and profound love of the spouses is not based only on their human capabilities: God sustains this covenant with the strength of his Spirit.”
But human beings are subject to sin and failure, which is why synod members recommend the need for “accompaniment” by family members, pastors and other couples. “Being close to the family as a traveling companion means, for the church, assuming wisely differentiated attitudes: sometimes it is necessary to stay by their side and listen in silence; other times it must indicate the path to follow; and at still other times, it is opportune to follow, support and encourage.”
A draft of the report was presented to synod members Oct. 22, and 51 bishops spoke the next morning about changes they would like to see in the final draft. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters that several bishops mentioned specifically a need to improve the text’s references to “the relationship between conscience and the moral law.”
The text refers to conscience in sections dealing with procreation and with marital situations the church considers irregular, particularly the situation of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
First, though, synod members promised greater efforts to be with couples in crisis and praised divorced Catholics who, “even in difficult situations, do not undertake a new union, remaining faithful to the sacramental bond.” Such Catholics, they noted, can and should “find in the Eucharist the nourishment that sustains them.”
Those who have remarried without an annulment of their sacramental marriage must be welcomed and included in the parish community in every way possible, the report said. “They are baptized, they are brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit gives them gifts and charisms for the good of all.”
Quoting from St. John Paul’s exhortation on the family, the report insists that pastors, “for the sake of truth,” are called to careful discernment when assisting and counseling people who divorced and remarried. They must distinguish, for instance, between those who “have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage,” in the words of St. John Paul.
Priests must “accompany interested people on the path of discernment in accordance with the teaching of the church and the guidance of the bishop,” the report said.
While the report makes no explicit mention of absolution and the return to Communion, it seems to leave some possibility for such a solution by quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s affirmation that “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified” because of different conditions. Just as the degree of guilt will differ, the report said, “also the consequences of the acts are not necessarily the same in all cases.”
In several places the text praises the teaching of “Humanae Vitae,” the document of Blessed Paul VI on married love and the transmission of life. “Conjugal love between a man and a woman and the transmission of life are ordered one to the other,” the report said.
“Responsible parenthood presupposes the formation of the conscience, which is ‘the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths,'” said the report, quoting from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. “The more spouses try to listen to God and his commandments in their consciences, the freer their decision will be” from external pressures, the report said.
Synod had difficult moments as it tried to proclaim truth, pope says
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The first task of the Catholic Church “is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim the mercy of God,” Pope Francis told members of the Synod of Bishops on the family.
At the end of the synod’s final working session Oct. 24, Pope Francis was honest about the differences of opinion present among synod participants and about the tone of their discussions sometimes exceeding the bounds of charity. But he framed all those differences as an opportunity for learning.
“In the course of this synod, the different opinions that were expressed freely — and, unfortunately, sometimes with methods that were not completely charitable — certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue,” the pope said.
The synod, he said, was a time of trying “to broaden horizons in order to overcome every hermeneutic of conspiracy or closed-mindedness so as to defend and spread the freedom of the children of God (and) to transmit the beauty of Christian newness, which sometimes is covered by the rust of a language that is archaic or simply incomprehensible.”
“For the church,” he said, “concluding the synod means to go back to really ‘walking together’ to bring to every part of the world — every diocese, every community and every situation — the light of the Gospel, the embrace of the church and the support of the mercy of God.”
The synod sessions, the pope said, were designed to have people speak openly about the needs of families and to face them “without fear and without hiding our heads in the sand.”
The gathering, he said, was a time “to witness to all that the Gospel remains for the church the living source of eternal newness against those who want to ‘indoctrinate’ it into dead stones to hurl at each other.”
Without mentioning specific differences, such as deeply varied cultural approaches to homosexuality, Pope Francis said synod members learned that “what seems normal for a bishop on one continent can seem strange — almost a scandal — to a bishop from another.”
The synod tried to find better ways to convince the world of the importance of the family based on the lifelong marriage of one man and one woman, he said, knowing that it should not be afraid to shake “anesthetized consciences or to dirty its hands animatedly and frankly discussing the family.”
“The experience of the synod,” the pope said, “has made us understand better that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who defend its letter, but its spirit; not ideas, but people; not formulas, but the free gift of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulas, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works, but solely according to the boundless generosity of his mercy.”
Clearly, he said, the three-week synod did not resolve every problem facing families or even every question of how the church can best minister to them. But it did try “to enlighten them with the light of the Gospel and the 2,000-year tradition and history of the church” formulated in ways people today can understand.
Without acting as if every form of modern family life was equally valid, but also without “demonizing others,” he said, the synod wanted “to embrace fully and courageously the goodness and mercy of God who surpasses our human calculations and wants nothing other than that ‘all would be saved.’