A kinder Church
I have been following the ongoing Vatican synod—a gathering of bishops—on the family and have been hopeful that we might see a kinder Catholic Church emerging.
The synod has taken more than a year of preparations, with instructions from the Vatican last year to dioceses to gather information from Catholics about family life and their problems. The document was frank in naming many of the controversial issues that were of concern, from live-in couples to divorce and remarriage, from contraception to same-sex unions.
At the opening of the synod itself last Oct. 7, Pope Francis set the tone by urging the bishops to speak firmly but listen with humility. Attending the synod are 190 prelates with voting power and another 60 who cannot vote, including several couples. Couples for Christ in the Philippines is represented. There are also “fraternal delegates” from non-Catholic groups.
On that first day, too, there was a call to move away from “harsh language,” with three particular phrases targeted: “living in sin” to refer to unmarried and divorced/remarried couples living together, “intrinsically disordered” to refer to homosexuals, and “contraceptive mentality” to refer to the use of “artificial” family planning methods.
Yesterday Vatican Radio released a relatio, a summary of what has transpired so far at the synod, described by one Catholic newspaper as a “half-time document.” There is a reference, early in the relatio, to the family as a “school for humanity,” and then a description of circumstances that have led to “wounded families,” the term mainly used to refer to couples who are separated, the divorced who have not remarried, and the divorced who have remarried.
At one point the reference was to the “damaged” family, but rather than using old condemnatory language, there seems to be a shift toward being more compassionate, with concerns over pastoral care. The document also called for more discernment, recognizing values that may be present “in wounded families and in irregular situations,” and listening to such families “with respect and love.”
To prepare Catholics for marriage, the call is to go beyond “theoretical meetings or general orientations” (presumably the Cana seminars that couples about to be married are required to attend) but to have more sustained activities with the “presence of experienced couples.” The emphasis is still on these couples encouraging new ones toward accepting “the great gift of children.” Another passage in the relatio recognizes how economic factors contribute to the sharp drop in birthrates, but still states that this drop “weakens the social fabric.”
The relatio recognizes many couples who are “living together ad experimentum, in unions which have not been religiously or civilly recognized” but is understanding in recognizing that this might be due to traditions (in Africa, many cultures have marriage celebrated in different stages, with the couple already living in), or due to economic circumstances. This passage certainly resonates for the Philippines: “In other countries, common-law marriages are very numerous, not because of a rejection of Christian values as regards the family and matrimony, but, above all, because getting married is a luxury, so that material poverty encourages people to live in common-law marriages.”
The general tone of the discussions is toward “graduality,” recognizing that people cannot be expected to adhere to doctrines immediately and fully. Graduality instead recognizes how people can “grow into holiness” through a lifetime and that “authentic family values” can exist even among “wounded couples.”
The relatio talks about making annulment procedures “more accessible and flexible,” and preparing more people to handle these cases.
One of the most touchy topics at the synod was allowing divorced people to take communion. The relatio now suggests that “divorced people who have not remarried should be invited to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their state.”
On homosexuals, an even more touchy subject, the relatio acknowledges that gays have “gifts and qualities to offer parishes” and asks Catholic communities to provide “fraternal space … accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on family and matrimony.”
The relatio is clear in stating that “unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman,” but that among such couples there “are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” There is also a call to pay “special attention to children who live with couples of the same sex.”
It is difficult to predict what will happen in the second half of the synod. It seems that so far, the discussions have been collegial and the tone appears to favor a “gradualist” approach.
I’ve felt uncomfortable with some of the language, like “damaged.” Also notable is that this is a largely male synod. The final document will be prepared by nine men appointed by the Pope.
But we in the Philippines should be listening carefully to the synod. We have seen too much of the harsh language, of priests who deny communion to those who use “artificial” contraception, or, very recently, of a single mother being chastised by a priest as she tried to get her child baptized.
This synod is actually an “extraordinary” one, with another synod scheduled next year. This will be a crucial time for the Catholic Church as the issues are discussed in greater detail.
Nevertheless, the tone seems to have been set for a kinder Catholic Church. While the synod is closed to the public, with the world having to depend on officially released statements such as the relatio, there have been interviews with some of the bishops attending the synod, including our own Cardinal Chito Tagle who has called for more help for poor couples.
I also appreciated one interview with Cardinal Vincent Nichols from the United Kingdom, who has advice that we might want to consider for the Philippines: Couples about to be married should make a deposit on the mortgage for a house, rather than spend on a lavish reception. That is as profamily a statement as I have heard in a long time.
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