Setback for the Church?
It seems like a setback, after the worldwide hype over its first version. The so-called synodi relatio, the working document that emerged out of the free and candid exchange that marked the Third Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges to the Family, convened by Pope Francis, set aside some of the unusual language of the synodi post disceptationem, the interim report that came out last week.
Last week, the world read the Catholic Church’s words of welcome for gay persons. “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing […] them […] a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home.”
The synod’s final report removed these words, and instead reiterated Church teaching.
“Some families may comprise members who are attracted to members of the same sex. The Synod has reflected on the kind of pastoral care that should be provided to people who find themselves in this situation, bearing the teaching of the Church in mind: ‘There is no basis whatsoever to assimilate or to draw even remote analogies between same-sex unions and the plan of God for marriage and the family. Nevertheless, men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. [However], in their regard should be avoided every sign of unjust discrimination.’”
The language remains sympathetic: Gay persons must be “accepted with respect and sensitivity.” But the focus now is mostly on providing pastoral care to them, and not so much in receiving the “gifts and qualities” homosexuals can offer “to the Christian community.”
The language on two other much-studied paragraphs relating to the unhappily married and to remarried divorcees was also edited. As a result, there has been much hand-wringing in the media about Pope Francis and his progressive agenda suffering a setback at the hands of the bishops.
It bears emphasizing that Pope Francis himself does not see it that way. (In the first place, he will be the first to argue about the progressive label, even though his very modern approach to the papacy seems progressive by definition.)
In his concluding address at the synod, the Pope did not mince words. He decried several “tensions and temptations,” including “a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit) … From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called—today—‘traditionalists’ and also of the intellectuals.”
But he also struck against “the temptation to a destructive tendency to [do-good-ism], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the ‘do-gooders,’ of the fearful, and also of the so-called ‘progressives and liberals.’”
In other words, avoiding extremes was one of his objectives for the synod. “Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church.”
Besides, and as he himself reminded the bishops assembled, the synod just concluded was part of a process. The relatio would be circulated to bishops around the world. Another, bigger, synod will take place a year from now, on the same theme; this will be followed by the release of an Apostolic Exhortation. It would be premature, then, to speak of setbacks or advances. “Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.”
His emphasis on process was reflected in his unprecedented decision to make the voting of the bishops (they voted on each of the 62 points in the synodi relatio) transparent. Each paragraph needed a two-thirds majority to be accepted as part of the relatio; surely it is of no small moment that each of the paragraphs, even the controversial one on the acceptance of gay persons, gained an absolute majority.
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