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A Catholic family feud

For two years now, the Roman Catholic Church has been having an internal but well-publicized conversation about Church teaching and pastoral practice for the family. Formalized in two meetings of the synod of bishops—one in October 2014, the other in October 2015—that conversation has exposed a bitter family feud within the Church.

On one side are reformists who want the Church’s teaching and rules for the family to evolve in response to a changing social context. On the other side are preservationists who want the teaching and rules to remain unchanging for all time. There is a wide range of variations on those positions, but most Catholics come down more or less on one side or the other.

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The second meeting ended two months ago. The general verdict appears to be that the preservationists won that round. The Final Report on the 2015 synod, officially released in English in mid-December, shows no change in the Church’s teaching on gender, sexuality, and marriage. That George Cardinal Pell, a leader of the preservationists, pronounced himself pleased with the Report, and that many reformists were not, seem to validate this verdict.

That is not the whole picture. Voting patterns on the Report show more unity than is suggested by the belligerence of extreme preservationists and reformists. Over 80 percent of the delegates at the 2015 synod voted for 91.5 percent of the Report’s paragraphs.  Over 90 percent voted for 63 percent of the paragraphs. Only seven out of 94 paragraphs earned less than 80 percent of the vote. Only three earned less than 70 percent.

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This might mean, as Fr. Russell Pollitt, SJ, suggests in The Daily Maverick, that most of the bishops at the 2015 synod were “conservative.” But it may also mean that reformists and preservationists at the synod found common ground, and that the Report is not as preservationist as it first seems.

Intransigent preservationists may agree. They think Cardinal Pell has been duped. They are alarmed at the chinks the Report has punched into the walls of doctrine and established pastoral practice, through which they fear reformists might yet make a fatal breach.

They are discomfited by the Report’s insistence on the dignity and equality of homosexuals, and its advice that “specific attention [be] given to guiding families with homosexual members” (#76). They find perturbing the Report’s statement that the family “cannot be the only place for formation in matters of sexuality” (#58). They view as mollycoddling the Report’s proposal that parishes seek to integrate the divorced and civilly remarried more fully into the life of the Church.

Reformists, in turn, hope cautiously that changes in pastoral practice can still be pushed through the very chinks that staunch preservationists are decrying.

In the Jesuit magazine America, Gerard O’Connell states that the Report “significantly closed no doors,” but “cleared the way for Pope Francis to respond to the unanswered questions in a future magisterial text.” Pollitt makes the same judgment. He also observes that the freedom of the debates, not characteristic of previous synods, is a sign of possibly irreversible change in the Church, and a catalyst for further change.

But the Final Report is not the final word. The final word belongs to the Pope, who is expected to issue an apostolic exhortation on the family. That exhortation can go where the synod could not.

Synods of bishops are at best advisory. No pope is obliged to follow their counsel. Pope John Paul II, beloved of many preservationists, usually did not. Intransigent preservationists, among whom Pope Francis is not beloved, worry that he may go well beyond the recommendations of a synodal report they already see as dangerously lenient. Optimistic reformists are keeping their fingers crossed.

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It may be paranoid, or naive, to think that the dreaded or hoped-for exhortation will radically change Church teaching on the family.  But it may make a difference in the inclusivity of the Catholic family.

Voting patterns on the Report’s paragraphs reveal that the fiercest feuding was over inclusion and exclusion in the Catholic family. The three paragraphs with the lowest majorities (#s84-86) propose fuller integration of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics into the Church.

Such Catholics are currently barred from receiving the Eucharist, the sacramental meal in which the Church as a family shares the Body of Christ. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has highlighted the link between commensality and family membership by designating the current liturgical year “The Year of the Family and the Eucharist.” As Ricardo Cardinal Vidal puts it: “In the Eucharist, we are all children of God.” A seat at the dining table marks who is family and who is not.

Pope Francis has made it clear that he wants to enfold into the Catholic family those separated or divorced, those living together without sacramental marriage, homosexuals, and other outcasts. But preservationists worry that once the Church starts embracing those who do not conform to her laws, she will lose her moral compass.

The Octave of Christmas, when Catholic liturgy tells the story of the Holy Family, is a good time for Catholics to remember what Christianity is about. A child conceived out of wedlock, born in a stable, first visited by foreigners and grimy shepherds, grows into a man who tells the outcasts they are children of a loving God. He is driven to death by religious men whose compassion has been leached by obsession with what they think is God’s law. His ascendancy over death is the ascendancy of love as the law.

Eleanor R. Dionisio is an associate director of the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues (JJCICSI). Marvee Anne M. Ramos is a research assistant of JJCICSI.

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