Synod Ends Without Disaster . . . Mostly

Never in the 50-year history of the Synod of Bishops was there so conflictual and raucous a session. The 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the contemporary world” began under the shadow of a shocking announcement by Polish Msgr. Charamsa. This official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared he is living with a homosexual lover and urged the Church to change her teachings. He was immediately sacked, but the world media went into a feeding frenzy with this story. The day before the synod ended Pope Francis announced that he was dissolving both the Pontifical Council for Family and the Pontifical Academy for Life. The Pontifical Council for the Laity will absorb them as subordinate departments in a structural demotion within the Roman Curia of the status of the Church’s pro-family and pro-life ministry. Maintaining the Council for the Family and the Academy for Life, both created by Saint John Paul II, were clearly lower papal priorities than the drive to downsize the Roman Curia.

The Church has seen these kinds of stormy meetings many times in the past. A famous episode from the life of St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra who is so intimately associated with Christmas, came to mind. At the Council of Nicaea he punched Fr. Arius because he could no longer bear to hear the arguments denying the divinity of Jesus. A similar physical confrontation occurred during the synod in the Holy See Press Room between a Canadian bishop and a priest over the issue of homosexuality. A genuine novelty, however, was the encouragement by the Holy Father before the synod began to speak freely and lay everything on the table. Archbishop Peta’s intervention citing Pope Paul VI’s famous reflection about “the smoke of Satan” entering the Church was one such starkly frank moment. In fact, by the time of his final elocution Pope Francis was voicing regret over the difficulties encountered due to the fierce conflicts and exchanges between synod fathers.

African participants expressed consternation that so much time was wasted on issues where the Church has a constant teaching and pastoral practice. In particular, they could not understand calls for admission to Holy Communion for those in an objective situation of mortal sin, and endless discussions concerning homosexuality. The end result of so much back and forth was essentially no change because the Church can do nothing else. Cardinal Sarah even apologized to lay auditors attending the synod, and hoped they were not scandalized by some of the proposals expressed by bishops. Pope Francis also referred to the way that bishops from different continents found each other’s reasoning strange and almost scandalous at times in his final speech.

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A major disappointment for parent’s rights advocates was the retention of highly problematic language from the original working document of the synod regarding the sexual education of children. Paragraph 58 in the final document affirms that the family “cannot” be the only place where education about sexual matters is imparted. This is in absolute contradiction with the highest Church teaching on this subject, “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality,” which re-affirmed that the sexual education of children is a basic right and duty of parents. If parents choose to allow others to cooperate in sex education it must be under the attentive guidance and control of the parents, the document from the Pontifical Council for the Family declared. The final report from the synod would seem to suggest that home schooling parents must invite outsiders in to carry out discussions about the facts of life with their children! This is emphatically not the mind of the Church on this sensitive topic.

In several other points, however, the final report of the synod made vast improvements over the relatio synodi, the working document, from last year. Abortion went from zero mentions to five. Condemnations of the “contraceptive mentality” and the fear of overpopulation were included in the final report. The synod fathers insisted on a firm statement of indignation at the financial blackmail used by international organizations to pressure countries into legalizing “homosexual marriage.” There was also a very strong denunciation of the gender ideology that denies the fundamental differences between men and women and their essential complementarity. The final report laments a “sharp drop in the birthrate” and calls for “unconditional openness to life” among married couples before citing Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae.

Some participants from the former-communist nations found it unfortunate that terrible problems, such as alcoholism, received only passing mention in a document that went to 95 paragraphs. At the same time, so many themes were broached, from grandparents to the family in Sacred Scriptures, that no one topic could expect more than cursory treatment. The document writers definitely tried to cover a great deal of ground while proclaiming the needs of couples and children and the challenge to evangelize through the family.

Reforming and reinforcing marriage preparation was a major topic of discussion leading up to the synod. Already last year, Pope Francis commented that having only three sessions before celebrating a marriage, as happens in some dioceses, is clearly insufficient. The contrast could not be more striking between the major requirements for the sacrament of holy orders, years of postgraduate study, and the weekend or evening sessions that have been considered adequate preparation for the sacrament of marriage. The Church affirms that both sacraments are a lifetime commitment, but matrimony used to be considered a much lower vocation than the religious life. The synod’s final document re-affirmed Pope Saint John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio that spoke of remote, proximate and immediate marriage preparation. It also called for couples with many years of married experience to help young couples before and after their weddings. What remained unclear is exactly how much current marriage preparation programs need to be expanded. Certainly, better catechesis is needed for young people to have a proper understanding of the sacrament and their duties as Catholic parents.

By and large, commentators are concluding that the synod was a victory for those who resisted the proposals of German Cardinals Kasper and Marx that the Church should change its pastoral practice and admit persons living in non-valid unions to receive Holy Communion while continuing to proclaim the indissolubility of sacramental marriages. Synod fathers, both cardinals and bishops, pointed out the clear contradiction between simultaneously accepting that doctrine cannot change and proposing fundamental changes in the administration of sacraments. There is no mention of receiving the Eucharist as a possibility at all for divorced and remarried persons in the final document. It seems Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna may have been behind compromise language that emphasizes discernment and accompaniment of couples. Liberals escaped an explicit rejection in the text of their proposal to allow communion for those living in adulterous unions, but faithful Catholics can rightly say that the constant teaching of the Church remains unchanged.

Other liberal proposals for regional variation in the Church and devolving authority to bishops’ conferences received support from Pope Francis who spoke favorably about “decentralization” on October 17. Most of the synod fathers did not pursue this line of thought. The Catholic Church is already incredibly varied in its presence and inculturated in every country of the world. Almost all important decisions, except for the nomination of new bishops, are made on the local level. Having travelled to 75 countries for my pro-life work, I have seen how Catholics experience very different liturgies and pastoral practices across the globe. Objectively speaking, the major contemporary need is achieving greater unity among Catholics worldwide rather than fostering even more diversity than what currently exists.

Perhaps the greatest fruit of these two years of synods on the family will be a renewed focus on the family as the most fundamental component of the Church and society. Pope Saint John Paul II dedicated his papacy to deepening the Church’s theological and pastoral appreciation of the family and the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death. Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have continued this preoccupation with helping families. Canonizing together the first married couple as saints, Louis and Zélie Martin, was a very important symbolic action. Spouses are called to lives of holiness and to become models of Catholic sanctity. Greater input from Catholic laity, particularly from poor countries where the Church is growing by leaps and bounds, is a positive change that should be encouraged. At the same time, the unhelpful and even sterile proposals of liberal prelates should be relegated to the obscurity they deserve. In the end, this latest synodal assembly was full of surprises and tensions, but it served to highlight the pressing need to defend and promote the sacrament of marriage and the precious children who are the fruit of married love.

(Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano / CNA)


  • Joseph Meaney

    Joseph Meaney is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

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