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Synod affirms Francis' vision of church governance


Pope Francis arrives a Synod hall

Popular expectations of the Synod on the Family rose to unexpected heights when the draft report was prepared. They fell to earth with the publication of the final report which removed more welcoming and positive phrases about homosexual relationships.

The Synod was thus reported as a defeat for Pope Francis at the hands of conservative bishops. Yet for one who had suffered a defeat the Pope seemed remarkably buoyant at the end of the Synod. 

His equanimity is not surprising if we take seriously his frequent claim that he has neither wish nor intention to change church teaching. He simply wants to find new possibilities in it so that the Catholic Church can reach out to people who are marginal and estranged. His claim is given little weight by many of those who desire to see change in church teaching and of those who are opposed to change. Both believe that pastoral practice cannot be radically changed without changing doctrine. 

But if the Pope means what he says, he may have seen the Synod as a victory for his vision of church governance. It allowed the participants to engage in open discussion in which nothing was put off bounds. 

The openness of the conversation was emphasised by the frank and passionate differences of opinion between different bishops expressed outside of the Synod. Its transparency was expressed in the publication of the draft document and of the voting on the final document. 

The participants voted, too, on a document which reflected their conversation and was not simply an affirmation of pre-arranged conclusions. Nor will it disappear into the archives, but will form the starting point of practical discussions at the Synod next year. 

The larger challenge that the Synod will pose to bishops who return to their own dioceses will be how to incorporate into their own governance the openness and transparency that was embodied in the Synod. Pope Francis has shown that a style of governance built on control and secrecy can be changed for the better by involving people, by encouraging open conversation and by transparency. Some Bishops may be encouraged, and others feel pressured by his example to explore its possibilities in their local churches. 

It is also hard to see the treatment of the controversial issues of the Synod as a victory of conservative Bishops over Pope Francis. The challenge behind the question that dominated comment before the Synod, whether divorced and remarried people could receive communion remains on the table. Those who argue that it can be done within the framework of Catholic teaching still have to make their case.

The controversy about how to speak of homosexuality is more complex. It reflected partly an evident failure of the initial document to read accurately the sentiments of the participants. The voting on the amendments shows that clearly.  Such failure is inevitable in any such draft: that is why the final document reflects the definitive view of a meeting.

In this case the controversy reflects another significant feature of transparent public conversation: the influence of the media. After the first draft public comments by the Bishops seemed exercised as much by the common journalists’ view that it heralded a rethinking of the Catholic understanding of homosexual relationships than by the content of the document. At all events they recast the document in order to close the door on these perceived implications of the draft. 

This way of proceeding is understandable, but its disadvantages are also worth reflecting on. When phrases like ‘people who are homosexual must be ‘welcomed’, the ‘gifts and qualities’ of gay people and the ‘precious support’ they can offer one another are pulled from a public draft, the public perception is that they are not simply withdrawn from the text but that their opposites are commended. So people are to be made unwelcome, have no gifts and their support is valueless. The Catholic Church will now have much work to do to persuade people that this is not its meaning.

It is worthwhile to consider the strategy adopted by Pope Francis when his words are misquoted and misunderstood. He does not correct the misunderstanding at the time, but later reasserts quietly both his fidelity to church teaching and the need for pastoral openness. And he continues to find powerful symbols that embody unequivocally the Gospel he preaches.  

If Pope Francis’ assessment of the Synod is as positive as I believe it is, we may expect from him dramatic gestures of encounter and compassion to God’s love that will reframe the questions addressed by the Synod in terms of the Gospel. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Vatican Radio image of a satisfied Pope Francis arriving at the Synod hall to deliver his final speech.



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, homosexuality, divorce, Catholic Church, family, Synod, Vatican



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Existing comments

Fr Hamilton, you say that "When phrases like ‘people who are homosexual must be ‘welcomed’, the ‘gifts and qualities’ of gay people and the ‘precious support’ they can offer one another are pulled...the public perception is that...that their opposites are commended. So people are to be made unwelcome, have no gifts and their support is valueless." I believe this is not the case - why do gay people have to be singled out as having gifts or provide precious support? Why not just say all people? I don't feel as much attention has been given to singles or other groups either. Gays have always been welcomed, but there is sin and church doctrine. Jesus welcomed the woman caught in adultery, but he clearly instructed her to "go and sin no more". He did not just say come and follow me, and just forget the adultery. She needed to repent first. Some people conveniently forget this part. The issue of sin, repentance, confession, and penance is the necessary road to travel beforehand. The reality and acknowledgement of sin, then forgiveness/welcome back to the church (like the prodigal son) has been completely left out of discussions about this Synod.

Mary | 21 October 2014  

I am troubled by "Mary's" emphasis. Of course, she is right: everyone of goodwill should be welcomed -- but I'm not certain that it is correct to suggest (or imply) that "singles" or "other groups" (whatever that piece of code means) have been made unwelcome. After all, the entire community of clerics and religious -- "singles", in other words -- have been an integral part of the Church for centuries. But homosexual people have, emphatically, been explicitly and implicitly been made to feel "unwelcome". sometimes in very brutal language. Furthermore, she and others (including quite a few bishops) need to be careful about their all-too-ready conflation of biology with "sin". In an organisation which is uncomfortable with biology, this is unhelpful, even dogmatic. It has been done long enough to women; and it has also been done with homosexuals. Such people as "Mary" need to reflect, I believe, on what they actually mean by that word, "sin". It is surely NOT simply a matter of breaking rules; it is more profound than that and I'd suggest, that her reference to the "woman taken in adultery" is either a misunderstanding of what was involved then or of the role of our biology in our lives. We need reflection, not reflex condemnation and pedantry.

John Carmody | 22 October 2014  

I find it odd that Fr H speaks of this Synod as "transparent". 1. Deliberations were closed to the outside world. There was a highly uninformative press briefing every day. Apart from what the members said outside the Synod, there is no way of knowing what went on - what this or that member spoke for or against in camera. That may be part of Pope Francis' style and his way of eliciting positions which might not otherwise have come forth. But it's also the modus operandi of the confessional and the psychiatrist's couch and no-one calls them "transparent". 2. The leaders of Synod tried to quash the publication of the language groups responses to the draft relatio. This would have helped them draft the final relatio in their terms, and pass it off as reflecting those language group responses, without anyone able to verify the claim. Very cunning. But, transparency? Fortunately a chorus of Synod members rebelled against this outrage. 3. The draft relatio mysteriously sprang forth fully formed within a whisker of the first week deliberations closing. Most of the Synod members were completely in the dark as to its existence until it appeared. Fr H speaks of "the failure the initial document to read accurately the sentiments of the participants." Why was that? A plausible explanation which accounts both for the chronology, and the inclusion of the controversial paragraphs on communion for the irregularly married and welcoming homosexuality is that the document was substantively written before the Synod. In other words, contrary to what Fr H hopes, the mid-Synod draft relatio was precisely an affirmation of pre-arranged conclusions. Especially those of Archbishop Forte. Transparency?

HH | 22 October 2014  

Francis is a cunning old fox. He has shifted the papacy definitively to "the centre", and probably also shifted the centre itself. He is rightly saying that the Pope`s job is to mediate between contesting groups and not to shout at us from the extreme conservative position. His words at the end were very significant, for example talking of "fruitful marriages" rather than about specific "acts in the bedroom". How refreshing is that! The Synod was remarkable if not perfect, especially remembering the personnel that the P:ope has to deal with, hand-picked by the conservatives foe the last 40 years! Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth...again.

Eugene | 22 October 2014  

Thank you Andrew. I am so grateful, and pray for this wise, patient, intelligent and loving Pope. He alone restores my christian faith.It will be an agonisingly slow transformation in the enclave.Until clerical sexual abuse is truly acknowledged as structural and the most grievous of crimes(SIN),reflecting the skewed thinking (Augustinian)on sexuality, and those who have been ostracised for loving in consenting relationships, admitting marriages have failed,or prevented conception through medical means are accepted as very good christian people, I feel there is no way forward.

Catherine | 22 October 2014  

I am disappointed to say the least. I know many women who are denied the Eucharist in the Catholic Church, because their husband left for other women and divorced them, when they were still in love and totally committed. This is so unfair and exclusive. Why can't we just love and welcome everyone as Jesus wanted? Let God do the judging? This is the Church I want us to be, but it seems we are so far away from that goal. And to John, to be truly welcome you must be treated equally.

Catherine | 22 October 2014  

Strewth! If this report is indeed accurate, there must be panic in the ranks of the renewalists, reformists and those with personal agendas supported by the "spirit of Vatican II" whose boys didn't get up in the first session of the Synod. Clearly the Pope must have it wrong or, God forbid, has been abandoned by the "spirit".

john frawley | 22 October 2014  

The comments reflect pretty well how confused ordinary lay Catholics are about all this. I'm with you Fr in the belief that your fellow Jesuit knows what he's doing and will hold his nerve. People need to know that the secular media is ignorant and often biased. Sections of it actively want the Church to fail. Others hope to make the church ' hardliners' a validation of their own social agenda.

fred | 22 October 2014  

As a start, this initial Synod went much further than I expected and certainly the governance approach seems to have involved improvements in accountability and transparency, albeit merely a starting point. As Andy observes, the next (tentative) step for the bishops is to "incorporate into their own governance the openness and transparency that was embodied in the Synod." That is the real starting point in renewing our Church through involvement of the people of God and listening to the sensus fidelium. Interesting that Archbishop Hart as President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Archbishop of Melbourne made some positive comments in this regard in a radio interview during the Synod. Much needs to happen, particularly "dramatic gestures of encounter and compassion to God’s love", before the substantive Synod on the Family in October 2015.

Peter Johnstone | 22 October 2014  

I agree with Fred May the Holy Spirit guide our dear Pope Francis and let the love of Jesus fill the Hearts of all of us

Ann | 22 October 2014  

Pope Francis claims 'that he has neither wish nor intention to change church teaching'..... It seems that he embraces the Spiritual Ideals embodied in the teachings, but not necessarily the material expression formed from those ideals in very different circumstances to those prevailing today; and shaped by men who lacked the data to foresee how evolution can throw new light on many situations. The old teaching on 'usury' is just one clear illustration of how change in expression can preserve the spirit yet negate the material expression or structure. We all need to be alert to such possibilities

Robert Liddy | 22 October 2014  

Quick reply to John - thanks for your erudite response. I certainly condemn any mistreatment or "unwelcome" displays toward any person by the church - including singles (the non-religious variety) or any 'other groups' feeling shunned by the church (no secret 'code' here). And as a woman, I have experienced first-hand less than favourable treatment by religious in the church. My understanding of sin is any evil or offence against God. I understand (and love) Pope Francis' merciful approach, but you cannot "muddy the waters" when it comes to church doctrine and God's commandments - as archaic as that may sound nowadays. We may like to drive through a red light to reach a destination quickly, but know that breaking this rule will have consequences. My reference to the woman taken in adultery is not a misunderstanding. While just a lay Catholic and not an intellectual or theologian, I believe that while Jesus had mercy on the woman, he wanted her to acknowledge and repent from her sin, to live a better, holier life. This is not 'reflex condemnation' and 'pedantry', but we must acknowledge our wrongs (including church child abuse), and travel the hard road of repentance to forgiveness.

Mary | 22 October 2014  

I wish to point out that Catherine's remark that divorced women can not receive Communion is incorrect. As I understand it divorced people are not denied Communion unless they remarry, which is currently contrary to Church Teaching.

Gavin O'Brien | 22 October 2014  

Mary has graciously responded. She gives her definition of sin as "any evil or offence against God." Church "law" over the centuries has taken a broader view. I wonder, for example, what she thinks of the fact that it was promulgated (in Australia, at least) that it was a serious sin not to send Catholic children to Catholic schools. Likewise, eating meat on Fridays was a serious sin. Surely not an "evil" or an "offence against God"? Or the compulsion to attend Mass on Holy Days of Obligation", most of then now abolished. My point was that "sins" against "rules" are in a different category from, say, clear violations of the Ten Commandments. And given the legalistic ways in which many "annulments" have been managed by the Church, I was hoping to suggest to her that her rather simplistic views about divorce and remarriage might warrant reflection, since such matters are more complex than she seemed to allow.

John Carmody | 23 October 2014  

Hat tip to Mary, who gets it. John Carmody is also right when he says that sin is not just about breaking this or that human-constructed rule, but something more profound - an offence against God. What he doesn't seem to grasp, but Mary does, is that non-marital sexual relations of any kind (homosexual, heterosexual, whatever) are offences against God, being violations of the Ten Commandments. He is also confused about Church law. "Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven." If the Church, e.g., decrees we are to attend Mass on a certain day on pain of mortal sin, it is an offence against earth AND heaven willfully to not attend. So said Christ. End of story. Finally, he criticizes the "legalistic" management of many annulments. It's up to him to present the Church with his brilliant, less legalistic process which discovers - with equal (or greater) moral certainty as the current system - the validity or non-validity of particular marriage contracts. If he hasn't got one, his criticism is without foundation.

HH | 29 October 2014  

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