Catholic bishops at Vatican summit seek elusive common ground

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Left to right, Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo, Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and Father Federico Lombardi, during  an intense, three-week Vatican summit to debate church teachings and the modern family, at the Vatican on Oct. 14, 2015. Religion News Service photo by Rosie Scammell

Left to right, Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo, Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and Father Federico Lombardi, during an intense, three-week Vatican summit to debate church teachings and the modern family, at the Vatican on Oct. 14, 2015. Religion News Service photo by Rosie Scammell

VATICAN CITY (RNS) At the midway point of an intense three-week Vatican summit to debate church teachings and the modern family, Catholic bishops from around the world are finding some common ground while still airing stark disagreements.

And, increasingly, they may be looking to Pope Francis to rescue the process by publishing a statement that would settle any irreconcilable differences.

“My hope, certainly, is that the pope will reflect and issue a magisterial document” after the end of the meeting, British Cardinal Vincent Nichols told a press conference on Wednesday (Oct. 14).

“That request is beginning to come through, I think, in the debates,” Nichols said.

The intensity of those debates may be a reason that the 270 bishops at the meeting, called a synod, are looking to Francis.

This gathering is a follow-up to a similar meeting Francis convened last October.


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Pope Francis leads the synod on the family in the Synod hall at the Vatican, on October 5, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SYNOD-DISCUSSION, originally transmitted on Oct. 6, 2015, or with RNS-SYNOD-DIVISIONS, originally transmitted on Oct. 14, 2015.

Pope Francis leads the synod on the family in the synod hall at the Vatican, on Oct. 5, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SYNOD-DISCUSSION, originally transmitted on Oct. 6, 2015, or with RNS-SYNOD-DIVISIONS, originally transmitted on Oct. 14, 2015.

The aim was to foster dialogue in the church, in general, and specifically to allow the global hierarchy to discuss how — or whether — the Catholic Church can adapt its teachings and language to the realities of modern families, marked by divorce in many countries and polygamous marriages in other regions.

The bishops and cardinals, who meet most days in a Vatican lecture hall presided over by the pope, are also struggling to find ways to be more inclusive and welcoming to cohabiting couples and gays and lesbians.

But even before the synod convened on Oct. 4, sharp differences emerged between bishops from different continents, and between those who saw any softening of language toward gays — not to mention any suggestion of adapting church practices on receiving Communion — as tantamount to heresy.

For example, in one particularly eye-opening speech to the assembly last week, a leading African cardinal blasted the “idolatry of Western freedom” as equivalent to “Islamic fundamentalism” and compared both to “apocalyptic beasts.”


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Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, a top official in the Roman Curia, also said that divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage in the West, and Islamic fundamentalism in Africa and elsewhere, both had a “demonic origin” that the synod had to combat.

“What Nazi-fascism and communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today,” Sarah said.

Beyond those differences, there have also been charges of back-room manipulations and secret pacts to ensure that the synod reaches one conclusion or another.


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The most embarrassing episode so far was the publication of a secret letter to Francis signed by 13 conservative cardinals — including Sarah, as well as New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan — who complained that the pontiff had set up the synod to favor the reformers.

The letter touched off a frenzy of media speculation as details emerged and various cardinals sought to distance themselves from the maneuver. It also appeared to prompt a backlash against the signers by the rest of the bishops in the synod hall, where sessions are closed to outsiders.

If there was resentment, and some eye-rolling, among the other cardinals and bishops, Nichols said they continued to make progress working in 13 small groups divided up by language.


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Interim reports by each of those groups were released Wednesday at the press conference. The reports showed persistent differences, as some bishops sought to emphasize a merciful approach to the flock while others stressed the importance of justice and moral clarity.

There did appear to be some narrowing of differences in recent days, however, and even some convergences.

Speaking at the press conference with Nichols, Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso compared the question of allowing Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics — a problem highlighted by Western bishops — to the challenge of polygamy in many African societies.

“The church has a big, large open door wherever everyone can go and enter with all their problems,” Ouedraogo said. “This is absolutely fundamental.”

Still, the bishops are only now beginning to debate concrete solutions to some of the most vexing questions, and that could change the tenor of the synod as it enters the home stretch — a finale that may end without a firm conclusion.

“My own instinct is that the Holy Father has asked us and encouraged us to speak very freely” because the pope “is very clear about his own role,” Nichols said.

And part of that role, he said, will be to make a “definitive statement” that settles what are likely to be outstanding issues. It’s not known whether the pope will do that, or how long after the synod ends he would make his views known.

“My hope, certainly, is that he will complete this process, because it seems to me that it will need to brought to a conclusion, and there’s only one person who can do that.”

LM/MG END GIBSON

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  • Sister Geraldine Marie, OP, RN, PHN

    Pope Francis wants to be pastoral and that’s as should be. Changing doctrine is NOT being pastoral. However the modern Church is pressured by the secular (if not pagan) world around it, the Church is counter-cultural by its very nature. Homosexual acts are wrong, living together without marriage is wrong, divorce and remarriage is wrong. Polygamy is wrong. These are all sins. The “transgender” question is an abnormality and influenced by some very strange notions about human sexuality.
    One man and one woman, living in a valid marriage where children are possible and welcomed is what the Church teaches. If she changes that teaching to please the surrounding secular/pagan culture, she has failed in her mission to YAH’SHUA Ha’MASHIACH (Jesus Christ) and to all Christians trying to live a moral life and obeying the Ten Commandments.

  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    “My hope, certainly, is that the pope will reflect and issue a magisterial document” after the end of the meeting, British Cardinal Vincent Nichols told a press conference on Wednesday (Oct. 14).

    In other words, I hope the pope will tell us what to do. at least then the heat will be off me.

  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    Bernardo, Sister Geraldine comes here often to badmouth gay people – like a few other people who are regulars in ReligionNews discussion threads. In her postings she reveals that she doesn’t know a bloody thing about the behavioral sciences, and still identifies “the bishops” (especially the boys in the Vatican) with “the Church,” when it’s very clear to anyone with ears to hear that many, many in the church believe and teach things dramatically at variance with what the privileged, closeted white boys in the Vatican want people to believe and do. Who do you think is going to win?

  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    Funny, sister, how your postings never, never, never refer to Jesus’ bald statement, “This is my commandment: that you love one another.” Your narrow mind and hectoring tone don’t put me in mind of the gospel in any way, shape or form. Your lecturing about how to live is a laugh: you’re merely a compliant dogmatist.

  • Richard Rush

    Sister,

    “However the modern Church is pressured by the secular (if not pagan) world around it, . . .”

    Nah. I think the Church is being pressured by the need to maintain cash flow, and that means bowing to the enlightened views of educated people in the rich countries who have been walking away from the Church, and taking their money with them. First and foremost, the Catholic Church is all about power, and it cannot maintain power without money. And that’s why Francis is pope, and Benedict is not. Francis’ job-description is to put a pretty face on traditional church cruelty.

  • Bernardo

    Wow, another deletion. Very strange blog when innocuous comments are continually deleted.

    One more time: Whatever happened to the RCC slogan, “One in Christ”?

    Galatians 3:27-29 New International Version (NIV)

    “27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

    One major problem with said passage and possibly the reason for the rancor in the RCC ranks, Abraham as with Moses are myths. See the New Torah for Modern Minds. For added details:: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review

  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    Berenardo, I’m more interested in why priests of so many eras and stripes have come to be preoccupied with a Bronze-Age text that (only in passing, mind you) raises a concern about what people put in certain orifices of their own bodies. How did this text from a semi-barbarian society of antiquity become such an overriding theme even in modern ecclesiastical discourse? Why is it the preoccupation of bishops in countries where hatred of people because they are Muslims is considered a Christian duty; while frank robbery of a people by its government other abuses in public life are ignored? Why are 21st Century ecclesiastics in the UK unable to bring themselves to raise such questions forcefully, while being unable to validate the sacramentality of long-standing, committed, deeply loving relationships? How did we get so confused about the teaching of Jesus, who never says a word about same-sex couples, but speaks emphatically about divorce?

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