Who won? Who lost? 5 points on the contentious Vatican summit

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Pope Francis leaves at the end of a mass to mark the closure of the synod on the family in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, October 25, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Pope Francis leaves at the end of a mass to mark the closure of the synod on the family in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, October 25, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The most significant and contested gathering of Roman Catholic bishops in the last 50 years formally ended on Sunday (Oct. 25) after three weeks of debate and dispute, but the arguments over who “won” and who “lost” are only beginning.

The synod of 270 cardinals and bishops from around the world was the second in a year called by Pope Francis to address how and whether Catholicism could adapt its teachings to the changing realities of modern family life. Traditionalists had taken a hard line against any openings, especially after last October’s meeting seemed to point toward possible reforms.

While the delegates made hundreds of suggestions on a host of issues, two took center stage, in part because they represented a barometer for the whole question of change: Could the church be more welcoming to gays, and was there a way divorced and remarried Catholics could receive Communion without an annulment?

The synod was never going to provide definitive answers; it is only an advisory body to the pope and cannot legislate, or bar changes in church policies.

READ: Tense Vatican summit ends by opening door for divorced, punting on welcome to gays

Yet some on the right saw the lack of an explicit recommendation to allow divorced and remarried Catholics a pathway to Communion as evidence that “conservatives basically ‘won’ this synod,” as Damian Thompson wrote in The Spectator.

“(D)ivorced and civilly remarried Catholics can’t receive the sacrament and that’s that,” Thompson wrote. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal’s report called the document passed Saturday evening “an embarrassing defeat” because it did not specifically authorize the pope to approve Communion for the remarried and for his “liberalizing agenda.”

The lack of almost any opening to gays and lesbians was certainly a setback for progressives who had been cheered last fall that so many top churchmen had used unprecedented language in speaking in positive terms about gays and same-sex couples.

But the broader reality is that conservatives, as many of them acknowledged, did not get what they wanted or needed at this synod, and their prospects going forward look even dimmer.

Here’s why:

1. Divorced and remarried Catholics made some gains.

The final report from the synod contained key phrases about individual Catholics in “irregular” situations — such as being remarried without an annulment — using the “internal forum” of their conscience, in consultation with a pastor, to consider their status in the church.

For decades the Vatican had effectively barred priests and penitents from using the “internal forum” in the remarriage context for fear it would be abused.

Also, the final document doesn’t mention Communion explicitly, but it was clear — and numerous church officials confirmed privately — that the language refers to the sacraments and, most important, it gives Francis an opening to take further action, which church officials expect him to do.

Moreover, if the three paragraphs (out of 94) in the final document dealing with the remarried were not problematic, why did so many bishops speak out so strongly against them in the final closed-door session before the vote? And why did those paragraphs get the fewest “yes” votes of all — in one case just one vote above the necessary two-thirds threshold for official passage?

“In the days ahead, conservatives may attempt to spin the final recommendations in a way that supports their position, but they cannot get away with that unless they answer the question, ‘then why did you so fiercely oppose these paragraphs?’” wrote the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst for National Catholic Reporter.

2.  Silence on gays is preferable to harsh words.

The absence of any breakthrough language on gays was a tactical retreat by progressives who saw that they did not have the support in the synod to get close to a two-thirds threshold.

Even getting close to half would have been hard if not impossible, and would have revealed the deep divisions in the synod on the issue and left the pontiff with an unpalatable option of choosing one side or the other — those who spoke warmly about gay couples and others, such as  African Cardinal Robert Sarah, who used harsh and almost apocalyptic language about homosexuals.

“It was better to leave the question open for further study and reflection than blocking it with bad paragraph or bad text,” Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny, a point man for those favoring change, told reporters. “That is a point for next time.”

Bonny was in the same small language group as Cardinal Sarah, for example, and Bonny and others in that group said sentiment against homosexuals was so strong that “there was no way of discussing it in a peaceful way.”

Time may be on the side of those seeking a church that is more welcoming to gays, even if it will never endorse gay marriage.

While many Africans stood out for their blasts at homosexuality, other African churchmen said that their views were developing on this issue and were catching up with the more accepting attitudes in the West.

Conservatives, on the other hand, painted themselves into a corner at the synod by arguing that the only satisfactory outcome was for the synod to reiterate current church teachings and practices and bar any future flexibility. That didn’t happen, and they are left trying to explain.

Pope Francis leads a mass to mark the closure of the synod on the family in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, October 25, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Pope Francis leads a mass to mark the closure of the synod on the family in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, October 25, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

3. The synod showed that the church can, and has, changed.

That change can seem obvious when viewed from the perspective of history, but it’s been a neuralgic point for those who fear that admitting to any evolution can lead to a slippery slope. Francis hammered home the need to change in his forceful closing address to the synod Saturday, in which he declared that “the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit,” and he called on the church to adapt to different cultures and conditions.

“A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts,” as he said in his closing homily at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday.

Many cardinals and bishops welcomed what they said was an end to a judgmental church and the start of a more pastoral church that considers people first and rules second.

But change is never easy for the Catholic hierarchy.

“We are discombobulated. Some defend the past, others dream of a different future,” Cardinal Francesco Montenegro of Sicily, a strong supporter of the pope, said in explaining the reactions of some of his brother bishops. “The fact that there have been so many reactions is a sign that what he is proposing is something new and powerful.”

4. The synod is dead. Long live the synod.

This synod ended, but synodality — the ongoing process of dialogue, discernment, collaboration and collegiality that leads to new approaches and possibly even doctrinal shifts — isn’t over.

Francis made that clear in what was viewed as a landmark talk during the synod to mark 50 years since these meetings were begun after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But synods had become routine, almost “rubber-stamp” affairs. No longer.

The pope said that the “church and synod are synonymous” and that the journey of discernment is ongoing. Church leaders were free to speak their mind, whereas in past years they would have been silenced. Once the flock hears pastors disagreeing and speaking openly about, for example, the value of families led by gay couples or single parents, it’s hard to “unring” the bell.

“The real takeaway from this synod is that Pope Francis has changed the way the church goes about reflecting on her pastoral ministry. That’s no small thing,” Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl said on Sunday. “You had all this open discussion about issues that the church is struggling with. You’re not going to be able to close that door in the future.”

That’s not to say that the future won’t be messy at times, and anxiety-producing, especially for traditionalists and for those who prefer a neat and tidy church.

5. It’s Francis’ turn now.

As long as Francis is the pope, he makes the final call, and he is expected to take the suggestions he has heard in this synod, and in last year’s synod and the various consultations he has held since he was elected in March 2013, and use them as a launchpad for further, more concrete reforms.

Perhaps the biggest question is how long Francis has and how many like-minded cardinals and bishops he can appoint before he dies or retires. He turns 79 in December and openly acknowledges that his may not be a long papacy.

Vatican expert and author John Thavis last week crunched the numbers and found that Francis has appointed 13 percent of the world’s active bishops in his 31 months in office and 26 percent of the voting members of the College of Cardinals who would elect his successor.

At this pace, the pontiff would probably need six or seven more years to reach a tipping-point majority of cardinals and bishops.

“I’m sure the pope realizes that, for quite some time, he will have to work with an episcopate that may at times act as a check on his innovative pastoral proposals,” Thavis wrote.

Francis likes to say that “time is greater than space.” The synod gave him space, but he may need much more time to do with it what he wants.


  • Ed

    We all lose when religion holds sway over reason.

  • Sister Geraldine Marie, OP, RN, PHN

    The Roman Catholic Church remains counter-cultural as it should!

    The people who want to change doctrine aren’t happy and they wouldn’t be if it DID change.

    The person is accepted and loved, but not the sinful lifestyle. That is the pastoral challenge. But it always has been in every area of morality. Read C.S. Lewis’, “Mere Christianity.” (He also wrote, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which I’m sure many of you are familiar with), as well as many other books.

  • Ed

    Geraldine, there are many differing pictures of Christian “morality”, and frankly, they all are broken. Religion is no basis for morality.

  • Craig

    When dogma shrinks to its essentials and dialogue / discussion / discernment expand, a people’s beliefs will become more energized, authentic and useful. I think this is as true of the Catholic church as it is for any nation, corporation or family. Decisions by committee are always messy and long, so it’s fortunate for the Synod and for us all that “time is greater than space”. Papa Francis seems to know this and the Roman Catholic church will be better for it.

  • Dominic

    No one half educated about Catholicism could believe that the Church would or could make any of the overtly liberal “changes” mentioned here. A Truth revealed by God can not be challenged since God cannot lie or deceive.
    The Catholic Church cannot be viewed as any other institution on earth, because it is not. It’s job is to foster God’s children with the very definition of Faith and Morals. These definitions, more and more hated by the “public”, are irreversible and eternal…..like it or not.
    The Church can only reshape the way it teaches these truths and live them as an example for all to see.

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  • Hi Dominic, perhaps the world and Church don’t actually exist in a box (as you seem to want to define), but lived by real people with real lives and relationships, and therefore are extremely messy, particularly as they are lived within a society (in the West anyway) that is so individualistic and self-focused. Thank God for the Church, in its ability to set some structures of faith and morals as you state, and in its ability to call together a community of disciples who try to struggle along. But remember that the glue that holds us together is not so much our ‘morals’ but our love for each, and God’s love for us, in the midst of all the turmoil. The ‘changes’ you avert to are possibly not about doctrine (and hence changes that conservatives might fear as being retrograde) but about emphasis and attitude with how we minister to people in their desperate situations. So, love and mercy seem to be emphasised these days. Can you live that with me? (or is it all just about the…

  • Bingo

    The Pope speaks of caring for people of the world in general, not changing infallible Catholic Truths. The “conservative” Bishops should be known as the “guardians of the Faith”, the liberal branch are Protestants.

  • Dominic

    I agree with you, Christopher, and my deleted post alluded to loving each other…..while not expecting that all of man’s whimsies be blessed as true and moral. The Catholic Church lives in this world, but is not of this world. In essence, it is the voice of God.

  • Rev. Dr. Bob Salt

    Dominic, your faith in the revealed word of God is yours to have. But you speak of it as an undeniable truth. After much reading of the Bible, and other sacred texts of other religions, I do not reach the same conclusion. Sacred texts are written by human beings who have their own understandings of truth. The bishops are struggling with this issue because they are trying to discern the highest truths, not just those based on a traditional reading of certain human created texts. Love trumps all. In my opinion, any text that is inconsistent with that conclusion is either false on the face of it, or being misinterpreted. I stand with Francis on seeing the big picture and ministering with love. In my view, that is not contrary to God’s will or changing ultimate truth.

  • Dominic

    As a Catholic it is my responsibility to accept the teachings of the Faith as beyond debate. My conclusions of Scripture or the equal rationale of Sacred Tradition can never trump the two thousand years of study and knowledge that the Church Fathers have carefully safeguarded. God spoke with one voice, not a cacophony of voices to be interpreted as we please. Loving each other is the core of God’s Word, and love includes discipline and truth. Humans wrote the Word of God, yet under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That’s why a study o the times they were written and the message the writer intended to deliver is critical to its understanding.
    The Church is the teacher, guided by God to be inerrant. The Church cannot submit to the Protestant heresy of Luther just to be more “ecumenical”. It must lead them back to the Faith of the Apostles and never consider that all religions are equal..

  • P. S. John

    As the Pope suggested, true doctrines of the Church are such when seen in their spirit and not only in letter. The Church has always endorsed this view through its teaching on the development of doctrines (e.g. Cardinal Newman). This is the way to adapt the teachings according to the requirement of the times and places without negating the substance contained in them.
    John P. S.

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  • Larry

    Dominic, your comment on Prtyestantism seems sadly un-Christian. Luther’s “heresy”? I beg your pardon. Luther’s reforms launched a blossoming of opportunity for many of us as responsible individuals of faith to discover our direct relationship to Christ and the meaning of Faith. If you choose to define that “responsibility” as specifically following the teachings of your chosen denomination, I respect that, and you. I request that you do the same for other genuine seekers of meaning, whether they be Catholic, Protestant, followers of other religions or non- believers. As the pope says, ” Who am I to judge?”

  • Rita

    Ah, yes, but there is equality among men and women and the structure of the Church is lopsided. It does not reflect the truth. The Church has lost sight of the truth of God’s creation. Change and improvement are needed.

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  • Dominic

    Calling the Protestant beliefs a heresy is not unChristisn at all, for that’s what it is. I respect the Protestants today, since they have no blame for the break with Rome, but their faith is unfortunately less than the full truth….and ever changing.

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