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by Christian Weisner


Article in German in the Austrian journal KIRCHE IN:


The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops at the Vatican about the family ("The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization") that ended October 19, 2014, is the beginning of a synodal path that Pope Francis explicitly desires. What surprises and tensions happened there, reports Christian Weisner from Rome, who was accredited for the magazine KIRCHE IN in the "Sala Stampa", the press service of the Vatican.


Imagine a global corporation in extreme crisis, which also publishes the negative results of its worldwide customer survey, and then lets its regional representatives deliberate new concepts before the eyes of the world in order to develop concrete solutions within eleven months. This is exactly what has happened in recent weeks and months in the Roman Catholic Church.


After years where dialogue within the church has been suppressed, the first remarkable step was to invite the faithful to respond to the usual pre-Synod questionnaire. Francis wanted to get a factual picture of the living reality at the grassroots, not an over optimistic one made by the bishops. The discrepancy between the teachings of the Church and the lived reality – shown by the "Instrumentum laboris" across cultures - is so obvious that it cannot be put swept under the carpet. What the Church calls "irregular” or “not accepted situations" is a common reality in all parts of the world. "The reality is more important than the idea," said Francis in "Evangelii Gaudium" paragraph 231.




Mercy: an emotive word


A next step was the speech by Cardinal Walter Kasper in February 2014 before the Consistory of Cardinals at the invitation of the Pope. In 1993, Walter Kasper, then Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, together with Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz and Archbishop Oskar Saier of Freiburg, advocated that conscience be foremost in making a responsible decision with regard to the reception of Communion by people who remarried after a divorce. However, the then Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, soon put a stop to this very harshly.


In the consistory Kasper made no concrete proposals, but his plea for mercy for remarried people triggered controversial discussions among the cardinals. Therefore, at first his paper was not published. But after the press had quoted parts of his speech verbatim, the entire speech, with the contributions of the Cardinals to the discussion, was published as a book. In Pope Benedict’s pontificate, this probably would not have been possible.


Against this background, there were high expectations the first part of the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod, which met from 5 to 19 October 2014 in Rome, perhaps too high. Although it is often spoken of a family synod, in truth it was of course a Synod of Bishops, where the Presidents of 114 national episcopal conferences and 25 representatives of the Curia were the most important participants of course. Although according to the Synod procedure there were also some experts and guest students ("Auditori e Auditrici") present, including 13 couples. Among the last no one had experienced divorce and remarriage, for example. Voting was restricted to the Cardinals and Bishops, of which the majority were appointed by the two previous popes.


The people of the Church in Rome


The hope of renewal had attracted various reform groups to Rome in advance of the Synod. The new reform organisation "Catholic Church Reform" from the United States hosted a two-day forum. The European Forum of Christian LGBT-groups set up two conferences for the pastoral care of homosexual persons and about their criminalization, including the death penalty, which unfortunately still pertains in many countries. One of the speakers there was the retired Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, author of the book "Power, Sexuality and the Catholic Church". The "International Movement We Are Church" presented the hopes and expectations of the people in the pews in an international press conference. The German speaking Pfarrer Initiative addressed an open letter to the Synod.


During the first week the plenary debate focussed on the sections in to "Instrumentum laboris". At the beginning in the Synod Hall, Pope Frances exhorted the 230 members of the Synod to "Speak with sincerity and listen with humility". He himself listened because it was important for him to hear the experience of the universal Church. To provide a safe space for open debate, the press was not given access to the Synod Hall, but every afternoon at 13:00, the Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, accompanied by selected Synod participants gave so called briefings


Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, had explicitly encouraged all participants of the Synod to talk to the press. So on the second day of the Synod, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and the "Auditrix" Dr. Ute Eberl, family consultant in Berlin, enthused by the initial euphoria, set up a press conference. The chairman of the German Bishops' Conference praised the “open, honest and wide-ranging discussion on the topics". Marx argued boldly for a differentiated view of homosexuality. One could not say “that’s all nothing” where a homosexual relationship is faithfully lived out for decades. Ute Eberl recommended, as she did later in the Synod Hall, that the clergy choose to look into the living room of the family before judging bedroom.


Sensation at halftime


A sensation was caused by the "Relatio post disceptationem" (Report on the state of the discussion), which summarized the debate of the first week and which was read at the beginning of the second week in presence of the Pope. This report was developed under the auspices of Cardinal Peter Erdö of Budapest and Bruno Forte, star theologian of the Italian Episcopal Conference. They talked about the "positive reality of civil marriages", the fact that homosexuals could "enrich the Christian community", and that it needs "courageous decisions" when dealing with divorced people who get married again. The "Instrumentum laboris" had continued to speak about people in "irregular" relationships; now it seemed even those who live outside of a marriage should be accepted in their "concrete existence". The natural law, by which the marital and sexual teaching of the Catholic Church had been established for centuries, was mentioned only once. Even the "Instrumentum laboris" had referred to the concept of "natural law" as very difficult if not incomprehensible.


Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who was considered to be one of the most important theologians of the Assembly, tried with the techniques developed by the Second Vatican Council concept of "gradualness" to oppose the "all or nothing" of marriage by a step by step analysis. This gradation could be applied also to the understanding of marriage: The fullness of salvation lies in the church’s concept of marriage, but it also lives in the genuine loving relationship without marriage or where homosexual partners lovingly take care of children.


"The drama has begun"


By its openness, this interim report surprised most of the cardinals and bishops as well as the journalists. The Vatican expert John Thavis spoke about the new tone as an "earthquake". The document showed that Francis, when it comes to marriage and family, moves mercy into the foreground. Thus were opened the controversial debates that Pope Francis had explicitly requested. Some of the clashes in the Synod Hall were quite violent. "The drama has begun", said Philippine Cardinal Tagle in noting the 41 interventions in a morning in the Synod Hall: half of them praised the paper, and the other half felt overwhelmed. The American Cardinal Raymond Burke complained that the representation of the Synod debate was being manipulated.


In these disputes, the German and German speaking participants played an important role: Cardinal Kasper with his questions in front of the consistory, Cardinal Schönborn with his theological bridge building and Cardinal Marx, after all, chairman of European Bishops' Conference and one of the Pope’s eight Consultants, supporting both. On the other hand, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the CDF, with four other Cardinals, reiterated in a recent anthology that the understanding of church marriage and family was not negotiable.


Conservative cross shots


In the second week the fundamental conflicts continued. The Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" reported that during the Synod a group of conservative bishops had allegedly tried to win emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s support for their position. The emeritus pope was said to have rejected this suggestion. The Catholic news agency Zenit, backed by the conservative Legionaries of Christ, tried to discredit Cardinal Kasper by publishing a reduced and misleading report of a conversation on the street, later declared as an interview. The impression was created that Cardinal Kasper had spoken disparagingly of the African Synod participants.


The ups and downs, hopes and disappointments of this first part of the synodal path was clearly in evidence on the penultimate day of the Synod. In the midday press conference, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi enthusiastically presented the final message developed under his leadership. 158 of 174 voters, more than 90 percent, had agreed to this text. There was a brief text in plain language that named the big challenges families face in this day and age, but it also carried the hopes resulting from the Church's teaching and exhortation. After a long wait of around 19 hrs, P. Lombardi made known how the bishops in the afternoon had agreed on each of the 62 individual points developed in the second week. There was not much left of the positive mood of the interim report. Three points, on the subject of Communion for divorced and remarried people and homosexuality did not reach the intended  two-thirds majority required according to the Synod’s procedures, although that on homosexuality "only" quoted the catechism,  adopted in 2003 by the CDF under Ratzinger. Nevertheless, it was said to have been the explicit wish of Francis to immediately transmit all the results, even to the press. Pure transparency.


That these points, which had been discussed intensively in the two weeks, fell is disappointing but a probably realistic picture shows where the bishops of the universal Church are. The result may also be influenced by the African bishops, who represented 40 percent of the "synod fathers" but only 14 percent of the Catholic world population. Bishops from Africa and Eastern Europe have difficulties with the new acceptance of homosexuality.


Outwardly however the effect is catastrophic. The public must assume that in these points the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church can’t and should not change. The Austrian SSPX sees its position immediately strengthened in talks with the Vatican. The problem: the way the Synod works is difficult for outsiders to understand. The Synod is supposed to be continued in the universal Church and then meet again in a year in expanded composition in Rome. And only after that can the Pope be expected to make a statement.


Tutoring hours for Bishops


With this vote, the bishops' conference chairmen from around the world and the Curia people have in a certain way left Pope Francis out in the cold. Last Saturday evening, Cardinal Marx admitted this to the press saying, "We bishops must support the policy of Francis much more than before."


But the two weeks of the synod cannot have left the cardinals and bishops unaffected. First of all it was necessary to practice the new freedom of debate, and to switch from the "prohibition-mode" into "dialogue mode". They were forced to deal with the diverse experiences from around the world, certainly also with their own sexuality. Positions, represented by the reform groups for decades were also promoted by the cardinals, such as "We need a positive evaluation of sexuality", "There is no simple black and white morality.", but it will still need pressure from the forces of reform. "Pope Francis wants the people in the church to put pressure on the bishops and that the bishops grow in courage to say exactly what they know in their dioceses," said the Vatican expert Marco Politi.


After the Synod is before the Synod


Francis has initiated a long overdue, broad and open process that can not be stopped. It is a fundamental cultural change that now at last implements what the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago intended by the statement, "the body of the faithful cannot err in faith". This cultural change will also bring a change of policy. To do this, however - far more than in the Synod Hall in Rome - the theological sciences and especially people of the Church must be much more actively involved. It is high time that the foundations of the Church's sexual teaching are developed in line with the modern human sciences. This must and will lead to a withdrawal of incorrect or outdated rules and to the further development of the doctrine. Important points will mainly be: a return to the primacy of the individual conscience (Cardinal John Henry Newman); a new and holistic view of sexuality, which opens a reasonable approach to questions of homosexuality and homosexual partnerships; and following the Council of Trent, a sophisticated understanding of marriage as a sacrament.


In his speeches Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken about the courage to look wide, but he also confessed his aim for unity. His way is inclusion. Only thus is there understanding in the beatification of Pope Paul VI taking place on the last day of the Synod. But this event must not be a prior determination of the Synod with respect to the marital and sexual doctrine, or even be exploited by church politics. Because of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, proclaimed 1968 by Paul VI against the vast majority of votes of the Advisory Board convened by himself, both papacy and church sexual teachings have lost a lot of credibility for many up to this day.


The next eleven months will present the greatest challenges to Pope, church leaders and people in the pews. Francis wants the bishops to develop concrete proposals by next autumn to the points raised in the family Synod, also on the topic of homosexuality and divorced and remarried people. Will the bishops manage to join the synodal way of Francis? Are they ready to walk the synodal way in their dioceses? And how is it possible to "carry along" the traditionally oriented believers? If no solutions are possible over the coming year, the decline in the authority of the Roman Catholic Church will be far worse than that caused by the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

October 22, 2014
Christian Weisner
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Manuscript for the November issue of the journal KIRCHE IN, for which I was accredited to the Vatican Press Office "Sala Stampa" during the Extraordinary Synod.


Translation into English by Friedrich Griess, Austria and Valerie Stroud, United Kingdom