In a shocking turn of events the Vatican has reversed its position on some of the most contentious issues in the 2000 years of the organizations existence, same-sex unions and unmarried couples. This move is seen by many as Pope Francis’s attempt to modernize the church and maintain its relevancy in the modern era.
Vatican City, 13 October 2014 (Vatican Information Service) – The “post-discussion report” of the Extraordinary Synod on the family was presented this morning by the General Rapporteur of the Assembly, Cardinal Peter Erdo. It summarises the Synod Fathers’ main reflections that have emerged during the General Congregations during recent days, and forms the basis of the final documents of the Synod.
The Report sets out three main guidelines: listening to the socio-cultural context in which families live today; discussing the pastoral perspectives to be taken, and above all, looking to Christ and to His Gospel of the family.
The family, therefore, is “decisive and valuable”, the “source of joys and trials, of deep affections and relations, at times wounded”, a “school of humanity”, and must first be listened to in its “complexity”. Exasperated individualism, the “great test” of solitude, the “narcissistic affectivity” linked to the “fragility” of sentiments, the “nightmare” of precariousness in the workplace, along with war, terrorism and migrations increasingly cause deterioration in family situations. It is here, according to the Relatio, that the Church must give “hope and meaning” to the life of modern humanity, ensuring that “the doctrine of faith” is better known, but proposing it “with mercy”.
Turning our gaze to Christ “reaffirms the indissoluble union between a man and a woman”, but also allows us to “interpret the nuptial covenant in terms of continuity and novelty”. The principle, explains Cardinal Erdo, must be that of “gradualness” for couples in failed marriages, with an “inclusive perspective” for the “imperfect forms” of nuptial reality: “Realizing the need, therefore, for spiritual discernment with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons, it is the task of the Church to recognise those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries. … The Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings”.
There is a need, therefore, for a “new dimension of family pastoral” able to nurture seeds in the process of maturation, such as civil marriages characterised by stability, deep affection, and responsibility in relation to offspring, and which may lead to a sacramental bond. Frequently cohabitation or de facto unions are not dictated by a rejection of Christian values, but rather by practical needs, such as waiting for a stable job. The Church, a true “House of the Father”, a “torch carried among the people”, continued the Cardinal, must accompany “her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care”, restoring trust and hope to them.
In the third part, the “post-discussion Report” goes on to face the “most urgent pastoral issues”, the implementation of which is entrusted to the individual local Churches, always in communion with the Pope. First, the “proclamation of the Gospel of the family” is “not to condemn, but to cure human fragility”. This proclamation also involves the faithful: “Evangelising is the shared responsibility of all God’s people, each according to his or her own ministry and charism. Without the joyous testimony of spouses and families, the announcement, even if correct, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words that is a characteristic of our society. Catholic families are themselves called upon to be the active subjects of all the pastoral of the family”.
The Gospel of the family is “joy”, underlined Cardinal Erdo, and therefore requires “a missionary conversion” so as not to stop at a proclamation that is “merely theoretical and has nothing to do with people’s real problems”. At the same time, it is also necessary to act in relation to language: “Conversion has, above all, to be that of language so that this might prove to be effectively meaningful. … This is not merely about presenting a set of regulations but about putting forward values, responding to those who find themselves in need today even in the most secularised countries”.
Adequate preparation for Christian marriage is also essential, as this is not merely a cultural tradition or a social obligation, but rather a “vocational decision”. Without “complicating the cycles of formation”, the aim should be that of exploring the issue in depth, not limiting the issue merely to “general orientations” but instead renewing also “the formation of presbyters and other pastoral operators” on the matter, with the involvement of families themselves, whose witness is to be privileged. The accompaniment of the Church is also suggested following marriage, a “vital and delicate” period in which couples mature their understanding of the sacrament, its meaning and the challenges that it poses.
In the same way, the Church, continues the Report, must encourage and support laypersons occupied with culture, politics and in society, to ensure that those factors that impede authentic family life, leading to discrimination, poverty, exclusion and violence, are denounced.
Moving on to the issue of separated couples, divorced persons, including those subsequently remarried, Cardinal Erdo underlined that “it is not wise to think of single solutions or those inspired by a logic of ‘all or nothing’”; dialogue must therefore continue in the local Churches, “with respect and love” for every wounded family, thinking of those who have unjustly suffered abandonment by their spouse, avoiding discriminatory attitudes and protecting children: “It is indispensable to assume in a faithful and constructive way the consequences of separation or divorce on the children; they must not become an ‘object’ to be fought over and the most suitable means need to be sought so that they can get over the trauma of family break-up and grow up in the most serene way possible”.
With regard to the streamlining of procedures for the recognition of matrimonial nullity, the General Rapporteur of the Synod reported the proposals made by the Assembly: to abandon the need for the double conforming sentence, to establish an administrative channel at diocesan level, and the introduction of a summary process in the case of clear nullity, and the possibility of “giving weight to the faith of those about to be married in terms of the validity of the sacrament of marriage”. The Cardinal emphasised that this all requires suitably prepared clergy and laypersons and a greater responsibility on the part of local bishops.
With regard to access to the sacrament of the Eucharist for divorced and remarried persons, the Report lists the main suggestions that emerged from the Synod: maintaining the current discipline; allowing greater openness in particular cases, that may not be resolved without further injustice or suffering; or rather, opting for a “penitential” approach: partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path – under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop –, and with a clear undertaking in favour of the children. This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances.
The question of “spiritual communion”, for which a greater theological examination was called for, remains open; again, further reflection was required on mixed marriages and “serious problems” linked to the different nuptial discipline of Orthodox Churches.
With regard to homosexuals, it was underlined that they have “gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community”: the Church must therefore be, for them, a “welcoming home”. The Church affirms that same-sex unions are not “on the same footing” as marriage between a man and a woman and stated that it was unacceptable for international bodies to place pressure on pastors to make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology. However, “without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasising that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority”.
In the final part, the Report returns to the theme of Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical “Humanae Vitae”, and focuses on the question of openness to life, defining it as an “instrinsic requirement of conjugal love”. This gives rise to the need for a “realistic language” able to explain “the beauty and truth” of opening oneself to the gift of a child, also thanks to “appropriate teaching regarding natural methods of fertility control” and a “harmonious and aware” communication between spouses, in all its dimensions. Furthermore, the challenge of education is central, in which the Church has a valuable role of support for families, to support them in their choices and their responsibilities.
Finally, Cardinal Erdo underlines that the synodal dialogue took place “in great freedom and with a spirit of reciprocal listening”, and recalls that the reflections proposed so far do not represent decisions that have already been taken: indeed, the itinerary will continue with the Ordinary General Synod, again on the theme of the family, to be held in October 2015.