Early reports from synod on family reveal deep divisions

by Michelle Boorstein

Prelates pray before the opening of a morning session of the synod of bishops at the Vatican on 
Oct. 6. The bishops are debating how the church can better care for Catholic families at a time 
when marriage rates are falling, divorce is common and civil unions are on the rise. (Alessandra

At Pope Francis’s closed-door meeting in Rome this month, top clergy are intensely debating whether the church should bend more to the messy realities of modern families, and on Wednesday they released some early reports revealing their deep divisions. In daily life,
however, contemporary messiness has already changed the Catholic Church.

Questions on the agenda at the rare high-level meeting, called a synod, include whether those who divorce and remarry outside the church can receive Communion, and whether there is a place in Catholic life for same-sex couples. Changing Catholicism’s stance toward such things could begin to unravel the unity of the world’s largest church, say opponents who see the debate in Rome as directly tied to the future of Catholicism. But in many parts of the world – the West in particular – the church has for years quietly been making changes to engage with Catholic families who are transforming in ways that mirror the rest of the society.

Seminaries and theology schools have added classes on sex and family that were absent a decade or two ago. Some of the highest-level bishops are open about not denying Communion outright to anyone, even if the person appears to be violating church teachings on the family. And Francis has changed the entire conversation about what threatens family stability by emphasizing things like economic stress and cultural isolation rather than a deviation from orthodox sexual ethics.

Wednesday’s reports from the dozens of bishops at the synod show them staking out varied and often highly nuanced positions. The 13 working groups are divided by language. The majority of the four English and three French groups appeared to either dismiss any significant changes or reserve judgment, while delegates from Germany and some Spanish-speaking nations were calling for progressive changes, including one proposal from the Germans to allow priests to make exceptions to teachings prohibiting Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Some of the powerful Italian-language groups, meanwhile, suggested bishops should have the final say. The divide appeared to set up a furious final few days of debate before a final draft of synod’s position is voted on this weekend. Thedocument – which will be voted on paragraph by paragraph — will ultimately serve as a recommendation to Francis, who will have the final say
on any changes.

These discussions are happening because church leaders have lived through the same dramatic social changes as everyone else, shifts that have raised new questions. Will the church not recognize longtime committed same-sex couples, including those who are married, in a society that is rapidly accepting gay equality? Or accept expanding reproductive technologies (some now forbidden)? Or reconsider the validity of a second marriage in a world where life spans are dramatically expanding?

But nothing has had as significant an impact as Francis, many say. He has brought into the open discussions about how Catholicism can be more pragmatic about modern family life, rather than emphasizing the rules and that nothing can change, a common paradigm in recent decades. While he hasn’t veered from traditional doctrine on the family as the ideal, his emphasis on accommodation and forgiveness seems to be having a great effect — including creating the most anxiety-ridden Church leadership meeting since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, another period of ferment.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the bishops conference in England and Wales, said he is in the midst of overhauling seminary curriculum to consider how basic Catholic truths — Jesus’s rejection of divorce, for example — can endure in diverse modern families, all framed around Francis’s emphasis: Mercy for the messy realities of human life.

“When I was doing seminary formation, I don’t remember any treatment of the attribute of God you’d call mercy. Two days ago I met with all English and Welsh seminaries and said: ‘You have to develop rigorous, thorough courses of study that look at this attribute of God as mercy.’ That is the most theologically interesting thing going on,” he said. “You can’t separate justice, truth and mercy. Our challenge is to hold these things together.”In the past century, European intellectuals in particular were focused on ideas of truth and human knowledge, he said. Now, led by Francis, Nichols said “we’re getting to something that goes much deeper, beyond intellect. We are moving institutionally in that direction.”But not all in the Church are open to change. Division is so pronounced that Catholics are
witnessing the spectacle of cardinals writing op-eds about one another. Thousands of Catholics have signed a petition calling for bishops to walk out of the synod and a letter was leaked to Francis from 13 cardinals who worried that the event is rigged with “predetermined results.”The concern comes mostly – but not exclusively — from traditional bishops and their allies who worry that Francis is stirring extremely dangerous waters by proposing changes that they see as cutting at the very heart of the nature of the Catholic Church and what it means to be Catholic. Is the Church a global community with shared aspirations, or could it become officially regionalized, with local bishops exercising even more flexibility on hot-button issues, as Francis has suggested? And there are questions about the nature of Communion, perhaps the most central rite of Catholicism. Is it a litmus test for one’s adherence to Catholic doctrine, or is it a more
general tool for healing, one with a lot of room for freedom of conscience? With the world in flux and turmoil in many ways, more orthodox cardinals see an even more pressing need for clear, unchanging doctrine as an anchor to which Catholics can hold fast. Those on the less orthodox side see flexibility needed more than ever.

The early reports Wednesday saw traditional bishops strongly arguing against any changes in church practice. One group moderated by the conservative Australian Cardinal George Pell conceded that there were deep divides among its members, but ultimately stated that offering divorced Catholics who remarry outside the church Communion would “risk harm to the unity of the Catholic Church, the understanding of her sacramental order, and the visible witness of life of the faithful.” It also reiterated the importance that those with “homosexual tendencies” should respond to the Gospel’s call for “chaste living.”

But other groups appeared to call for change, with one Spanish language group calling for new “ways” for divorced Catholics might “participate more amply in the life of the church.”Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Washington’s archbishop and a key Francis ally in Rome this month, was not available to comment, but deviated a few days ago from his usual cautious public persona to speak out on why the church needs to be open to discussions about its practices. Wuerl is quietly known for not automatically refusing Communion — even in controversial situations, such as Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion rights access. He encourages priests to know more. In an interview in America magazine on Sunday, Wuerl made news by saying the cardinals who were outspoken in their criticism of Francis — and this includes some fellow Americans — perhaps just don’t like the pope.

Asked whether the synod will address the place of gay, divorced and remarried, and cohabiting Catholics, Wuerl said criticism of Francis and division among participants could impact what the cardinals actually recommend this weekend, when the synod is scheduled to end. However, he said, “in the long run, I think the voice of the church’s openness to people in difficulty, and the church’s caring embrace of people who are having difficulty in living up to the fullness of the Gospel will win out.”

Ann Rogers, co-author of an upcoming book about Wuerl, said she believes Francis has simply brought out into the open a reality that was already present in the church. Rogers, who is now spokeswoman at Wuerl’s former diocese, Pittsburgh, says Catholics like him have been bothered by the idea that Catholic teaching “is a bunch of laws to be rigidly applied” rather than something loving, communicated through mercy and forgiveness.

“Pope Francis has freed Cardinal Wuerl to be not just the cardinal but the bishop he’s always wanted to be,” she said. “Pope Francis has freed him to reach out to those who have been marginalized without having to fight a huge internal church battle when he does that.” Conservatives are also being unusually open in speaking out.

“We can’t rewrite or overlook what Jesus requires in order to follow him,” Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the leading American conservatives in Rome for the synod, wrote in his latest diocesan column. Chaput also wrote a column in the Wall Street
Journal Oct. 15, saying he’s wary of those who try to soft-pedal what’s going on in Rome as simply a big, friendly family chat.

“The more some synod fathers claim that no doctrinal change is sought on matters of divorce and remarriage—only a change in ‘discipline’—the more other synod fathers worry. And for good reason. Practice inevitably shapes belief,” Chaput wrote.

While there is a division about the impact of changing church practice, experts across the spectrum seem to agree that the cardinals in Rome are not theological liberals – they believe in and embrace conservative views on the roles of men, women, sex and marriage. Francis acolytes who are open to change, however, see the need for more flexibility and less judgment in bringing people back to those views. And more listening on the part of the clergy.

This has led to conversations revealing the concrete ways in which the church today is attempting to engage this new approach.

Bishop Blase Cupich, Francis’s recent pick to head the Chicago archdiocese, made news a few
days ago in Rome when he spoke to reporters about visiting “regularly” with groups he
characterized as marginalized in the church, including divorced and remarried people and LGBT

“We need to  know what their life is like if we’re going to accompany them. I tried to help people along the way. And people come to a decision in good conscience..the conscience is inviolable. And we have to respect that,” he said. Asked if this applied to same-sex couples, he said: “I think that gay people are human beings, too, and they have a conscience.” He told reporters the story of a priest who presided at a funeral for a young man who had killed himself. The man’s mother was divorced and remarried and “very angry” at God and the church
over her son’s death, Cupich relayed. When she came forward in the Communion line, she folded her arms – a common sign Catholics make who are divorced and remarried outside the church, a request for a blessing and an acknowledgement they don’t qualify to receive

“The priest said to her, ‘No, today you have to receive,’” Cupich relayed of the priest who bent the literal rules. “She went back to her pew and wept uncontrollably.” She later came back to visit with the priest and get her first marriage annulled and her second marriage recognized in the church.

“It was because that priest looked for mercy,” he said.Cupich said he knew a retired archbishop who said he wants his tombstone to read: “I tried to treat you like adults.”

Sister Mary Johnson, a sociologist at Trinity Washington University who studies the new generation of nuns, said she sees a “renewed emphasis” in the preparation of lay ministers, sisters and priests on “political, economic and social factors of reality as well as the theological.” Popes John Paul II and Benedict also spoke also of such things, she said, “but some did not see
it. Others chose not to see it.”

Catholic colleges and universities are beefing up discussion and teaching around social contexts, Johnson said. “The social teachings help new ministers look at the wider social reality. And then they can move to analyzing individual and personal issues.”

Paige Hochschild, a theologian at Mount St. Mary’s University who teaches undergraduates and seminarians, said the school has an extremely popular class on marriage and sexuality that didn’t exist 20 years ago. In the past, she said “we didn’t talk about sex.”

Now, she said, she tries to help students “develop a more mature thinking about what’s going on at the level of people’s lives,” rather than focus on whether doctrine is going to change. On the topic of gays and lesbians, she said “it’s so complicated, we should just sit tight for 30 years and then look at it.”

There is a profound sense that the style of the church is changing, Hochschild said. “How one looks at and interacts with people. Style is everything and I do think there are [seminarians] here who do feel it’s helping them see better what the essence of their work is; it’s really about service.”

Michael Hanby and Nicholas Healy, faculty at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, said in an e-mail that the D.C. institute – which grants advanced degrees on church and family issues – said the curriculum has “changed substantially” since its founding in the 1980s, “as the crisis of marriage and the family has deepened.” They have tried to expand and deepen their curriculum to ask broader questions about the nature of humanity, rather than focusing on strictly moral aspects of Catholic tradition. “What is love? What is freedom? What do we really hunger for?”

Such conversations won’t sound like “change” to the many millions of Catholics who reject church teaching on many marriage and sex issues and don’t feel they need mercy or forgiveness.“There’s definitely a disconnect between the bishops and the culture. They may be behind,” said Cristina Traina, a feminist Catholic author who teaches religion at Northwestern University. The
cardinals, she said, “are worried about hyper-individualism. How do you strike your way between the reality of people’s experiences and endorsing a hyper-individualism? Anthony Faiola contributed from Vatican City.

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The Washington Post, October 22, 2015