FROM THE SERVANT GENERAL
REPORT AND REFLECTIONS
ON THE III EXTRAORDINARY GENERAL ASSEMBLY
OF THE SYNOD OF BISHOPS
October 23, 2014
The III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops happened from October 5 to 18, 2014, at Vatican City. The assembly was called by Pope Francis to discuss “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” There were 186 Synod Fathers (61 cardinals, 67 archbishops, 47 bishops, others), 8 fraternal delegates (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist), 16 experts and 38 auditors, for a total of 248 participants, coming from all continents of the world. The auditors were the lay participants. The language of the synod was in Italian, French, Spanish, English and German.
The preparatory document for the synod, the Lineamenta, was issued on November 5, 2013, and solicited responses and inputs on the topic coming from all over the Catholic world. From this the Instrumentum Laboris (IL) was produced by the General Secretariat and issued on June 24, 2014. At the start of the synod assembly, the topic of the synod was presented in the Relatio Ante Disceptationem, which would guide the Synod Fathers in their interventions. After the interventions, a document called Relatio Post Disceptationem (RPD) was produced. It was a 14-page document with 58 paragraphs, presenting a synthesis of the synod’s theme based on the discussions in the synod hall.
Pope Francis celebrated Holy Mass on October 5. Then the General Congregations (plenary sessions) were conducted from October 6 to 10, with two sessions, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. These were times for the bishops to provide their interventions on the topics in the RPD. Each was given 4 minutes. There were also times of free discussion, with each intervenor given 3 minutes. There were a total of 180 interventions and 80 free discussion inputs. From October 13 to 16, the assembly was divided into 10 Circoli minori (small working groups), composed of an average 25 persons each, divided according to language groups. These groups discussed the content of the RPD and made recommendations for changes and other inputs.
The assembly returned in plenary on Oct 17 to 18. It produced the Nuntius or Message of the assembly to families. The revision of the RPD was also done and presented to the body as the Relatio Finalis or Relatio Synodi (RS). The RS was put to secret vote paragraph by paragraph (there were 62 paragraphs), with 2/3 needed to be accepted. There were 183 Synod Fathers present. The RS was accepted, except for 3 paragraphs that failed to get the 2/3 vote. The RS was submitted to the Holy Father as the fruit of the synod.
Pope Francis celebrated Holy Mass on October 19, where Pope Paul VI was beatified.
There will be a second synod in October 2015. This Ordinary Synod will have the theme “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Modern World.” In the meantime, the RS will be taken up by the particular churches (dioceses) throughout the world and deliberated on in the intervening year. The product of that synod will be submitted to Pope Francis, for him to issue the appropriate document for the whole Church.
The Situation of the Family
The family is under threat throughout the world, due to rapid developments in the past few decades in the socio-cultural and spiritual dimensions. There are those challenges that threaten the well-being of families, and challenges that threaten the very existence of the family.
Among the former are poverty, migration, materialism, armed conflict, individualism, children born outside marriage, one-parent families, abortion, polygamy (mainly in Africa). Among the latter are cohabitation, divorce, divorce and remarriage, same-sex unions/marriage, pornography. A common denominator of the latter set is that all have to do with sexuality. And indeed, the whole area of sexuality is the battleground where radical feminists and homosexualists are assaulting the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church.
The effect of loosening up in the area of sexuality, as is evidenced with what has happened to the Protestant Churches, is to weaken not only their witness to the world but also their own internal integrity and strength. These Churches are losing more and more members and are under serious threat of eventual disintegration. This is a historical lesson that we would be well warned to be mindful of.
The “Opposing” Values
The interventions and discussions at the synod reflected “opposing” values, with “opposing” put in quotes because the values are not really contradictory. The Synod Fathers by and large agreed on the basics of Church teaching on marriage, family, life and human sexuality. It could be said, for lack of better terms, that there were two sides—the traditionalists and the progressives. The latter desired a more liberal attitude towards cohabiting couples, homosexuals and those in irregular unions (divorced and remarried).
There were many tensions or “opposing” values that surfaced. They all had to do with traditional Church teaching versus liberalized pastoral approaches. In effect, they had to do with faith and culture. Or put another way, with doctrine and practice.
There was the question of justice versus mercy. God’s justice demands adherence to the law. On the other hand, God’s mercy reaches out to the suffering and marginalized.
Similar to this was the question of truth versus love. There is the objective truth of God’s law, which necessitates obedience. On the other hand, love conquers all.
There was the question of equality versus discrimination. All men are created equal, with equal worth and dignity as God’s children, and thus are not to be discriminated against, some say including access to the sacraments.
There was the question of doctrine versus practice. Doctrine may be clear and unchanging, but pastoral practice necessitates flexibility and adaptability.
There was the question of assuming the clarity of a teacher versus the tenderness of a mother.
There was the question of closed versus open doors. Is the Church to be rigid in upholding her Magisterium, or bold in opening even forbidden doors?
However, the most contentious paragraphs in the RPD were paragraphs 50, 51 and 53, all under the heading “Welcoming homosexual persons.” It could possibly be said that these paragraphs constituted the core of the tension between traditionalists and progressives.
Paragraph 50 said: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” Indeed. But so does everyone else. So what gifts, not as a person but in particular as a homosexual, would be beneficial to the Christian community? Paragraph 50 further stated: “Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation …?” But there is nothing to value in a homosexual orientation. Further, sexual orientation should not just be accepted as a given, since homosexuality can be a product of the social environment rather than genetic, and thus can change.
Paragraph 51 stated: “The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.” True enough. However, same-sex unions cannot be considered at all, even on a lower level, in relation to matrimony. If matrimony is a level 10, are we saying that same-sex unions can be a level 9 or 5? Same-sex unions are totally contrary to the ways of God. They are a total corruption of marriage. They are an abomination.
Paragraph 52 stated: “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.” Well, terrorists who blow themselves up make a huge sacrifice. Is that then to be admired? It also is not right to consider sin and evil as in any way giving precious support to such couples.
Most of these contentious statements were overturned through the work of the Circoli Minori and in the final Relatio Synodi. Despite this, three paragraphs in the RS were not accepted (lacked 2/3 vote). Two were paragraphs on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The third was a paragraph on homosexuality.
Pastoral Considerations in Facing the Challenges
The Church welcomes all of God’s children. In fact, she looks to those who are suffering, who are lost, who are marginalized or discriminated against, who have strayed away. However, such cannot be at the cost of diluting or setting aside Church teaching, which is intended to precisely bring people to God.
The Church treats all with the respect and dignity that is inherent to them as children of God. But treating with respect and dignity does not include condoning sin. To love others means to speak God’s truth to them.
We recognize that we are all sinners. However, that fact that we are sinners is not license to continue in sin, to make no overt move toward repentance. Jesus showed mercy and compassion, but he also told people to sin no more. Indeed, the ministry of Jesus was about mercy, but mercy is an invitation to repentance and reconciliation with God. It is false mercy that keeps a person comfortable in his sin. Jesus came into the world in order to win for us our salvation. Salvation can only come with repentance for sin and a turning to faith in Jesus.
The way for the Church is not to make it easier for those who are not fully living a life of faith. The Christian life is of the highest ideal. It is difficult and challenging. It entails great sacrifices. It is not meant to be easy. Rather, it is a call to embrace the very cross of Jesus.
On a Lighter Note
Pope Francis is truly a man of the people. He is simple, humble and unassuming. One manifestation of this was that during the morning coffee breaks, he freely mingled with everyone else. If he was not dressed all in white, one might even not have noticed him among the crowd.
The assault on faith, family and life continues unabated, and can be expected to intensify even more. The aim of the forces of the enemy is to destroy family and life, which are creations of God. To accomplish this, there is the need to destroy faith in God, to remove God completely from the picture, so that secular humanist values can predominate. It is only the Roman Catholic Church that stands in the way.
This synod did not come up with conclusions or plans of action yet. This extraordinary synod was in effect a preliminary discussion, an exchange of views among brother-bishops. There will be an ordinary synod in October 2015, after a one-year period of discussing the RS.
The pastoral situation remains difficult. Difficult decisions will have to be made. Can the procedures for matrimonial nullity be made simpler and speeded up? Can the Church consider spiritual communion for those in irregular unions? How can homosexuals be treated with due respect?
Pope Francis himself, in his closing address to the Synod Fathers, went back to the tension of opposing values. On the one hand, he spoke of “hostile inflexibility …. and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God.” This “is the temptation of the …. ‘traditionalists’.” On the other hand, the pope also speaks of “a destructive tendency to goodness, that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.” This “is the temptation of the …. ‘progressives and liberals’.”
Further, the pope spoke of “the temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy and painful fast; and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners ….” He spoke of “the temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfill the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.”
The issues are unsettled. The pastoral challenges remain.
What is the way forward? We stand for the unchanging truths of Christian morality, even as we treat all with charity and compassion. We also must not focus only on the problems being faced now, but look to how the Church can become stronger and more effective in her witness. Easy solutions might just result in greater problems later.
What are the unchanging truths?
First, the family is crucial for the life of people, of society, of the Church and of the world. It is a creation of God. As the family is being severely assaulted by the enemy, the Church must stand strong in its defense, enabling the family not just to survive but to thrive, even in a hostile environment.
Second, the focus must always be on Christ, and not on the human individual. Jesus looks to human beings, but we look to Christ. The most important and basic consideration in being able to resolve the pastoral challenges to the family is to have family members enter into an intimate personal relationship with Jesus.
Third, we are called to holiness, to be holy as God is holy. We are set apart, and are not to conform our lives to the world, and certainly not to the anti-family and anti-life directions of much of the world today. We are called to rise to the heights of Christian commitment. Indeed we are called to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.
In this, the way forward is the way of the cross. The Christian life is not about comfort and convenience, but of denying self and embracing the cross of Christ. It will be difficult and greatly challenging, but the sacrifices and pain are what in fact bring us closer to Christ.
Fourth, our Church is a missionary and apostolic church. She exists to evangelize, to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus to the world, to help bring people to life-giving conversion. Her goal is to gather the flock and to prepare this bride for the Bridegroom. We aim to make it to heaven, to live in eternal peace and joy with our Father.
Whatever developments are, now and in the future, we simply remain faithful to our call, to be true disciples of Jesus Christ and servants of our Church.
May the Holy Spirit continue to guide our Church, in this year of further deliberations, and forevermore.
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