ROME — Surprising words of appreciation for gays, couples living together outside marriage, and others that appeared yesterday in a working document from a summit of Catholic bishops in Rome have triggered a media tumult on the outside, and sharp debate on the inside.
While the Vatican tried to play down the significance of the document, insisting that it’s merely provisional, some bishops inside the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family seem to be taking it very seriously indeed.
During yesterday’s discussion, one bishop asked why the word “sin” seemed to be nowhere in the text, for instance, while another warned that it could encourage “conforming to the mentality of today’s world.”
The Vatican today released a summary of the discussion that followed release of the document, though without identifying speakers by name.
The midterm report, presented by Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, was intended as a summary of the synod’s conversation to date, and has no standing as a statement of church teaching. It likely will be significantly modified before a final version is adopted by the bishops on Friday.
One cardinal taking part in the synod told reporters today that some media coverage distorted a proper understanding of the document, falsely suggesting that it contained firm conclusions of the whole body.
“We’re now working from a position that’s virtually irredeemable,” said Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa.
“The message has gone out that this is what synod is saying, that this is what the Catholic Church is saying,” he said. “Whatever we say hereafter will seem like we’re doing damage control.”
Outside the synod hall, some prelates didn’t bother hiding their frustration with elements of the document.
In an interview with Catholic World Report, American Cardinal Raymond Burke said it contained things that “faithful shepherds … cannot accept,” and betrays an approach that is “not of the Church.”
Burke called on Pope Francis to issue a statement defending Catholic teaching, calling it “long overdue.”
Inside the synod, 41 prelates took part in the debate after the presentation of the document, including German Cardinals Walter Kasper and Gerhard Müller, Americans Timothy Dolan and Raymond Burke, Ghana Peter Turkson and the Patriarch Gregorio III Laham.
Although in general the Vatican summary said Erdo’s landmark document was appreciated for accurately capturing the synod’s conversation, warnings were issued that it might “give rise to confusion.”
Some bishops stressed the importance of speaking more widely about the families who remain faithful to the teachings of the Gospel.
“From the synod it emerged more clearly that indissoluble, happy marriage, faithful forever, is beautiful, possible and present in society,” the summary said, “therefore avoiding a near-exclusive focus on imperfect family situations.”
The summary states that some bishops highlighted the need for a more welcoming attitude towards homosexuals and couples living together outside of marriage, but “with the right prudence, so that the impression of a positive evaluation of such a tendency on the part of the Church is not created.”
The document read on Monday pondered at length on the situation of welcoming homosexuals.
“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?” asked Erdo’s summary of the synod’s discussion.
Some warnings were also issued regarding procedures for the streamlining of cases of marriage nullity, meaning a process under church law declaring that a marriage never existed. Erdo’s document suggested that one possibility was establishing an administrative means under the responsibility of diocesan bishops.
The unofficial summary suggested that this might “prove to be too great a burden” for local bishops.
The document prepared by Erdo originally was supposed to be prepared by the Hungarian cardinal together with Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte, the synod’s special secretary, and Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, head of the Vatican’s office for the synod of bishops.
But, in a clear sign of Francis’ personal role in the document, six other synod members were assigned to the document’s drafting committee, including American Donald W. Wuerl.
The synod continues now with the 200-plus members meeting in small groups, gathered by languages, to discuss the document presented by Erdo. A final summary will then be presented to Francis, and could eventually be used as the cornerstone document for the next synod on the family, to be held Oct. 4-25 2015.