ROME — In yet another unexpected turn in the Synod of Bishops, the bishops decided today to make all the discussions of the past week public, and those internal reports offer an x-ray of a divided summit on the family.
In a Vatican briefing today, Italian layman Francesco Miano, one of the synod participants, described the main fault line as running between truth and mercy — with one camp insisting on clarity about Church teaching, and another outreach to constituencies that don’t fully live it, including gays, the divorced, and people living together outside of marriage.
The reports have no official standing, and were described today by a Vatican spokesman as one step in a long and yet unresolved process. It marks the first time a synod has released these reports from its 10 small working groups, which are organized by language.
The documents suggest general agreement on the importance of restating that there’s only one role model of family promoted by official Church doctrine, which is that marriage is between a man and a woman and open to new life.
On the issue of a possible change in the Church’s ban on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, there are two basic positions expressed in the reports, for and against any chance, each with different shades.
South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier’s group, for instance, says that the Catholic Church has to “find the courage to knock on forbidden doors,” including the admission of the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist.
Although stating that the indissolubility of marriage isn’t in doubt, the group recommended “the examination of possible paths of repentance and discernment by which, in particular circumstances, a divorced and remarried person might participate in the sacraments.”
Another English group led by American Cardinal Raymond Burke, however, closed the door to the argument, denying the admission to the sacraments of divorced and re-married people, but included a “very positive and much–needed appreciation of union with Christ through other means.”
As for same-sex couples, the recommendations in general suggest a merciful and welcoming approach while maintaining a clear distinction between a gay union and a marriage.
A group lead by Italian Cardinal Fernando Filioni, who heads the Vatican’s powerful missionary department, concluded that “same sex unions can’t be equated to those between a man and a woman.”
A French-speaking group lead by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said that while discrimination against gays and lesbians should be denounced, “that doesn’t mean the church should legitimize homosexual practices and, even less, recognize so-called homosexual ‘marriage.’”
A second French group, led by Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, made a similar point, saying that to “pastorally accompany a person doesn’t mean to validate either a form of sexuality or a style of life.”
This issue triggered a tumult Monday, after an interim report from the synod expressed surprisingly positive language on same-sex unions and other relationships that fall outside the bounds of Church teaching.
“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 the interim report, which was largely authored by Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte.
When speaking of civil marriage and cohabitation, the interim report addressed “the law of gradualness” as a way to enter into a pastoral dialogue with those living together outside of wedlock.
That phrase is used in Catholic theology to suggest that morality is not an all-or-nothing proposition, and that people move toward it through different stages and at a different pace. More liberal theologians and bishops sometimes invoke it to defend greater tolerance in applying Church rules.
Burke’s group suggested that the synod should clarify that the bishops are not speaking of the “graduality of faith and morals,” but rather the gradual moral growth of the individuals.
The group that includes Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, whose academic background is in moral anthropology, and Australian Cardinal George Pell, the pope’s finance czar, said that due to the possible misinterpretation of the concept, it would be better not to include it on the synod’s final document.
In general, the Burke group pressed for more careful language in the outreach sections of the final document.
“Our amendments suggest that we express these carefully,” its report said, “so as not to create confusion in the minds and hearts of our people.”
A final version of the document will be voted on Saturday, the last day of the summit. The Vatican said today its publication date is not clear, since the working group producing it has to address hundreds of suggested amendments, many of them on relatively minor matters of language.
That commission is led by Forte and Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, and now has at least one member from each continent after Pope Francis added Napier and Australian Archbishop Denis Hart. American Cardinal Donald Wuerl from Washington, DC, is also part of the working group.
The task of the synod was to draw a picture of the family and the challenges facing the Church’s efforts to promote family life. Next October, another summit of Catholic prelates will gather in Rome to discuss the same issues.