ROME – A dramatic Vatican summit of bishops ended Saturday night by significantly watering down an opening to both gays and divorced and remarried Catholics contained in an interim report released Monday.
Paragraphs on those two points were the only items that failed to receive a two-thirds majority of the Synod of Bishops in voting on its final document. While there’s no magic to the two-thirds threshold in this sort of Vatican ballot, the results clearly reflect a divided hierarchy on both issues.
The interim document’s bold and welcoming language that had stirred hopes and controversy around the world was reworked in considerably more cautious terms, with the paragraph on homosexuality expressing welcome but insisting same-sex relationships cannot be compared with marriage, and the one on divorce and remarriage only calling for further study. Yet both generated significant “no” votes: The former broke 118-62, and the latter drew 104 in favor and 74 opposed.
A Vatican spokesman said that means they did not reflect “a strong consensus of the entire synod.”
Given the sometimes intense debate that surfaced during the two-week synod, the final document is probably an honest reflection of where they stand — which is that for every bishop ready for daring change, there’s another worried about abandoning Catholic tradition.
The synod’s final report, released by the bishops Saturday night, was called a “compromise document” by Brazilian Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis. In context, he meant an attempt to reconcile a moderate-to-progressive camp that pushed for greater openness, and conservatives worried about blurring church teaching.
That tracks with what Pope Francis told the bishops in a 10-minute speech at the end, saying that the Catholic Church needs to chart a middle course between “hostile rigidity” and a “false sense of mercy.”
The Church, Francis said, must neither “throw stones at sinners, the weak and the ill,” nor “come down off the cross” by accommodating itself to “the spirit of the world.”
The pope received a five-minute standing ovation.
The document is intended as a guide to discussion over the next year, ahead of a larger Synod of Bishops called by Pope Francis for October 2015. At the end of that process, it will still be up to Francis to decide what to do.
Francis decided to publicly release the paragraph-by-paragraph vote totals for the document, which demonstrate that the issues of how much opening to show for gays, and whether to open the door to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, remain the most controversial issues.
Last Monday, the progressive camp notched a victory with an interim report containing surprisingly appreciative language about same-sex unions and other relationships the Church considers “irregular.”
On Thursday, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany, one of the leaders of the reform camp, defended that approach.
“Take the case of two homosexuals who have been living together for 35 years and taking care of each other, even in the last phases of their lives,” he said. “How can I say that this has no value?”
That sort of talk stirred strong pushback from bishops concerned that “welcome” and “positive elements” could be read as code-words for the Catholic Church going soft on its moral teaching.
One of the leaders of that camp was American Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, who used a series of media interviews to insist that Pope Francis owes the world a clear statement that Church teaching has not changed.
By midweek, the conservative uprising was strong enough that the synod made the unprecedented decision to publish all the internal reports of the small groups that debated the interim report, providing an x-ray of a divided summit.
A group led by Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, for instance, insisted that to “pastorally accompany a person doesn’t mean to validate either a form of sexuality, or a style of life.”
As a result, the final document is more cautious than Monday’s interim report, saying that gays and lesbians must be “welcomed with respect and delicacy” and must not suffer “unjust discrimination,” but also reaffirming there is “no basis” for comparing, “even remotely,” same-sex relationships with marriage between a man and a woman.
On whether Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church ought to be able to receive Communion, the final document restricts itself to noting that both positions had passionate advocates and suggesting that the issue needs further study.
The report did say that a “great number” of bishops support a faster, simpler, and ideally free system for granting annulments, a declaration from the Church that a union was never a marriage because it didn’t meet one of the tests for validity. Practically, it allows someone to have a second Church wedding.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines seemed concerned that the results may come across as a rollback of the new openness signaled on Monday.
“Some people … might sense that the welcoming, the space that’s been opened, was suddenly closed,” he said in an interview with Crux on Saturday. “That is not the case …the openness remains.”
The compromise language illustrates two points.
First, as Italian layman Francesco Miano put it on Thursday, there’s a clear tension both in the synod and the wider Church between truth and mercy. Everyone agrees they belong together, but there’s a strong difference between those who stress one or the other.
Second, there’s no reason to believe those differences will be harmonized before the next Synod of Bishops in 2015.
At the end of the day, therefore, the only question that really matters is: When this extraordinary two-year process of reflection ends, what will Pope Francis do?