In the run-up to last October’s synod of bishops on the family, one of the more sensational developments was the Vatican’s decision to ask bishops around the world to survey the grassroots on matters such as same-sex marriage, divorce and remarriage, and cohabitation outside marriage.
Some bishops’ conferences made a big deal of the questionnaire, even creating online opportunities for people to submit reactions, while others played it down out of concern that raising these questions risked a false impression that Church teaching is up for grabs. In hindsight, it was an early hint that the synod would be a tumultuous experience.
Apparently, the old saying “once bitten, twice shy” doesn’t apply to a synod of bishops.
On Tuesday, the Vatican released the lineamenta, or preparatory document, for the next synod called by Pope Francis for October 2015, also focused on the family. The document contains 46 questions covering much of the same ground as last time, even if the wording is designed to make clear that the basics of Catholic doctrine aren’t in doubt.
For instance, the term “indissolubility” appears in the document four times, underlining the traditional teaching that marriage is permanent and hence divorce is taboo. There are also multiple references to “greatness and beauty” of the “model of family formed by a man and a woman … and open to procreation.”
There are clear references to the Church’s ban on birth control, to condemning the “plague of abortion,” and to promoting “an efficient culture of life.”
Tuesday’s document was released in Italian, with a statement that translations in the various languages would soon be sent to bishops’ conferences. It asks that responses to the questions be submitted to Rome by April 15.
At the last synod, three issues above all emerged as the major points of division:
- How welcoming should Catholicism be of homosexuals and of people living in same-sex unions?
- How positive should Catholicism be in its evaluation of “irregular” relationships, such as living together outside marriage? Although these situations aren’t ideal, do they still possess positive values?
- Should Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church be allowed to receive communion?
If the questions published Tuesday are any indication, debate over those matters is not resolved.
Divorce and remarriage
On the issue of communion for the divorced and remarried, question 38 reads: “Pastoral and sacramental care for the divorced and remarried needs further study, evaluating the Orthodox practice and keeping in mind ‘the distinction between an objective situation of sin and extenuating circumstances.’”
“What are the perspectives in which to move?” it asks. “What are the possible steps? What suggestions are there for eliminating types of impediments that aren’t warranted or necessary?”
The reference to “Orthodox practice” is something frequently cited by advocates of relaxing the communion ban. Orthodox Churches generally permit only one sacramental marriage, but will bless a second or third union under certain circumstances if the initial marriage fails.
In other words, the phrasing does not close off the possibility of some change.
Also in terms of care for divorced persons, question 37 asks how to make the process of obtaining an annulment, a declaration that a marriage never existed under Church law, “more accessible and simple, possibly for free?”
There was a strong consensus at the last synod on reform of the annulment process, and Pope Francis has already created a commission of church lawyers to study the possibilities.
On homosexuality, question 40 asks: “How can the Christian community direct its pastoral attention to families that contain persons with a homosexual tendency?”
“Avoiding any unjust discrimination, in what way can it take care of persons in these situations in the light of the Gospel?” it asks. “How should the exigencies of the will of God be proposed in their situation?”
The question is introduced with the observation that “pastoral care of persons with a homosexual tendency today poses new challenges, due in part to the manner in which their rights are socially proposed.”
Whatever the wording, the presence of the question suggests that this issue too will be in the mix during next October’s summit.
In terms of “irregular” relationships, question 21 asks how people in these situations can be shown “an attitude of welcome and trusting accompaniment, without ever renouncing the proclamation of the exigencies of the Gospel?”
Question 22 asks: “What can be done so that in the various forms of unions – in which it’s possible to find human values – men and women perceive respect, trust and encouragement to grow in good on the part of the church, and are helped to reach the fullness of Christian marriage?”
Argument at the last synod over what it means to say there can be positive values in such situations was intense, and the wording of this question may reignite the debate.
To be sure, these three points aren’t the heart of the questionnaire. It’s largely focused on how the traditional pillars of Christian life, such as the sacraments, the Bible, and priestly formation, can be better utilized to support couples and families.
Question 23, for example, asks: “In the formation of priests and other pastoral workers, how can the family dimension be cultivated? How can families themselves be involved?”
A statement from the Vatican’s synod office says it will be up to bishops’ conferences around the world to decide how to involve “diverse components of particular churches, as well as academic institutions, organizations, lay groups and other ecclesial bodies” in answering these questions.
The statement also urges bishops to do everything possible to avoid “starting over from zero,” but rather to take account of what already happened in the first synod.
One thing that happened last time, however, was intense clash on the three hot-button issues noted above, and there’s little about the new questionnaire to suggest they won’t be in play next October as well.