Just a day before America’s big game, Pope Francis set the stage for the Vatican’s equivalent of the 2015 Super Bowl by confirming 48 prelates as members for October’s Synod of Bishops on the Family, after they had been chosen by their bishops’ conferences around the world.
It’s not yet a complete lineup; other bishops’ conferences still have to submit their picks. In addition, the pope presumably will appoint the heads of Vatican offices as members of the Oct. 4-25 summit, and also will make a handful of personal picks.
Looking only at Saturday’s crop, however, one point already seems clear: There’s absolutely no reason to believe the 2015 Synod of Bishops will be any less contentious than last year’s edition, which featured a vigorous, and occasionally nasty, back-and-forth over issues such as homosexuality and divorce.
On the contrary, the forecast for October seems to be for storms every bit as intense as those that erupted during the synod last fall. If anyone wondered whether Pope Francis might try to “stack the deck” in advance this time around, Saturday’s confirmations clearly seem to refute that idea.
A Synod of Bishops isn’t like the US Congress, in that it has no power to enact anything. Its lone role is to make recommendations to the pope, which this meeting is expected to do on a wide range of matters pertaining to family life.
The 2014 synod began that process by pondering lots of family issues, many of which proved non-controversial — the need for the Church to do a better job of supporting faithful married couples, for instance, and the desirability of greater social investment in families.
However, there was also fierce debate over three hot-button issues:
- How welcoming should the Church be to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people?
- How positive should the Church be about “irregular” relationships, such as living together without being married?
- Should divorced Catholics who remarry without first getting an annulment be able to receive Communion?
Based on the personalities now set to take part in the 2015 summit, the range of opinion that will be in the room on those issues appears fairly wide.
Just like last time, African prelates seem likely to emerge as voices for holding the line.
One of Kenya’s two representatives, for instance, is Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi, who’s well known for his outspokenness in defense of both Church teaching and African cultural mores. When US President Barack Obama came to Africa in 2008 and voiced support for legalizing gay marriage, Njue fired back.
“Those people who have already ruined their society … let them not become our teachers to tell us where to go,” he said. “I think we need to act according to our own traditions and our faiths.”
The other Kenyan, Bishop James Wainaina Kungu of Muranga, is known for promoting anti-AIDS programs in his diocese, called “Faithful House,” based on abstinence and fidelity rather than contraception.
Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Ghana, to take another example, recently posted an online petition in advance of the synod from a coalition of cultural conservatives around the world on his archdiocesan Facebook page.
That “filial appeal” to Pope Francis calls on the pontiff to make a clear statement against changing the Communion ban for the divorced and civilly remarried, and against any softening of the Church’s position on homosexuality.
Bishop Gervais Bashimiyubusa, president of the bishops’ conference of Burundi and another synod delegate, recently complained of Western efforts to promote contraception, calling it “a threat to all families in Burundi.”
In Latin America, the situation is more complicated, with strong voices among the synod members on both sides of the arguments.
From Argentina, Archbishop José María Arancedo told the newspaper La Nacion last October that “there might be an opening on the issue of the divorced and remarried.”
Cardinal Mario Poli, the pontiff’s successor in Buenos Aires, has struck a similarly flexible note, calling Communion for the divorced and remarried a “pastoral issue” that’s not connected to other matters of sexual morality such as gay marriage.
It’s interesting that the Argentine bishops made Archbishop Héctor Rubén Aguer of La Plata only a substitute, since Aguer is known as a more of a hard-liner who sometimes crossed swords with the future pope in debates within the conference.
Likewise in Chile, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati Andrello has struck moderate notes on marriage and family issues, among other things supporting civil unions for same-sex couples – though not full marriage rights.
On the other hand, Archbishop Antonio Arregui Yarza of Ecuador is an Opus Dei member who’s led the country’s bishops in opposing reproductive health measures and same-sex unions in a new national constitution adopted in 2008.
Most of Mexico’s four delegates to the synod also seem likely to align with the more conservative camp, including Bishop Rodrigo Aguilar Martínez of Tehuacán, who’s been vocal over the years against “ideologies that undermine the very concept of family.”
From the United States, the four members of the synod elected by the bishops’ conference all seem like fairly strong “no” votes against giving ground on the Church’s traditional positions.
They include Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, the president of the conference; Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the vice-president; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who will host Pope Francis in September for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families; and Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, the highest-ranking Hispanic in the US hierarchy.
In a Crux interview during the 2014 synod, Kurtz said that American bishops generally are leery of changing the rules for the divorced and remarried, saying they have “a great concern with maintaining the bond of marriage, the integrity of that bond.”
Some of the Asian prelates confirmed by Francis, however, seem more open to a rethink.
Archbishop Paul Bùi Văn Đọc of Vietnam, for instance, said in an interview last year that the issue of the divorced and remarried highlights a tension between “truth and charity,” and said there is no obvious answer, calling the problem “knotty.”
Likewise, there are strongly contrasting positions among several of the European bishops who will be on hand.
Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille in France has signaled openness to new approaches on family issues, saying during a Vatican press conference last year that the synod shouldn’t merely repeat familiar language regarding the Church’s teaching on marriage.
“That’s not what the Holy Father wants,” Pontier said.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the United Kingdom came away from last year’s synod saying he could support Communion for remarried divorcees after what he called a “demanding penitential pathway.”
On the other hand, there are also strong cultural conservatives among the Europeans, including Cardinal Wim Eijk of the Netherlands and Cardinal Audrys Bačkis of Lithuania, who may well join the effort to press back against such proposals.
Even from Oceania, it’s difficult to know how things may break.
The small bishops’ conference in New Zealand, for instance, could have sent its new Prince of the Church, Cardinal John Dew, who’s on record in favor of Communion for the divorced and remarried. Instead, Dew is a substitute and the delegate is Bishop Charles Drennan of Palmerston North, who’s taken a more subtle line on the divorced and remarried.
In a recent essay, Drennan warned that solutions proposed on the basis of mercy should not come at the expense of “the recognition of what is true,” apparently signaling at least some doubt about the reform position.
The bottom line is that roster unveiled Saturday does not augur for a clear consensus on the contested issues in the synod, making it probable that a divided body will be unable to deliver a clear thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the pope.
Instead, they’re likely to offer an x-ray of their divisions to the pontiff and leave the final calls up to him. Francis has not yet indicated how long after the close of the synod he plans to wait before making a decision on matters such as Communion for the divorced and remarried, and presumably the interval will depend to some extent on what he hears over those three weeks.
The drama thus may not be so much what the bishops say while they’re in Rome, but what Pope Francis decides after they go home.