ROME – In the wake of bitter controversy surrounding a private meeting with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis during his trip to the United States last week, Pope Francis has a chance beginning Sunday to get back “on message” with the opening of a Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome.
The Oct. 4-25 summit of prelates from around the world is a critically important moment for the pontiff, one he’s been building toward for more than a year. If past is prologue, however, he may face a stiff challenge in steering it toward his desired outcome.
On Friday, the Vatican issued a brief statement on the encounter with Davis, saying it was not intended to endorse her position “in all its particular and complex aspects.”
Whatever one makes of how the meeting happened, or what it ultimately says about Francis’ views – and theories on both matters abound – the big picture remains intact and works to validate a fairly firm conclusion about this pope.
To wit, Francis is positioned squarely in the middle of what Americans have come to know as the “culture wars.”
On one hand, Francis clearly upholds traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and the family. He believes those doctrines don’t make the Church the great “Doctor No” of the modern world, but rather mark out a path to genuine human fulfillment.
He also believes strongly in religious freedom, one of the core messages he came to the United States to deliver.
At the same time, Francis is also the pope of “Who am I to judge?” with regard to gay people trying to live faithful lives, recoiling from anything that makes Catholicism seem intolerant or merciless.
After all, although he met Davis, he also met a same-sex couple and voiced no objection when Mo Rocca, an openly gay TV personality, delivered a reading at his Mass at Madison Square Garden.
In that light, Francis appears to want two things from the synod.
First, he wants a balanced approach to hot-button issues such as homosexuality and Communion for the divorced and remarried, blending defense of tradition with new language and a new pastoral approach that emphasizes inclusion.
Second, he doesn’t want synod debates to be consumed by those issues.
When he talks about threats to the family, he typically takes a much broader view, including many other forces: unemployment, war, environmental calamities, a culture of exaggerated individualism and consumerism, neglect of both children and the elderly, and so on.
In his mind, the synod would likely be a failure if it doesn’t get around to considering those topics.
If recent experience is any guide, the pope may have his work cut out for him.
This synod is actually round two of a process that began last October with a first summit on the family. Back then, fierce debate broke out over homosexuality, the pastoral care of divorced Catholics, and what to make of other “irregular” relationships.
The hope had been that the year between the first synod and the second one might allow time to cool those tensions and find common ground, but there’s not a great deal of evidence that things have played out that way.
Instead, there seems to be a mounting tendency on all sides to suspect skullduggery and underhanded tactics.
In the run-up to this summit, a well-known journalist in Rome published an e-book asking whether last year’s edition of the synod had been “rigged,” implying that a cabal of progressives had tried to stack the deck in favor of a more permissive line on matters such as homosexuality and divorce.
On the other side, a minor Vatican aide announced on Saturday that he’s gay and happily in love, and called on all gay Catholics who have been “persecuted by the Church” to fight for their rights. Predictably, the official in question, Polish Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa, was swiftly fired from his Vatican position.
If these opening salvos are any indication, the synod may be defined not just by disagreements on substance, but also suspicions of Machiavellian maneuvers along the way. That’s not exactly a prescription for meeting in the middle.
More basically, the emotional intensity of the synod is amped up because of perceptions that the pope’s position is still a work in progress.
Whenever topics such as homosexuality and divorce are on the docket, feelings will run strong. What’s new now is a sense, however exaggerated, that movement might actually be possible. That’s elicited strong passions both from those who see such movement as desirable, and those who view it as alarming.
On Friday, a synod official tried to play down impressions of division.
“There’s no surprise about the fact that there are opposing opinions,” said Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who briefed reporters on the synod process.
True enough – there are more than 5,000 Catholic bishops in the world, and the idea that they’ll ever be in complete agreement is fantasy. What’s a bit more unusual, however, is to put those divisions on full public display. Yet that seems to be the forecast in Rome.
If Francis is to get the synod he wants, he may need to spend some political capital along the way to bring people together. Over the next three weeks, we’ll see if he’s got enough left in the bank to pull it off.
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A primer on the Synod of Bishops on the family
Family life is a towering priority for Pope Francis, reflected not only in his recent visit to Philadelphia to attend a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, but also in his unprecedented decision to convene two synods of bishops on the theme one year apart.
The first synod took place at the Vatican Oct. 5-19, 2014, and was, by any measure, an extraordinary affair.
To be honest, previous synods were generally sleepy affairs where the conclusions seemed pre-ordained and participants mostly phoned in their contributions without any real conviction it would influence the outcome. Given Francis’ determination to let the voices of the bishops be heard, however, prelates seemed to step out of their official personas one year ago and speak their minds, creating perhaps the most fascinating synod ever held.
It featured sharp clashes on many matters, but the clearest fault lines emerged on three key issues:
- Should the Church’s traditional ban on Communion for Catholics who divorce and then remarry civilly be relaxed?
- Should the Church adopt a more welcoming posture to same-sex couples?
- Should the Church take a more positive view of couples who live together outside marriage, along with other forms of what have traditionally been called “irregular” relationships, acknowledging some moral value to them even if they fall short of the ideal?
There’s little reason to believe the same issues won’t come up in this second edition, though Pope Francis recently has taken a step that may reduce some of the focus on the divorce question by implementing a reform of the annulment process.
Here’s a quick primer on the process, the issues, and what to expect.
The most important thing to grasp about a synod of bishops is that all appearances to the contrary, it is not the legislative branch of the Catholic Church. It has no power to vote anything in or out; at most, it can only make recommendations to the pope.
That said, Francis has signaled that he wants to govern collegially, meaning in concert with the other bishops of the world, and there’s every reason to believe he would take seriously recommendations that come to him with a strong consensus.
This time, the bishops will not release an interim report at the halfway point, in part because that document last time sparked controversy for its positive tone on same-sex relationships and other “irregular” unions.
Instead of the normal protocol of a week and a half of speeches before the full synod, followed by a mid-term report, this time the work will be divvied up week by week, with talks and then small group discussions each week.
The Vatican announced on Friday that the full texts of the reports from small working groups organized by language will be released, rather than simply brief summaries of their discussions. The Vatican will also hold daily briefings in which synod participants will provide updates, rather than media spokesmen.
The Vatican has even announced plans to set up a dedicated interview space near the synod, and to help journalists get notes to the bishops requesting interviews.
These steps are undoubtedly intended to counteract impressions from last time that synod officials were trying to spin the content of its discussions, among other things minimizing dissent from the interim report.
If all this comes to pass, the 2015 synod may deliver one of the more open Vatican gatherings in recent memory.
Finally, it’s important to recall that the drama of the synod doesn’t end on Oct. 25.
Instead it really only begins, because when the bishops say their final word, the ball will then be in the pope’s court – and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Francis, it’s that trying to predict what he may do is hazardous to your health.
Especially in light of the Kim Davis affair, there’s every reason to believe that the moral analysis of same-sex relationships and other “irregular” unions will surface again at the 2015 synod — with the new wrinkle of trying to figure out what a responsible approach to conscientious objection might look like.
One should remember, however, that the Kim Davis saga is basically an American story, and the rest of the world doesn’t feel the same passions about it that are presently circulating in the US.
While the pastoral care of divorced and remarried believers probably will generate discussion once again, Pope Francis may have taken some of the edge off by recently implementing a reform of the annulment process to make it faster, easier, and cheaper.
An “annulment” is a finding by a Church court that a relationship between a man and a woman, even if it involved a Church wedding and potentially years of living together, was never a sacramental marriage because it failed one of the tests for validity, such as informed consent or the psychological capacity to enter into the obligations of marriage.
The practical effect of receiving an annulment is that one is free to remarry in the Church. All along, such a reform loomed as the obvious compromise measure in the divorce debate, and by doing it in advance, Francis may have cleared space for other issues to emerge.
What might some of those issues be?
As noted above, when Pope Francis talks about threats to the family, he takes a 360-degree view: Youth unemployment, the abandonment of the elderly, the impact of immigration policies that split families apart, the fallout of war, ecological crises and poverty, and much else.
If this synod is able to focus more on those matters, it would thereby stage the conversation the pontiff appeared to want all along.
What to expect
When Pope Francis is involved in anything, predictions about what might happen are notoriously hazardous. That said, here are two bets about the 2015 Synod of Bishops that seem fairly safe.
First, watch for the African bishops to play a leadership role.
One of the most important bit of subtexts last time around was the emergence of the Africans as protagonists, no longer content to play the role of junior partners in Catholicism Inc. All signs are they’re planning to engage the synod aggressively again.
Second, the synod is likely to resemble an American political convention in the sense that every Catholic advocacy group with a cause to push or an axe to grind is likely to wash through Rome at one point or another, trying to influence its deliberations.
Just before the synod opened, two rival events on the Church and homosexuality were staged in Rome.
One was sponsored by Courage International and Ignatius Press, known for their commitment to orthodox Catholic teaching, and featured a couple of prominent cardinals who will be synod participants: Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea and Cardinal George Pell of Australia, both prominent Vatican officials.
The other, which is still underway, is sponsored by the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, is billed as bringing “LGBT voices to the synod,” and is intended to foster “inclusion, dignity, and equality for LGBT people, their parents, and families in the Catholic Church.”
These dueling events are merely a preview of coming attractions. While the action inside the synod itself is likely to be gripping, it’s merely a fraction of the overall story, which will also feature plenty of competing voices on the outside looking in.