ROME — When Pope Francis launched a two-year process last October to discuss family issues, including contentious topics such as divorce and sexuality, he ran the risk of raising the faithful’s expectations too high, and then not delivering.
And with some bishops pushing for the synod to proclaim established teaching even more boldly, one synod delegate fears the laity will once again feel that its leaders are out of touch.
Abbot Jeremias Schröder, president of the Congregation of Sant’Ottilia, pointed to Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical that reiterated the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception, which he said caused many lay Catholics to lose confidence in their bishops.
Some bishops at the synod have proposed reaffirming the document “full stop,” which he opposes because, as he put it, “Humanae Vitae is the document that caused two-thirds of our faithful, in many Western Churches, to lose faith in the hierarchy, because they think they are talking about things they don’t understand.”
“To just affirm that again brings everybody back to that moment of suspicion, of distrust,” said Schröder, who leads a Benedictine congregation that includes about 1,000 monks in 21 countries.
But that doesn’t mean the Church should simply ignore difficult teachings, either.
“If you affirm the fundamental values and principles that are embodied in Humanae Vitae, however, I think people can agree with that,” he said.
Schröder is one of 10 representatives of religious orders at the synod, and his vote carries as much weight as any cardinal or bishop. He spoke to Crux at Rome’s Pontifical College of Sant’Anselmo Wednesday.
Although German by birth and stationed near Munich, Schröder nonetheless participated in one of the English-language small groups, which he said better reflected the multicultural character of his congregation.
Still, he supports many of the ideas that have been floated by his German peers.
For example, he said he hopes the synod considers ways to re-incorporate the divorced and remarried into the life of the Church. Whether that means opening up Communion, or allowing them to serve as godparents, he said “practical results” from the synod are essential for it to be considered a success.
“I think that in general, pastoral responses can be shaped more clearly according to circumstances,” he said, saying he supports efforts to decentralize the Church on some issues.
When it comes to marriage generally, several bishops have called on Pope Francis simply to reiterate established teaching because it has remained unchanged for 2,000 years.
Schröder, however, noted that marriage has gone through many changes in the history of the Church.
“You find that a church wedding in the Western Church comes in about 1,000 years ago, not in the beginning as some people say,” he said. “The way of dealing with failed marriages has been very different throughout history as well.”
“And just to spell that out, to make it clear we are living in a history that has shaped and evolved, and not just in a constant tradition that’s been immovable for 2,000 years, I think that would have helped,” he continued.
One of the fault lines that has emerged among bishops is between boldly restating Church teaching or acknowledging that it has largely fallen on deaf ears and thus requires that clergy engage individuals who might not be living lives in harmony with that teaching.
Schröder said Benedictines have been grappling with this issue for centuries.
“The rule of St. Benedict, in his wisdom, talks about encouraging the weak while not disheartening the strong,” he said. “In our tradition, it’s very clear that you take care of the needs of the individual, and at the same time, maintain the character of the community. Those two shouldn’t be played off against each other.”
He said it’s not true that “the moment you are lenient or merciful in the one instance, you weaken whole doctrine.”
“I think for a [member of a religious community], that it would be much easier to understand how these two do not harm each other,” he said.
On the issue of how the Church talks about challenging pastoral situations, Schroeder said an update in language would be useful.
For example, he said the phrase “intrinsically disordered” as related to gay and lesbian Catholics is not “a helpful phrase.”
Zooming out a bit, he told a story about one of his monks who was raised by his mother and her long-term boyfriend, who had moved in when the boy was just a year old after his father walked out on the family.
“It’s cohabitation, in the terminology that we use now,” he said. “But when they come to see me, I don’t think, ‘Oh, the sinners are here again.’ I think, ‘Oh, the parents of my confrere are here,’ as they are basically his family. I don’t have to judge all the time.”
Schröder echoed the concerns of some Catholics who have lamented the lack of theologians at the synod, calling “the occasional theological contribution” rather “banal.”
Early on in the synod process, several participants expressed concern about the structure; 13 cardinals even wrote a letter to Pope Francis challenging the changes. Schroeder said that incorporating some aspects from religious orders could be helpful.
“We have developed general chapters over centuries that are quite efficient in bringing positions together, fleshing out where the differences are, seeing what common ground there is, where we can move forward together,” he said, referring to the method of dialogue monasteries use to consider important questions about the life of the community.
One of the key differences between the synod and a monastery, however, is that monks pledge to live together for life, whereas a synod bishop will “go home afterward, and may not see his fellow synod fathers ever again,” he said.
“The fact that you know you’re bound together for life prevents you from going to the extremes. You don’t want to rock the boat, you’re aware you’re sitting in the same boat,” he said.
One of the challenges a body as diverse as the Catholic Church faces is coming to a consensus on challenging issues, and Schröder pointed to the pope as an asset in this regard.
“What do I expect from the end of the synod?” he asked. “A strong word from the pope.”
“The pope made it so clear that the Bishop of Rome is where the synodal process ends, comes to fruition, comes to fulfillment,” he said. “From my experience of the synod, I find that very important.”
“There is no other body in the world that is so diverse, and at the same time has the stated goal to achieve clarity, produce a forceful statement,” he said. “With the United Nations, you see how bland that often is. We have the same diversity here, but we’ll be able to do a bit more thanks to the Petrine Office.”
Synod bishops are expected to vote on the final document Saturday, at which point it will then be passed on to Pope Francis.
What happens after that remains anyone’s guess.