Since Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, a little more than a year and a half ago, the Argentine has radically changed the tone and the mood surrounding the Catholic Church. But the question remained: How would he handle the difficult doctrinal issues of sexuality and family life that have divided the Catholic world? We are beginning to find out, in the work of the Vatican’s Synod on the Family, which opened in Rome this week and whose daily sessions continue until October 19th. On Monday, the synod produced a draft document with some preliminary conclusions, and it is something of a bombshell.
The draft report, read aloud to the synod by the Hungarian cardinal Peter Erdo, urges greater openness and understanding toward divorced individuals, remarried couples, couples who live together without being married, families with children from different marriages, homosexual couples, and mixed couples who practice different religions. Among the more startling passages in the draft is one that suggests allowing divorced people to receive communion—a longstanding prohibition that has kept many who consider themselves Catholic away from the Church. It stops short of suggesting the same step be taken for remarried couples, but advocates for making annulment easier. And the document contains far more positive language about homosexuality than the Church is accustomed to using:
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
Pope Francis finds himself in a daunting position. His immediate predecessors, from Paul VI to Benedict XVI, seemed to lock the church into a series of positions—on divorce, contraception, sexuality, the celibate priesthood, the ordination of women, and homosexuality—that are at radical variance with the beliefs and practices of the majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. This has created disillusionment and cynicism, and a sense among many Catholics that the Church understands little about their lives; lapsed Catholics are the second-largest denomination in the United States. Francis is clearly intent on narrowing this distance. He has emphasized pastoral care rather than doctrinal purity, saying he wants a clergy that is so close to its flock that they are like “shepherds living with the smell of sheep.” The draft synod document reflects those concerns. While not sanctioning divorce or premarital sex, it asks for an effort by the Church to turn “respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.” This is a Franciscan document.
Although the synod sessions are private, the debate has spilled into the public sphere, with duelling interviews among cardinals, press briefings, and volleys of tweets, including by the Pope. (Tweeting from the sessions themselves is forbidden.) Technically, the synod will end a year from now, with a longer and larger session next October, but a savvy Vatican press office is releasing selected documents and summaries.
Francis may face an intense internal battle over some of these points. In the months leading up to the meeting, battle lines among the most influential cardinals became clear. Back in March, the prominent German cardinal Walter Kasper gave a major address to a consistory of cardinals suggesting that the Church change the ban on divorced Catholics receiving communion. “We need a change in paradigm, and we need—like the good Samaritan—to consider the situation from the position of someone who suffers and asks for help,” he said. Clearly alarmed, another powerful German cleric, Cardinal Ludwig Müller, the prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, insisted that this was out of the question. He was then joined by four other cardinals, whose public statements were compiled in a book, published just before the opening of the synod—a highly unusual move intended quite blatantly to nip the idea in the bud in advance of the meeting. Pope Francis had explicitly praised Cardinal Kasper’s speech, and so within the Vatican this qualified as a revolt.
The Catholic Church has survived for more than two thousand years by adapting shrewdly to the world’s changes while insisting that its message has remained the same. It has done so with great theological finesse, insisting, for example, on the difference between essential Church doctrine and doctrinal positions that are merely well-established traditions. Priestly celibacy, for example, was only clearly established in the Middle Ages—before that, and for centuries afterward, there were many married priests. Showing considerably less prudence, the current Pope’s immediate predecessors tried to bind the Church tightly to a series of doctrinal prohibitions designed to be difficult, if not impossible, to undo. Pope John Paul II pronounced that the non-ordination of women was “definitive” and “irrevocable.” Traditions can become dogma, and breaking free of these strictures would be the doctrinal equivalent of one of Harry Houdini’s famous escape acts. Francis, if he wants to change them, must do so without actually appearing to have done so.
In calling for a synod on the family, Francis followed a precedent set by John Paul II in 1980. But this new gathering has a very different tone. John Paul made it clear that he would brook no dissent on the Church’s teachings regarding sexuality and family life, while Pope Francis has given the impression that all subjects are open—at least for discussion. “The Lord asks of us a renewed openness,” Francis said, in a homily in Saint Peter’s basilica on the eve of the synod. “He asks us not to close off dialogue and encounter but to gather everything that is valid and positive, even by those who think differently from ourselves and adopt different positions.”
In truth, the atmosphere of the synod has so far had more in common with the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII, whose explicit aim wasaggiornamento—updating the church to respond more effectively to the challenges of the times. The sense of ferment is palpable to both progressives and conservatives within the Church, who use after-hours interviews to push debate in the direction they desire. Monsignor Victor Manuel Fernández, the rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires, who is close to Francis, told reporters about how the Pope had puckishly tweaked Cardinal Müller, the Vatican’s keeper of doctrinal orthodoxy, telling the assembled bishops, “Speak clearly, don’t think that Cardinal Müller is going to pounce on you!”
The traditionalists have made it clear that they do not intend to budge. “As Christians, we follow Christ,” Cardinal George Pell, of Australia, told reporters. “Some may wish Jesus might have been a little softer on divorce, but he wasn’t. And I’m sticking with him.” They bristle at the notion that you can evade the rules by separating pastoral duty from doctrinal truth. “Every authentic pastoral action must be doctrine, lived truth,” Cardinal Walter Brandmüller told La Repubblica, reiterating, among other things, the traditional position on homosexuality: that it is “objectively disordered” and that homosexuals can live in the Church only if they remain chaste. “The old formula applies: no to the sin, open arms to the person,” he said.
One idea that has emerged at the synod is that of “graduality”; that certain behaviors, although contrary to doctrine, can nonetheless lead people on the right path. Pope Benedict XVI, a doctrinal traditionalist, acknowledged that it was right for a prostitute with AIDS to use condoms. While this did not constitute a change in the Church’s stance against birth control (or prostitution), it was a recognition that taking care not to transmit a deadly disease to others is a moral act that points a person in the right direction. In opening the synod, Cardinal Erdo invoked the idea of graduality in speaking about the birth-control encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” In a briefing session for journalists, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, of Great Britain, said that graduality “permits people, all of us, to take one step at a time in our search for holiness in our lives.”
The draft report refers directly to gradualness as a key to welcoming those whose lives are imperfect but who wish to be welcomed in the Church. Referring to unmarried couples, the document says:
When a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage.
The document added, “What rang out clearly in the Synod was the necessity for courageous pastoral choices.” And the Church, the draft report said, had to attend to “her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love.”