Wine is the sacerdotal drink of liturgical worship. So assessing the quality of the International Synod on the Family’s three weeks old vin ordinaire of October 2015 and its vintage produce of 2014 depends on whether a gentleman sees his glass half full or half empty; but if a lady wishes to partake, there is no cup provided for her at the all-male table.
This gender analogy helps explain former president Mary McAleese’s complaint that the menu offered by the synodal fathers to Pope Francis in their final report on Saturday October 24 ‘produced nothing new’, a view reinforced by The Observer’s news report the following day that ‘Vatican synod holds its line on gay couples but offers new hope to Catholic divorcees. Bishops confirm Catholic teaching on the ‘intrinsic disorder’ of homosexuality’.
Over 66 pages and 94 paragraphs of the final report secured the necessary two-thirds, 177-vote majority with voting sheets showing that the three articles dealing with the divorced and remarried were the most contentious. While St. Pope John Paul II’s teaching on marriage in the 1981 encyclical Familiaris Consortio, was reaffirmed, the final report omitted the critical sentence forbidding Communion for the divorced and remarried.
The Irish Church’s two representatives, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, tried to soften Dr McAleese’s displeasure by insisting that the cocktail did highlight the role of women in rearing children, but did not contest her charge that ‘the old boys club’ was sticking to its traditional policy of not admitting the women into the Lord’s vineyard and was still implicitly insisting that women should stay at home, preferably in subordinate silence. Archbishop Eamon Martin said that - without in any way changing the church’s teaching on homosexuality - reaching out to gay people in their families and to gay people themselves was now a pastoral imperative, not just an extra. 1. See Synod on the family produced nothing new, says McAleese, Irish Times, October 27, 2015. Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin defend Synod document, Irish Times, October 24, 2015.
Closer to McAleese than the Martins was the liberal minded lay group, We Are Church Ireland, whose spokesman Brendan Butler hoped that Pope Francis will exercise his authoritative role later this year in favour of those who remain marginalised at the peripheries of the Catholic Church, particularly ‘gay and lesbian people, the divorced and remarried and the position and the recognition of the dignity of women.’
However, English, American and continental Europe connoisseurs concurred with the two Martins. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton said that despite the many difficulties which arose during the three weeks of plenary sessions and circuli minori, Pope Francis remains positive about a new pastoral framework. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington DC summed up a new pastoral course for Catholicism set by the Synod, in which he reportedly played a key role, as being: ‘What does the gospel really say here?’
Catholic Church Reform International, (CCRI), noted approvingly that the Synod ended in ‘a win for the progressive camp’ with the report’s emphasis on ‘the role of discernment and individual conscience in dealing with difficult family situations, especially the vexing issue of whether civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion.’ CCRI noted that the three paragraphs dealing with the question of admitting divorced couples to Communion: ‘barely reached the two-thirds majority needed to pass, but conservatives couldn't muster enough votes to shoot them down. While the document doesn't chart any specific path to receiving Communion as originally sought by the liberals, it opens the door to case-by-case exceptions. The most controversial paragraph 85 supporting a case-by-case approach when dealing with remarriage since not everyone bears the same responsibility for the preceding divorce - only cleared by a single vote.’ This became embodied in the new buzz concept of the Synod, known as ‘the internal forum’, involving diocesan priests finding pastoral ways to enable divorcees, the remarried and cohabitating couples to receive the sacraments ‘to discern the extent to which the ‘external forum’ ideal of church law applies to their subjective situations’. Diarmuid Martin said that the Synod had ‘very clearly’ attempted to arrive at a consensus, adding: ‘It shows that doors that seem to be closed can be opened and that there is a way forward... It keeps saying that each situation has to be examined individually...but it gives the idea that there is an internal forum where individual cases can be dealt with, in discussions with the priest or the bishop, again always saying that this should be based on universal Church law as well.’
In a plumy but sober voice the BBC opined that: ‘Doctrine towards divorcees has been softened but there is no change in the church's stance on homosexuality. The final report reiterates church teaching that homosexuals should not be discriminated against but said there were ‘absolutely no grounds’ for gay marriage. Similarly, Gerard O’Connell told readers of the Jesuit Review, America, that the Synod’s approval of the final document ‘leaves the door open for the Pope to move forward on key issues.’ Also giving their support to this ‘flexibility’ interpretation were Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops conference, who described the report as ‘a real step forward’ in the pastoral care of the divorced and civilly remarried; and Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn O.P. of Vienna, who said the report was ‘a call for careful discernment’.
Discernment, Schonborn explained, would involve:
recognising that the amount of blame different persons bear for a broken marriage
and the different situations which led them to remarry vary widely. Therefore, the
consequences in terms of absolution and Communion vary as well. 2. For an illuminating analysis of the role of discernment in the Jesuit Pope Francis’s devotional approach which is rooted in St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises see ‘Discernment and the Synod on the Family by Gerry O’Hanlon S.J. in Doctrine and Life, September 2015.
However, the brash twang of the de facto leader of conservative-minded prelates known as intransigents, Australian Cardinal, George Pell, warned that the report ‘did not create an opening for the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Communion’, and he stressed that discernment had to be based ‘on the full teaching of Pope John Paul II and the teaching of the church in general.’ Pell, Prefect of the Roman Curia’s Secretariat for the Economy, was the most prominent among the sizeable group of intransigents who included two other cardinals heading Curia offices, Marc Ouellet, French Canadian Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and Guinean Robert Sarah, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, who reportedly scared members of the Synod by likening gender ideology and ISIS to two Apocalyptic beasts with ‘demonic origins’. In the ‘No Surrender’ media camp was journalist David Quinn, who in the Irish Catholic argued that changing the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage – with its accompanying moral judgement that divorcees live in mortal sin and thus exclude themselves from Eucharist - would be anything but merciful.
However, the Pell axis proved to be out of step with Pope Francis’s response at the Synod’s closing Mass in St Peter’s on Sunday October 25 when the Pontiff, stressing that ‘today is the time of mercy’, said that the Synod had ‘laid bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church's teachings or good intentions, in order to sit on the chair of Moses and judge with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families’, a clear distancing from the Pellites. He also described the Synod’s discussions as a way to ‘open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints’, with the aim of ‘carefully studying and confronting challenges to the traditional family ‘without burying our heads in the sand.’ His invitation to the bishops to speak their minds freely has not only made Synods less uno voce but has also enabled him to identify stragglers and blockers! His carefully chosen reference to ‘conspiracy theories’ was a calculated denial of a widely-published news story which originated with an Italian publication, Il Quotidiano Nazionale. The newspaper claimed that earlier this year Francis privately met a Japanese consultant in the north Italian city of Pisa who diagnosed a small, non-malignant tumour in his brain, a report without any factual foundation, according to the Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi S.J.
Personal stories of prelates who came out of the shadows illuminate more vividly the vaguer references to ‘challenges’ used in the collective synodal text. For example, Cardinal Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, with whom I discussed the Synod while attending the centennial Thomas Merton conference this summer in his archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, spoke eloquently of how his late elder brother, George, born with Downs Syndrome, lived with him in two rectories and a bishop’s house ‘transforming these abodes into homes in a way never anticipated.’
In conversation on the Borgo Pio with Eamon Martin, the Archbishop of Armagh recalled to me how Merton was cited as one of four representatives of American culture (along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day) during his address to Congress in Washington and as a first time Synoder was enthused by listening to so many different experiences. He found particularly moving various contributions on the plight of refugee and migrant families.
Another important player, Cardinal Oscar Gracias of Bombay, when interviewed on CNN, played down differences and claimed that ‘everybody has pulled his head from the sand’ on contentious issues which were considered closed. But I remain sceptical that ‘the ostriches’ have gone away. So too apparently is Dr McAleese who said: ‘It is, worryingly the first Synod to challenge the will of a Pope and so much more important than the Synod’s report will be the Holy Father’s written response to it. Whether that is to be a climbdown or a showdown remains to be seen.’
Brendan Butler of We Are Church has called on Pope Francis to act and exercise leadership when his post-Council Exhortation is published, probably when he opens the Jubilee Year of Mercy on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Mr Butler anticipates that the Pope will show his mettle, citing the mid-Synod discourse in which the Pontiff said that ‘the Synod journey culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome called to speak authoritatively as the Pastor and Teacher of all Christians.’
For all his encouragement of a listening Church, Francis has remained particularly deaf towards the ordination of women and acceptance of same sex relationships. In addition to provoking the ire of Dr McAleese’s stricture that it is ‘bonkers’ not to allow the participation of women at the Synod, Francis has also baffled Fr Thomas Reese, the American Jesuit commentator for the National Catholic Reporter. Fr Reese found himself at the centre of international attention when he asked at a press briefing why a religious brother, Herve Janson, the superior general of the Little Brothers of Jesus, was selected by the International Union of Superiors General to be one of their 10 voting representatives at the Synod. Pointing out that the other nine were priests, Fr Reese asked why couldn’t a religious sister speak and vote. ‘Theologically and canonically, he (Br Janson) is no different from the superior of a women's religious order, except for his gender. He is not a cleric. He is not ordained.’ His question remains unanswered! – and if I am correct, a proposal early on in the Synod from Canadian Archbishop Paul Andre Durocher for a consideration of the admission of women to the diaconate did not materialise in the final report. Urging the Synod to seek ways to open up more opportunities for women in church life, Archbishop Durocher suggested that, ‘where possible, qualified women should be given higher positions and decision-making authority within church structures and new opportunities in ministry.’
Having applauded Archbishop Durocher’s initiative, Bridget Mary Meehan, a bishop in the excommunicated Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, described the Synod’s Final Report as ‘a setback’ for Pope Francis’s agenda of inclusiveness and compassion to Catholics on the margins. ‘The sad reality is the Synod, no surprise, was a male only event, even though women make up half of humanity,’ she added. ‘Francis has spoken about expanding the roles of women in leadership in the church, but his actions have not matched his words. One immediate step that Pope Francis could take is to lift excommunications and punishments toward Catholics who follow their consciences including women priests and our supporters.’
No such clemency came from Rome for the 220-strong worldwide Roman Catholic Women Priests. Instead, a Cincinnati nun, Sister Letitia ‘Tish’ Rawles, was excommunicated and dismissed from her religious order towards the end of the Synod after admitting she had been secretly acting as a priest since spring. Sr Tish, 67, who is terminally ill, admitted to her superiors that she has presided over religious services in secret and ministered to people who lived with her in a Cincinnati nursing care facility.
Furthermore, despite Pope Francis's professed appreciation of ‘the feminine genius’, women still have not been granted ‘a proper place in decision-making in the Church’, wrote Baroness Nuala O'Loan, the former Northern Ireland Ombudsman and member of the House of Lords. Writing in the Irish Catholic Baroness O’Loan argued that the Church would be a better place if it enabled women to play a full role in proper, structured decision making. ‘The problem seems to be the joining of the decision-making process in the Church to the fact of ordination. Only the ordained can make decisions, and women cannot be ordained, she continued. ‘What we need to do as a Church is to separate decision-making from the issue of who can be ordained. Then we could work out how to give women a proper place in decision-making in the Church. This would mean the amendment of Canon Law, and probably the removal of Canon 129, which allows lay people only to cooperate, not to participate in decision-making. This could be done. The priesthood could continue to be reserved to men, yet women could have a full role in decision-making.’
Pope Francis and the bishops also chose to turn a deaf ear to a pre-Synod plea to accept same sex relationships by a Polish priest working in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). At a news conference 43 year old Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa introduced his long-term partner and claimed that the Catholic Church is ‘full of homosexuals’. Just days after the Synod’s conclusion, Mgr Charamsa was dismissed from his post. In their final report the bishops also criticised international bodies which they said were pushing poor countries to introduce same-sex marriage laws with the promise of aid.
Now that the bishops have returned to their dioceses and the Curia continues its work in Rome without their oversight Pope Francis is preparing his future magisterial document. He does so after two years and seven months of his pontificate with his authority and prestige enhanced at the two Synods; his popularity successfully tested by his pastoral visits to Cuba and the United States of America, as well as his Motu Proprio speeding up and reducing the costs of church annulments and the welcome given to his encyclical Laudato Si on the Environment and climate change. He appears to have given a great degree of respectability to synodality which he calls a process, as distinct from events. Yet, my view remains that Synods are largely talking shops among a select elite of male bishops: at best, it is a limited application of the Second Vatican Council’s call for coresponsibility in the Church; at worse its secrecy lends itself to undue influence of lobbies and cliques.
I recall the late Archbishop Kevin McNamara, then a Maynooth moral theologian, saying to me over a coffee in the Via della Conciliazione during the 1974 Synod on Evangelisation that Synods were essentially ‘seminars’ for bishops. To which I would add, adapting Seamus Mallon’s dictum about the Hillsborough Agreement being Sunningdale for slow learners in the Northern Ireland peace process, that Synods tend to be ‘seminars for slow learning bishops. ’ More recently, the new technological age of the internet and twitter enables bishops to inform and consult their clergy and laity through questionnaires of their proceedings, and Archbishop Eamon Martin has said that the Synod report represents an ideal preparation for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in 2018, a meeting which Pope Francis is expected to attend.
Both Archbishop Eamon Martin and Michael Kelly, the editor of the Irish Catholic, have written of two Synods, the first the Synod of Faith in which the discussions of the Bishops are concerned with better presentation of unchanged doctrine’, the second is the Synod portrayed in the secular media as a Summit power struggle between those who advocate changing teachings on birth control, homosexuality, acceptance of divorce, the abolition of clerical celibacy and the ordination of women against the defenders of orthodoxy and the status quo. Their critiques ignore the fact that among the Catholic laity a pro-change majority is paramount.
As I have previously argued, it is only by convening a Third Vatican Council that Pope Francis in communion with the world’s bishops can resolve these unquestioned questions. Interestingly, December 8th will be the fiftieth anniversary of the closure of Vatican Two. A significant statement from Pope Francis can be anticipated, but as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin suggested, the Pope is unlikely to go much further than the bishops’ final report.
Perhaps, it is timely to recall that a Belgian peritus at the Council, Canon Heylen, quipped of conservative theologians who were imposed by Cardinal Ottaviani on a sub-commission on Family Life: ‘They obey the Pope when the Pope obeys them’! 3. Quoted by Xavier Rynne, The Fourth Session, p. 313.
Pope Francis should be under no illusion that the Pellites will not have gone away. He could do worse than bring the Mary McAleeses, Nuala O’Loans and Bridget Mary Meehans into the synodal hall.