Church ready to take a fresh approach

The synod has made the first bold steps towards welcome and healing, writes Austen Ivereigh

My abiding image of this synod may well be the moment an American called Michael Voris of ‘Church Militant TV’ took the microphone at Monday’s press conference at the Vatican. After reading from the synod’s declaration that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community”, he asked, in a voice of astonishment: “Is the synod suggesting that these flow from the sexual orientation of homosexuality?”

Smiling behind his professor’s glasses, Archbishop Bruno Forte, the synod’s special secretary, replied that this was a complex ontological question, and that what mattered was the innate dignity and giftedness of all people, whoever they were.

It was only a mid-way summary, a provisional snapshot at the end of the first of two weeks of deliberations. But when the relatio post-disceptationem, or ‘post-discussion report’, was read in the synod hall that morning by Hungarian cardinal Peter Erdö, it was clear that the bishops had heeded Pope Francis’ call for a more missionary, pastoral Church. Suddenly we were back in the heady days of the Second Vatican Council, when the pastors of mercy unseated the sentinels of doctrinal clarity. 

As if commentating on what would happen later, Pope Francis in the Casa Santa Marta chapel on Monday morning noted how the guardians of doctrine in Jesus’ time had become “closed in on themselves”, forgetting that the law was not an end in itself but designed to lead to God. 

Many of the participants invoked Vatican II. In “opening a process of pastoral discernment”, the synod was “quasi-conciliar” said Fr Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica and one of Francis’s delegates. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila told journalists that “some of the synod fathers and participants said openly that they felt the spirit of Vatican II very much”.

Tagle, the youngest cardinal and a student of the Council, added that “the mission insight of Vatican II from John XXIII and Pope Paul VI in a way was happening to us. We who were not able to participate in Vatican II, we had a slice of it, a taste of it”.

Even after a week, it was clear that Pope Francis had succeeded in reviving the dynamic of the council by bringing the local Church to bear on the universal. If his reform of the synod comes off, it will embed that conciliar dynamic permanently in the life of the Church.

As at the council, the core doctrines remained intact, and are implicit in the document: sex is for marriage, marriage is for a man and a woman, and indissoluble, because God’s faithfulness and grace create a new reality which no human authority can dissolve.


The synod fathers made clear, in the course of the week, that they were not there to reaffirm what the Church taught, but to design a new way of leading people to it. The new approach was linked by participants expressly to two conciliar documents: Lumen Gentium, with its recognition that seeds of truth existed outside the Church, and Gaudium et Spes, with its moving call to walk with humanity in its trials and its dreams.

The shift was captured by the image of a torchlight being carried in and among the crowd, rather than beaming from high on a hill.

Rather than an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it teaching of the truth about marriage and family, the relatio called for the Church to engage people where they were, to discern seeds of the good in arrangements that fell short of sacramental marriage. “What rang out clearly in the Synod was the necessity for courageous pastoral choices,” the document notes, adding that it sensed “an urgent need for new pastoral paths, that begin with the effective reality of familial fragilities, recognising that they, more often than not, are more ‘endured’ than freely chosen”.

The relatio called for careful sifting. “It is the task of the Church to recognise those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries,” it noted, adding that the Church appreciated “the positive values” in “those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way”.

The document spells out, for example, the difference between a cohabiting couple whose “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” – which may contain the seeds of a sacramental understanding of marriage – and the kind of cohabitation that reflects narcissism, individualism or commitment-phobia.

At the heart of this new pastoral, or missionary, approach is what the document calls “the law of gradualness”, according to which people grow gradually into holiness, over time, and in stages. This, says the relatio early on, is “how God communicates the grace of the covenant to humanity”.

This does not mean – as Pope St John Paul warned in his 1980 enyclical Familiaris Consortio – adopting a relativistic approach that seeks to tailor morality to the individual, but what Pope emeritus Benedict XVI meant by his observation in 2010 that, if a male prostitute uses a condom to try to avoid infecting people with HIV/AIDS, it can be “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality”. He wasn’t approving condom use, or claiming that chastity and monogamy weren’t the goals, but acknowledging that the journey there might start with a limited moral choice.

While reaffirming that same-sex unions cannot be compared with marriage, and “gender ideology” should be rejected, the document issues a challenge: “are we capable of welcoming [gay] people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, the document notes “cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners”. Fr James Martin SJ of America magazine described the language as “astonishing”.

The same principle of “gradualness” is also invoked in the relatio in regards to a possible path back to the sacraments following divorce and remarriage.

Some synod fathers favoured “a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering”, the document notes, adding that one possibility was for a bishop to decide on readmission following a “penitential path”. This would not be a general norm, the document states, “but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness”.

This was one of a number of suggestions in the document which puts responsibility back in the hands of bishops. Another is a fast-track annulment procedure based on the so-called “summary process” which existed for 600 years before the 1917 Code of Canon Law.


Rather than an elaborate judicial process requiring six judges and an automatic appeal, the relatio suggests a simpler, administrative procedure overseen by a bishop. Inspired by the example of the diocese of Louisville, Kentucky, which has a team of auditors with canonical and pastoral training, the document suggests that a diocesan bishop “might charge a specially trained priest who would be able to offer the parties advice on the validity of their marriage”.

Easing access to annulments, Archbishop Diarmiud Martin of Dublin told me earlier this week, reflected the Church’s recognition that culture no longer supplied the minimal understanding of marriage which canon law requires.

He attended the 1980 synod on the family under Pope St John Paul II, who saw the increase in annulments as conceding to a divorce mentality. Since then, says Archbishop Martin, there has been both a significant “anthropological” change – people no longer assume marriage is about permanence and fidelity – as well as a collapse in religious understanding: people nowadays “enter into sacramental marriage without any real understanding of the faith dimension.”

That means that many Catholic marriages, as Pope Francis said on the plane back from Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, are likely to be invalid. A reinvigorated Church family pastoral strategy – the synod’s main aim – will reach out to the divorced and often remarried, using annulments as the main path back to sacramental, parish life.

The criticism has already been ferocious, with some groups denouncing the loss of clarity that this shift will inevitably imply. But while doctrinal clarity is important, it is a means to an end: bringing society to Christ. In a lonely world of individualism, there are no more effective evangelising initiatives than strong marriages and loving families within parishes that offer welcome and healing. This synod has made the first bold step towards that goal.

Austen Ivereigh’s biography of Pope Francis, The Great Reformer, is published on December 4 by Allen & Unwin.