116. After the Synod on the Family, What?

December 1st, 2015

Two sessions in two consecutive years (2014 and 2015). Two full months of intensive discussions among Catholic bishops gathered in Rome from around the world. Several controversies between conservative and progressive voices discussing the state of the family in today’s world and, more specifically, whether or not to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. Now that the Synod is over and its Relatio Finalis (Final Report) was voted and released,[1] it is finally possible to ask the question: What was its outcome?

Letter Vs Spirit

The answer comes from the mouth of the Pope himself. At the end of the Synod he delivered a speech that provides his interpretation of the document. A closer look reveals that his approach to the text is actually an overall framework of his papacy. Referring to a language used by Paul (e.g. 2 Corinthians 3:6) and Origen (e.g. On First Principles 4,2,4), the Pope pitted the “letter” against the “spirit” of any given official teaching.[2] One the one hand, the “letter” of canon law is rigid and protective; on the other, the “spirit” of the same teaching needs to be elastic and embracing.

According to Pope Francis, there are those who want to defend the “letter” in the attempt to safeguard its purity and definitiveness. If this happens, the attitude towards those who are outside of its boundaries becomes harsh and judgmental to the point of excluding those who do not fit its criteria. This is why he urged his Church to implement the “spirit” of its traditional teaching in view of the fact that the church is for the whole of humanity. In theory, the “spirit” does not annul the “letter”, but practically it overcomes and eventually will supersede it.

Pitting the “letter” over against the “spirit” in this way has far-reaching consequences. In fact, distancing from the clear-cut “letter” and searching for the merciful “spirit” of traditional Catholic teaching seems to provide a fitting hermeneutic of the Pope’s attitude as a whole. This tension helps come to terms with what he has been saying and doing so far. The Pope seems to think that the “letter” is a straitjacket to the mission of the Church and needs to be replaced by the “spirit” of it.

Where is the “Spirit” Leading?

The “spirit” requires a big-tent approach that paves the way for developments. Applying this “Letter Vs Spirit” dialectic to the issues at stake at the Synod, it is not surprising to read Pope Francis encouraging his Church to address the divorced and remarried Catholics, not according to the sheer “letter” of their traditional exclusion from communion, but following the all-embracing “spirit” that will look for ways to include them on a case by case basis. Each confessor will have to decide, opening the possibility for different criteria to be used. The “letter” of the Report does not openly speak about readmitting them to communion, but the “spirit” of the Synod endorsed by the Pope does indicate that there must be a way to achieve this. The text is at least ambiguous and the “spirit” will eventually help to clarify it.

The final Report only contains recommendations but the final decisions will be made by the Pope himself in the form of an “exhortation”, i.e. a written papal document that becomes official teaching. Commenting on the outcomes of the Synod, the Italian senior journalist Eugenio Scalfari wrote that in a recent phone interview with the Pope, Francis told him, “The diverse opinion of the bishops is part of this modernity of the Church and of the diverse societies in which she operates, but the goal is the same, and for that which regards the admission of the divorced to the Sacraments, [it] confirms that this principle has been accepted by the Synod. This is bottom line result, the de facto appraisals are entrusted to the confessors, but at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask will be admitted.”[3] According to this view, the “spirit” of a text may take time to become “letter”, but nonetheless indicates the way forward and the expectations of the process. It is true that the Vatican Press Office said that Scalfari’s report was not reliable,[4] but these alleged papal statements are completely in line with the “spirit” with which Francis understands the results of the Synod. Moreover, the same “spirit” exactly reflects the pastoral approach that Archbishop Bergoglio followed in Buenos Aires before becoming Pope when he applied very inclusive patterns of admission to communion. The way he is leading towards is the same way he is coming from.

Pope Francis is working hard to change the overall narrative of the Roman Catholic faith, wanting it to be marked by mercy and inclusivity at the expense of tradition and rules. The “Letter Vs Spirit” dialectic helps him to pursue his goal. Roman Catholicism has always played with this dialectic in order to account for its “development”: the development of doctrines, traditions and practices. Vatican II has been a monumental exercise of the “Spirit Vs Letter” tool. With its numerous ambiguities disseminated in the texts, it has given rise to an on-going debate between conservative letter-bound interpreters and progressive spirit-evoking voices. The Synod is the latest instance of this lively confrontation that is intrinsic to a complex system like Roman Catholicism. What is new is that, whereas the previous Pope was a defender of the “letter” of the magisterial heritage, Pope Francis advocates for the “spirit” of it. We will see which “developments” this “spirit” will lead to.

96. The “Catholic” Month of Pope Francis

November 30th, 2014

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”. “Unborn life is as precious and unique as any life”. “Euthanasia is an unwarranted abuse of human freedom”. “Adoptive children have the right to have a father and a mother”. These are standard Roman Catholic positions on various hotly debated moral issues of our generation. So what’s the fuss about it? They were spoken and argued for by Pope Francis in two different speeches over the last few weeks.[1] After months of confusing messages sent by him about homosexuality (“Who am I to judge?”), the good in every “loving relationship” be it married or not, the need for the Church to stay away from the heat of present-day ethical debates, his uneasiness towards anything “non-negotiable”, Pope Francis has finally said things “Catholic”. While he has always aligned himself to traditional Roman Catholic moral theology (he is the Pope, after all!), he has never gone public on these issues in such a clear-cut way and in such a short period of time.

The Aftermath of the Synod

This “Catholic” month by the Pope comes after the Synod on the family where the Catholic Church experienced a turbulent time of controversy among high-rank cardinals and bishops. Some progressive voices pushed for an update of the Church’s moral stance on human sexuality and human relationships. Strongly supported by secular public opinion, all applauding this “revolutionary” Pope, sectors of the Church thought that the gap between the Church and the Western masses could be bridged by the Church adopting a more relaxed, less confrontational approach to these issues. The 2014 Synod witnessed a clash between these voices and more traditional ones, resulting in a temporary stand-still waiting for next year’s Synod, which will be re-convened on the same topic.

Where does Pope Francis stand in all this? In the months preceding the Synod, he repeatedly advocated for a “outward looking” Church, i.e. a Church less concerned with dogmas and moral principles and more interested in getting closer to people, irrespective of their individual choices and deliberately abstaining from passing moral judgments on their moral lives. This consistent stream of messages seemed to create a sort of momentum and to form the background for significant changes in the Church that the Synod was meant to introduce. Things went differently, however. In the meantime, significant criticism by important circles of the Catholic Church became outspoken and hit the Pope himself for his wavering and blurred words. This “Catholic” month by Francis can be thought of as a reassurance that he stands for the traditional moral teaching of the Church and has in no way changed his mind. After months of pushing a seemingly progressive agenda, the Catholic pendulum is swinging the opposite way in order to regain stability until the next move.

Where Does He Stand?

A standing question remains though. Where does the Pope really stand on these issues? How do we account for this apparent U-turn? Who is able to grapple with what he has in mind? And, more generally, do we really know where he stands on a number of key doctrinal and pastoral points? So far, he has been keen to build bridges with all kinds of people, movements, and networks. A growing number of people around the globe call the Pope “a friend”. Many evangelical leaders are in their midst. They have the impression that the Pope is very approachable and a transparent person, easy to become familiar with and quick to tune in. He seems to speak their language and to understand their hearts. He appears to be close to everyone. The evidence, however, is more complex. He is certainly capable of getting close to all, calling anyone “brother” and “sister”, but how many people know what lies in his heart? He is certainly able to combine evangelical language, Marian devotions, and “politically correct” concerns, while retaining a fully orbed Roman Catholic outlook. Do we really know Pope Francis? How much of this complexity is the result of him being a Jesuit? How much do we know about the depth of his theology and the all-embracing nature of his agenda?

The Bible wants our communication not to be trapped in a “yes” and “no” type of language at the same time (2 Corinthians 1:18-20) but to speak plainly about what we have in our hearts. Pope Francis’ language tends to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” with the same breadth. The Word of God also urges us “to speak truthfully” (Ephesians 4:25) and to avoid “twisted words” (Proverbs 4:24). No one can throw a stone here because in this matter we are all sinners. Yet what the Pope has been saying so far did send contradictory messages. This “Catholic” month has shown an important side of Pope Francis, but the full picture is still a work in progress. The impression is that so far we have been collecting only superficial sketches of the Pope and that the real work is still to be done.

93. Who Are We to Judge? The Synod on the New Forms of the Family

October 31st, 2014

“Whom am I to judge?” answered Pope Francis to a question on homosexuals. Who are we to judge? … seems to be the sequel of his answer by the Synod that met in mid October to discuss various critical issues about the family and the Church’s responsibility in addressing them. We are perhaps dealing with a significant development in the Roman Catholic Church, something along the line of the “aggiornamento” (i.e. update of attitudes and approaches) that took place at Vatican II and after. The pre-Synod debate chiefly concentrated on the possibility to re-admit to the Eucharist those who went through a divorce. Given the fact that, according to Roman Catholic teaching, marriage is a once and for all sacrament administered by the Church, should those who have broken marriages be given the sacrament of the Eucharist or not? The debate was polarized between progressive voices (like Cardinal Walter Kasper, for example) who favored a relaxation of the prohibition and conservative ones (like the North-American Cardinals) who opposed it. No final decision has been made yet. Next year’s second session of the Synod will make it and ultimately the Pope will promulgate it. There are tensions within the Catholic Church but the majority seems to have taken a line marked by openness towards change, not only as far as the re-admission to the Eucharist is concerned, but also towards re-positioning the Catholic Church in the much bigger discussion about the different forms of human relationships.

The Law of Graduality

The report drafted after the initial discussion (Relatio post disceptationem) contains some revolutionary statements and some significant silences. It highlights the positive value of each relationship, considered as always a good thing in itself. The Church wants to speak a word of hope to each relationship but the document refrains from passing over moral judgments on the kind of relationship that is envisaged. The report appeals to the “law of graduality”, i.e. each form of relationship is an imperfect form of good that needs to be encouraged to flourish. No distinction is made between heterosexual marriage and homosexual relationship, co-habitation and unions of various kinds. The good of a relationship is always in a “gradual” form and no relationship is totally deprived of it. Therefore, while recognizing standing and unresolved moral issues, positive words are used to describe homosexual relationships and non-married unions. This is the first time that something similar happens in a semi-official Vatican document.

The “law of graduality” allows to recognize the positive elements that exist in every situation, even in those that the Church has traditionally defined as sinful. Stress is put on “imperfect forms of good” that are present everywhere. Traditional Roman Catholic teaching has often underlined the “objective” nature of sinful acts (e.g. the adulterous and the homosexual intercourses), but the document leaves aside any reference to a black-and-white moral picture when it comes to assessing the present-day forms of relationship. Each relationship has different shades of good and this is the point the Church wants now to focus on. It is true that the final report (Relatio Synodi) moderates some of these statements and puts them more clearly in the context of the traditional teaching of the Church. The point is that the principle of the Roman catholicity (i.e. the development and widening of catholic synthesis) has been working here. A more extreme position is after mitigated and then one year is taken for the debate to go on until the final decision will come. Having said that, Pope Francis’ question “Who am I to judge?” has become the question of the majority of the Synod. It is now clear that the Pope’s “merciful” attitude has gained attention and has become wide-spread amongst the Catholic hierarchy.

The Vatican II Paradigm

Where does this feasible but not-yet official change come from? Some observers might argue that it is a capitulation to the spirit of the age that blurs any moral distinctiveness and elevates individual choices as the paramount criterion of what is good. Though there may be some truth in it this analysis is nonetheless incomplete. It was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that provided the tools that the Synod is now applying to the issue of sexuality and the family. Let’s see what happened then and how it impacts today’s discussion.

Before Vatican II, all non-Catholics were thought of as being heretics, schismatics or pagans. You were either in the Church or outside and against it. The Council introduced a new way of looking at non-Catholic people. While the Catholic Church retained its conviction to have access to the full sacramental salvation, other believers were considered as revolving around it depending on the distance or nearness to the center. The other religions reflected different degrees of truth and blessing and were seen in a fundamental positive way. The point is that each religion contained elements of truth that needed to be appreciated and that formed the basis for a re-discovered universal brotherhood. Vatican II abandoned the clear-cut in/out approach to embrace the principle of graduality: instead of denouncing the others’ errors, each religion became to be seen as having some good in it.

The same model is now applied to the different relationships. There is some good in a homosexual relationship although it remains distant from the ideal relationship. There is some good in a co-habitation outside of marriage although it is still irregular. There is some good in any loving relationship. It may be weak, defective, and even contradictory, but the Church wants to speak a word of understanding and hope for all. Although Pope Francis has not yet made this position official, everything that he has been saying and doing so far points to this direction. After his “Who am I to judge?”, the majority in the Synod is saying “Who are we to judge?”