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Where are the kids? How the Synod on the Family became the Synod on Marriage

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Pope Francis speaks at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on 17 October. The pope outlined his vision for how the entire church must be "synodal" with everyone listening to each other, learning from each other and taking responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
Pope Francis speaks at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on 17 October. The pope outlined his vision for how the entire church must be “synodal” with everyone listening to each other, learning from each other and taking responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Letters from the Synod: Volume 19 – 21 October

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and elsewhere, on the XIV Ordinary General assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Edited by Xavier Rynne II

…from and about Synod 2015


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The schedule for the remainder of Synod 2015 has been changed by the Synod general secretariat.

On Tuesday evening, October 20, the reporters from the various language-based discussion groups met to review the modi, the proposed amendments/ deletions/alterations, to Part III of the Synod’s working document, a task to be completed by noon on Wednesday.

Wednesday remains a free day for most of the Synod fathers, as the drafting commission for the Synod final report continues its work – presumably on Wednesday afternoon, after the modi are submitted to it.

Thursday morning is free, while the drafting commission completes it work. On Thursday afternoon, the general assembly will hear the presentation of the draft final report, which will then be given to the Synod members.

On Friday morning, 23 October, there will be a general assembly to hear interventions on the draft final report, and written observations on the draft will be handed in.

The Saturday schedule and procedure remains, at this juncture, the same: a general assembly to hear the re-revised final report in the morning, and then from 1630 – 1900, voting on the final report, paragraph by paragraph, with two-thirds constituting a confirming majority.


…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers

Where are the kids?

Fr Gerald Murray (b. 1959) is pastor of the Church of the Holy Family in New York City. A native of Brooklyn and a graduate of Dartmouth College, he studied for the priesthood at St Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, and earned the doctorate in canon law at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University in 1998. He appears regularly on EWTN and is a frequent contributor to various Catholic print and online media. We’re grateful for his having taken time from his media engagements during Synod 2015 to prepare this essay for Letters from the Synod, which we hope will be of particular interest to those drafting the Synod’s final report.

I was at an evening event last week here in Rome in which two thoughtful presentations were given about the Synod on the Family. In the Q&A after the talks, someone noted that the Synod on the Family had become the Synod on Marriage. I was struck by this observation. Marriage and family go together, of course, but the first two weeks of the Synod resulted in little being said about what makes a married couple into a family, namely children.

Even this question of what differentiates family from marriage is controversial. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary lists eight definitions of family, starting with “a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head” and ending with “a unit of a crime syndicate (as the Mafia) operating within a geographical area”. Only in the fifth entry in the definition of “family” do we find what the Church and common human experience have taught is a family: “the basic social unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children”.

The focus of the Synod so far has largely been upon the “two parents” and not “their children”. This is disappointing. The gift of children is one of the primary reasons for marriage in God’s plan. The procreation and education of children is the vocation of a husband and wife who are blessed with offspring, or who generously adopt an orphan and bring that child up as their own. The procreative aspect of married love is key to understanding why Christ did away with divorce and polygamy. Children are precious fruits of human love, and they are meant to be raised by their parents, who are meant to stay together. Parenthood transforms husband and wife into mom and dad. What sweet words these.

It has been observed, inside and outside of the Synod deliberations, that too much emphasis has been placed on problems relating to marriage and family, and not enough on the divine gift of married life and family. Before analyzing the problems, one would have thought that the Synod should re-affirm what is good and holy about family life in the current situation. Alas, children are in too many ways missing from the Synod. The Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris (working document), consists of three parts with a total of 11 chapters having a total of 86 subheadings. In those subheadings the world children is found only once (“The Family and Children”, chapter 3 of part 1).

When Pope Francis was in the United States last month, children were highlighted by the Pope, who did not miss an occasion to greet them, whether it was outside the Nunciature in Washington, D.C. or at Our Lady of the Angels School in East Harlem, or at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia. The constant recognition of the next generation by the pope was a lesson in itself on what the Synod fathers should be discussing more extensively.

In my pastoral experience I have come to learn that children are not simply a blessing for their parents; they’re a blessing for the entire parish. The presence of children in a Catholic school or religious education program enlivens the whole parish. Children should be at the center of any renewal of the Church’s pastoral mission to help families come closer to Christ and to live their faith more fully and joyfully.

What can the Synod do to address this deficit in the Instrumentum Laboris? The Synod fathers should turn their attention to God’s gift of children as the key to renewing married life. Low birth rates in Europe and North America are a sign of a weakening of faith and a fear of the cost of welcoming new life into the world. The Synod should praise large families as a beautiful sign of God’s blessing and a true expression of generosity by the parents. Adoption and foster care of children are praised in the Instrumentum Laboris. More needs to be said.

Children are also effective agents in spreading the faith. Children who are taught about Christ and his Church live out that faith with a naturalness that very often inspires their parents and siblings and friends. Children are especially loved by God and that love is a powerful force in the life of the Church.

Family life is obviously imperiled by various secularising influences that are not always vigorously resisted by adults who fall into pessimism, complacency or even worse, abject surrender. A reminder that children need protection and guidance amidst these dangers should spur the Synod fathers to highlight the importance of children in their discussions and decisions about the many questions before them. Children are a true source of strength for the Church. We need to hear more about them in the Synod’s final report.


Conscience, Confusions, and Pastors

Cardinal Thomas Collins (b. 1947) has served as Archbishop of Toronto since 2006, having previously served as Archbishop of Edmonton and Bishop of Saint Paul in Alberta. Ordained to the priesthood for the diocese of Hamilton, he earned the licentiate in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the doctorate in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, before serving as dean and then rector of his alma mater, St Peter’s Seminary in London, Ontario. We’re grateful to him for offering this reflection to Letters from the Synod.

Pope Francis exchanges the sign of peace with Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto during a Mass of thanksgiving in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in 2014. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring
Pope Francis exchanges the sign of peace with Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto during a Mass of thanksgiving in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in 2014. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring

“I must do what I believe to be good, and not do what I believe to be bad.” That seems pretty obvious: a person must act according to conscience. Our conscience is inviolable. The problem is that this principle, though true, does not take us very far.

For one thing, plenty of people sincerely believe that they should do things that are wrong. They may or may not feel guilty about their actions, since it’s easy to deceive our conscience through rationalisation. Look at the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. For that matter, each one of us needs only to make an honest examination of conscience to discover occasions when we were fooling ourselves about what was the right thing to do.

Conscience is a bit like a GPS guidance system in a car. It is meant to help us get from where we are to where we need to go. It must be accurately informed of our present location, and it must also have an accurate map of how to reach our goal. If either of those key elements is missing, we will be lost.

So the obvious point that we must follow our conscience is self-evident, but not particularly helpful‎. What we really need is a well-formed conscience, which will be effective in helping us to navigate the pathways of moral decision-making that are much more challenging than the highways we navigate in our cars.

I have been thinking about this during the Synod on the Family, and especially in the context of the responsibility of a bishop. I have been encountering some ideas that I think are misguided.

It is sometimes suggested that our conscience is some kind of subjective oracle that on its own provides adequate direction in life. It is granted that we should take a good look at Church teaching, but the basic point is that we go with our conscience.

Church teaching, or doctrine, presents us with the challenges of the Gospel call to discipleship. Those challenges are sometimes seen to be burdensome, not really capable of being lived in the real world, except perhaps by a heroic few. They are seen by some as forming a kind of abstract Christian ideal that we certainly honor, but meanwhile we have got to get along with the challenges of real life. There is a wall between doctrine and life. If we think of things that way, the role of conscience is to adapt the abstract Christian ideal to what is practicable in our current situation, particularly as it is shaped by contemporary secular culture.

This approach disregards the reality of grace, and the simple fact that Jesus has not called us to a way of life that cannot, in fact, be lived. Plenty of people live Christian discipleship to the full; this is especially evident wherever Christianity ‎is actually flourishing, but it is true everywhere.

What a strange view it is, to separate faith and conscience (for that matter, reason and conscience), with conscience becoming a kind of subjective safety valve to help individuals cope with the objective pressure of following the Gospel.

In fact, reason and faith are intimately joined to conscience, giving it the information and direction that allows it to be our trusty guide through life. As the heart only functions well within the context of the living body, to which it is certainly essential, so conscience only functions well for Christians within the context of faith and reason. And for everyone, even those without faith, a trusty conscience requires the light of reason.

But what of the countless people, including many Christians, whose consciences have been distorted by the distorted values of the society in which they live? Can they be held responsible for acting in a way Christians with a well formed conscience would consider to be wrong, when they are being led astray by an erroneous conscience? We certainly cannot judge other people’s internal culpability. That is for God to judge.

That fact, however, is not particularly relevant to the mission of Christians, and especially the mission of those with pastoral responsibility. ‎We should not take comfort in people having an erroneous conscience. Our mission is to be faithful to the Gospel, to seek with God’s grace to live according to it, and to come to conversion and repentance when we do not. When others are stumbling in the dark, we need to help them find the path that leads to life.‎ The truth, not error, will set us free. Only by living the Gospel to the full will we ourselves be faithful disciples, and only in that way will we not just avoid being damaged by the distorted morality of our culture, but actually be in a position to convert the culture, as our predecessors did in the days of the Roman Empire.

We will be helpful to others through a humble, repentant spirit, ‎through the witness of a life well lived in the imitation of Christ, through journeying compassionately with those who struggle, and through being true to the Gospel that guides us home to our heavenly Father.

This is especially true of the pastors of the Church. We need to live with integrity, and ask God’s forgiveness when we do not, because our own sins compromise our pastoral effectiveness. As a great saint once said: the Gospel loses credibility when conscience tethers the tongue of the pastor. ‎And we need to speak the truth, with clarity and charity as, like Jesus, we accompany those entrusted to our care. It is truth that is needed, if conscience is to be formed rightly so that it becomes a trustworthy guide to life.


“Synodality” and Mission

Pope Francis’s striking address at a 17 October ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops was presented in much of the world media as a call for the “decentralisation” of authority in the Church – an analysis taken at face value by the more agitated sectors of the Catholic blogosphere, to both port and starboard. Let me suggest an alternative way of reading that very personal address: an alternative that takes us back a decade, away from the hothouse of controversies at Synod 2015, to the days immediately following the death and funeral of John Paul II.

There was remarkably little politicking in Rome between John Paul’s death and the Requiem Mass celebrated in St Peter’s Square. There was, instead, a palpable atmosphere of prayer and serious reflection, symbolised by the priests hearing confessions on doorsteps up and down the Via della Conciliazione, the boulevard leading from the Tiber to the Vatican basilica, the night before the funeral Mass. The atmosphere, and the convictions of faith that created it, were memorably captured in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s homily at the funeral Mass, when he spoke of John Paul looking on that vast congregation “from the Father’s house” and called on him to bless those he had led and inspired for so long. Then the man the throng had proclaimed “John Paul the Great” was buried, and the Church turned toward the future.

The Latin American cardinals, including the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, came to Conclave-2005 with a specific goal: as one of their advisors put it to me in a pungent Latino phrase, they wanted the next pontificate to “break the marmalade” – to unclog the machinery of the Roman Curia and find new new curial leaders who would respond sympathetically (and without delay) to the Latin American bishops’ concerns, rather than treating them like refractory children. In brief, the goal was to realise the Second Vatican Council’s vision of an ecclesial “centre” – Rome – that empowered local churches to mission rather than tying them up in knots.

That was the hope. It was frustrated during the pontificate of Benedict XVI: a papacy of luminously clear preaching and teaching, but one in which the “marmalade”, rather than being broken, was thickened – and in some cases turned rancid. That was not Benedict’s doing in any direct sense; it was the doing of the most senior leadership of the Roman Curia. But by the time Concave-2013 assembled in the wake of an unprecedented papal abdication, the determination to “break the marmalade” had intensified among many cardinals: among whom, we may assume, was Cardinal Bergoglio, who would leave that conclave as Pope Francis.

If you read the Holy Father’s October 17 address through the prism of that experience, I think you get a somewhat clearer view of what the Pope has in mind for the Catholic future, as some of the more suggestive phrases from that text illustrate.

He has in mind a Church in which the “center” is more fully attuned to the complex realities of what is, for the first time in two millennia, a truly universal or global Church: a Church guided by a “dynamism of communion that inspires all ecclesial decisions”.

He has in mind a Church which recognises that everyone has something to offer, because everyone has been called in baptism to be “an active subject [agent] of evangelisation:” a Church in which structures serve mission.

He has in mind Church of “mutual listening” in which all listen and all learn – although, as he was not hesitant to point out, this listening and learning is always cum Petro et sub Petro [with Peter and under Peter], who is “the guarantor of obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church” – and who exercises that office of “guarantor”, not through “his personal convictions but as a supreme witness of … the whole faith of the Church”.

He has in mind a Church that, through the effective communication of the Holy Spirit’s gifts throughout the entire Body of Christ, is thereby “strengthening [the] synergies in all areas of her mission”.

All of which suggests another analytic tool: in addition to reading the October 17 address through the prism of the Latin American experience of the Roman Curia in the first decades of the twenty-first century, the address should be read through the lens of what remains the programmatic document of the Franciscan pontificate, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [The Joy of the Gospel].

There, Pope Francis spoke powerfully of his dream of a “Church permanently in mission:” a Church in which every baptised member understood that he or she had been given a missionary commission – the Great Commission of Matthew 28. 19-20 – on the day of his or her christening; a Church that understands that “mission territory” is everywhere, not just in the more exotic regions of Planet Earth; a Church that measures its fidelity by how well it is offering the gift of friendship with Jesus Christ and incorporation into the community of the friends of the Lord Jesus.

That’s the grand strategy of this pontificate, as the Pope has insisted time and again. The question that will be discussed long after Synod 2015 concludes, and the October 17 address is digested, is, how does “synodality” contribute to mission? How is a “Church permanently in mission” simultaneously the “synodal Church” for which the Pope called on October 17?

It cannot be the case that the Pope who has summoned the Church to a more intense sense of mission is also calling the Church into more meetings. If not mutually exclusive at some level of abstraction, “more mission” and “more meetings” are in considerable tension in a world of finite time. A lot of the world episcopate already feels too burdened by meetings; the wisest among the bishops are taking deliberate steps to limit the amount of time they spend around a conference table and are increasing the amount of time they spend as evangelists – wholesale or (in some impressive cases) retail, as in one-by-one.

It cannot be the case that the pope who has criticised “airport bishops” is encouraging more frenetic travel by his bishops in the exercise of “synodality”.

It cannot be the case that the pope who has urged us all to see the institutions of the Church as launch-pads for mission and evangelisation is suggesting, by “synodality”, a thickening of the bureaucratic structures of the Church at intermediate levels. The iron laws of bureaucracy apply to the Catholic Church as well as to every other institution. And the sad situation of the Church in Germany – where the Church bureaucracy has become the country’s second-largest employer at the same time as the percentage of Catholics regularly attending Sunday Mass has dropped into the single digits and low teens in the major cities – is a cautionary tale for the rest of the world Church.

If there is one theme that runs like a bright thread through the preaching and teaching of Pope Francis, it is that the Church does not exist for herself but for the conversion of the world. So the question of what a “synodal Church” might mean and how that “synodality” would function must always be understood in the context of mission, invitation to friendship with the Lord, and the realisation of the New Evangelisation, at every level of the Church’s hierarchically-ordered life.

George Weigel
George Weigel isd d
istinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Centre


…for the Synod and the Church to hear

Samuel Aquila (b. 1950) is the Archbishop of Denver. The following column appeared in the Denver Catholic and is reprinted here by permission.

Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver addresses attendees of the Living the Catholic Faith Conference in Denver in 2013. Photo: CNS/Daniel Petty, Denver Catholic Register
Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver addresses attendees of the Living the Catholic Faith Conference in Denver in 2013. Photo: CNS/Daniel Petty, Denver Catholic Register

Did Thomas More and John Fisher die for nothing?

The idea that Catholics should be allowed to remarry and receive communion did not begin with the letter signed by Cardinal Kasper and other members of the German episcopate in 1993.

Another country’s episcopate – England’s – pioneered this experiment in Christian doctrine nearly 500 years ago. At stake then was not just whether any Catholic could remarry, but whether the king could, since his wife had not borne him a son.

As with those who advocate for communion for the civilly remarried, the English bishops were uncomfortable with embracing divorce and remarriage outright. Instead, they chose to bend the law to the individual circumstances of the case with which they were confronted, and King Henry VIII was granted an “annulment” — on a fraudulent basis and without the sanction of Rome.

If “heroism is not for the average Christian”, as the German Cardinal Walter Kasper has put it, it certainly wasn’t for the King of England. Instead, issues of personal happiness and the well-being of a country made a strong utilitarian argument for Henry’s divorce. And the King could hardly be bothered to skip communion as the result of an irregular marriage.

England’s Cardinal Wolsey and all the country’s bishops, with the exception of Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, supported the king’s attempt to undo his first – and legitimate – marriage. Like Fisher, Thomas More – a layman and the king’s chancellor – also withheld his support. Both were martyred and later canonised.

In publicly advocating that the king’s marriage was indissoluble, Fisher argued that “this marriage of the king and queen can be dissolved by no power, human or Divine”. For this principle, he said, he was willing to give his life. He continued by noting that John the Baptist saw no way to “die more gloriously than in the cause of marriage”, despite the fact that marriage then “was not so holy at that time as it has now become by the shedding of Christ’s Blood”.

Like Thomas More and John the Baptist, Fisher was beheaded, and like them, he is called “saint”.

At the Synod on the Family taking place right now in Rome, some of the German bishops and their supporters are pushing for the Church to allow those who are both divorced and remarried to receive communion, while other bishops from around the world are insisting that the Church cannot change Christ’s teaching. And this begs a question: Do the German bishops believe that Saints Thomas More and John Fisher sacrificed their lives in vain?

Jesus showed us throughout his ministry that heroic sacrifice is required to follow him. When one reads the Gospel with an open heart, a heart that does not place the world and history above the Gospel and Tradition, one sees the cost of discipleship to which every disciple is called. The German bishops would do well to read The Cost of Discipleship by the Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For what they promote is “cheap grace” rather than “costly grace”, and they even seem to ignore the words of Jesus that, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark. 8: 34; Luke 14: 25-27; John 12: 24-26).

Think, for example, of the adulterous woman whom the Pharisees presented to Jesus to trap him. The first thing he did was to protect her from her accusers, and the second thing he did was to call her to leave her sin. “Go,” he commanded her, “and sin no more”.

Following the words of Christ himself, the Catholic Church has always taught that divorce and remarriage is simply adultery by another name. And since communion is reserved to Catholics in the state of grace, those living in an irregular situation are not able participate in that aspect of the life of the Church, though they should always be welcomed within the parish and at the Mass itself.

Last May, Cardinal Kasper claimed in an interview with Commonweal magazine that we “can’t say whether it is ongoing adultery” when a repentant, divorced Christian nonetheless engages in “sexual relations” in a new union. Rather, he thinks “absolution is possible”.

And yet, Christ clearly called remarriage adultery and said adultery was sinful (Matthew 5:32; Mark 10:12; Luke 16:18). In the case of the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42), Jesus also confirmed that remarriage cannot be valid, even when informed by sincere feeling and fidelity.

When one adds to the equation the high failure rate of remarriages subsequent to a divorce, where Cardinal Kasper’s reasoning would lead no one can say. For example, should sacramental communion be allowed only for the once-remarried? What about people remarried twice or three times? And it is obvious that the arguments made for easing Christ’s prohibition on remarriage could also be made for contraceptive use, or any number of other aspects of Catholic theology understood by the modern, self-referential world as “difficult”.

Predicting what this would lead to isn’t a matter of knowing the future, but of simply observing the past. We need only to look at the Anglican Church, which opened the door to – and later embraced – contraception in the twentieth century and for more than a decade has allowed for divorce and remarriage in certain cases.

The German bishops’ “Plan B” to do things “their way” in Germany, even if it goes against the grain of Church teaching, has the same flaws. And it has an eerie ring to it – in an Anglican sort of way. Consider the words of the head of the German Bishops Conference, Cardinal Marx, who was cited in the National Catholic Register as saying that while the German Church may remain in communion with Rome on doctrine, that in terms of pastoral care for individual cases, “the synod cannot prescribe in detail what we have to do in Germany”. Henry VIII would most certainly have agreed.

“We are not just a subsidiary of Rome,” Cardinal Marx argued. “Each episcopal conference is responsible for the pastoral care in their culture and has to proclaim the Gospel in its own unique way. We cannot wait until a synod states something, as we have to carry out marriage and family ministry here.”

The Anglicans also sought such autonomy – though with increasingly internally divisive results and the emptying of their communities.

It is undeniable that the Church must reach out to those on the margins of the faith with mercy, but mercy always speaks the truth, never condones sin, and recognises that the Cross is at the heart of the Gospel. One might recall that Pope St John Paul II – cited by Pope Francis at his canonisation as “the pope of the family” – also wrote extensively about mercy, dedicating an entire encyclical to the topic, and establishing the feast of Divine Mercy. For St John Paul, mercy was a central theme, but one that had to be read in the context of truth and scripture, rather than against it.

On remarriage, and many other issues, no one would say that the Church’s teaching, which is Christ’s, is easy. But Christ himself did not compromise on core teachings to keep his disciples from leaving him – whether it was on the Eucharist or marriage (John 6: 60-71; Matthew 19: 3-12). Nor did John Fisher compromise to keep the king Catholic.

We need look no further for a model on this matter than words of Christ and St Peter in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel – a passage that reminds us that the teaching on the Eucharist is often difficult to accept even for believers.

“‘It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe. … For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.’ As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”

As disciples we are always called to listen to the voice of Jesus before the voice of the world, culture, or history. The voice of Jesus sheds light on the darkness of the world and cultures. Let us pray that all concerned will listen to those words of eternal life, no matter how difficult!

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