Today at the Vatican, a midterm report on the synod was read aloud to the bishops who have been meeting over the past week to discuss the challenges facing families today. While the five-thousand-word text is not a magisterial document--it's a summary of the conversations so far--many of the synod fathers were likely surprised by what they heard. The relatio post disceptationem, as the paper is called, urges the church to "appreciate the positive values" in "irregular" relationships--that is, couples who cohabitate, those who have divorced and remarried without an annulment, and gay couples. Some bishops are already asking for clarification.

While affirming Catholic teaching on the nature of marriage throughout, the text draws support for this approach from Vatican II's Lumen Gentium: “Although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure...these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity.” In other words, if the church can acknowledge elements of value in other religions--even polytheistic ones--then why can't it affirm the goodness present in the "irregular" relationships of its own members?

"It is the task of the church to recognize those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries," according to the relatio. "Following the expansive gaze of Christ...the church turns 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." When couples cohabitate with the intent to marry, such a relationship "may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage." Here the relatio emphasizes the law of gradualism, which acknowledges that it takes time for people to reach a moral ideal (this principle was often invoked on the question of contraception).

The document notes that couples move in together for different reasons. "In Africa this occurs especially in traditional marriages, agreed between families and often celebrated in different stages." Other couples cohabitate for economic reasons, the relatio explains. "In such unions it is possible to grasp authentic family values or at least the wish for them," according to the text. "Pastoral accompaniment should always start from these positive aspects." Indeed, accompaniment is one of the relatio's watchwords. How can the church find a way to walk with people in these often difficult situations--situations that may exclude them from full participation in the life of the church?

The text also highlights the concerns expressed about how the church goes about teaching doctrine on marriage, and how it prepares couples for marriage. But marriage preparation is not enough. The synod fathers spoke of the importance of "a pastoral accompaniment that goes beyond the celebration of the sacrament," which should include the experience of actual married people.

When it comes to separated, divorced, and remarried Catholics, the relatio discourages the "logic of 'all or nothing,'" and calls on local churches to take up the question in the months between this synod and next year's. Caring for the divorced and remarried is not evidence of a weakening of doctrine, the document argues, but rather an expression of Christian charity.

As reported, there appears to be a good deal of support for streamlining the annulment process. "Among the propositions were the abandonment of the need for the double conforming sentence; the possibility of establishing an administrative means under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop; a summary process to be used in cases of clear nullity." There's a good chance this will happen, but I hope the synod fathers don't think this will solve the pastoral problem raised by Cardinal Kasper.

On that issue, the document presents a he-said/he-said. But it does say that continuing to bar divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving the Eucharist "was questioned by more than a few Synodal Fathers: if spiritual communion is possible, why not allow them to partake in the sacrament?" (That's Kasper's question.)

But the most surprising part of the text comes near the end--the section called "Welcoming Homosexual Persons." It highlights "cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners," and it says that the church must pay "special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority." (Remember this?)

Affirming the "gifts and qualities" of gay people the document relates a series of questions, presumably asked by synod fathers: "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?"

The relatio doesn't provide any answers. Of course it notes that gay unions are not "on the same footing" as tradtional marriage. But even asking those kinds of questions constitutes a dramatic shift. Seeing them in a synod document was unthinkable under past popes. Just a decade ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instructed Catholics to oppose gay civil unions because, in part, it would lead to allowing them to adopt, which would "do violence" to children. You won't find that tone in this document--with respect to gay people or anyone else. Francis sings in another key. It's a tune he seems to want the whole church to learn.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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