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It was all an accident. My mother was not born Catholic, but Lutheran, Missouri Synod. When it came time to decide which tradition I would be raised in, my parents decided that it was in everyone’s best interests for me to get the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from a Catholic priest. That’s what my paternal grandmother—devout Irish Catholic that she was—would want, they reasoned. No one dared to rouse her secret temper. So Catholic I would be. As my mom and grandma were washing dishes after my baptism party, the Catholic turned to the Lutheran and asked, “Honey, why did you have Grant baptized Catholic? You’re the one who goes to church.”
Apparently my mom took that comment to heart, because when it came time for me to go off to school, my parents sent me to a Lutheran preschool, and then for kindergarten to another Lutheran school. It was called Our Savior, and my child mind reckoned that was the place you sent your kids after you had saved up enough money. I was still working on my soteriology.
Of all my school supplies, I was proudest of my Popeye folder. It was no mere paper-holder. A comic strip was printed on its front and back covers. Every day, I smuggled a comic book disguised as folder—into school, school. About a week after I started kindergarten, my teacher noticed that I could read. I was rewarded by being dragged before the first-graders, plopped down in a too-tall chair, and, made to read to them, accompanied only by the silent metronomes of my swinging legs. Doubtless the highlight of their academic year. Eventually my teacher suggested to my parents that I transfer to the local Catholic school, St. Paul of the Cross, where she thought I’d receive a better education.
They took that advice to heart too. So off I went to St. Paul’s—just a few years after Peter Steinfels darkened its doors, I might add. It was a convivial place. First graders fortunate to have Miss Sullivan (Ms. hadn’t quite come into wide use in Chicagoland), and speedy enough to finish their Friday book reports early, were granted exclusive access to the carpeted play area in the front of the classroom. There were puzzles. Books. And the only thing anyone really cared about: a huge bucket of popsicle sticks. Dave and Eric and I tended to be the the speediest students in the room. One Friday morning, we burned through our book reports, grabbed the bin of popsicle sticks, and went to work on a modest work of art. On the dark brown carpeting, we arranged dozens of beige popsicle sticks in the shape of a mermaid. An anatomically correct mermaid. Miss Sullivan was amused, but not pleased. No more popsicle sticks for us, for at least a week.
ROME—Put away the tea leaves. After three weeks of argument, intrigue, and, yes, prayer, the fourteenth Ordinary Synod of Bishops—comprising 270 clerics from around the world—has voted. Two-thirds of the synod fathers supported opening a path for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to fuller participation in the life of the church—including liturgically. In some countries, the divorced and civilly remarried cannot serve as lectors, catechists, or godparents.
In conversation with a priest, according to the synod’s final summary text, a person can become “conscious of [his or her] situation before God”—through the “internal forum.” This process, according to the text, may help a person discern what “prevents the possibility of fuller participation in the life of the church,” and to figure out what can be done to “make it [the participation] grow.” (In 1991, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ruled out the internal forum as a pathway for the divorced and civilly remarried to return to Communion.)
The text does not specify whether this could result in a return to the Communion line. But, importantly, neither does it foreclose the possibility—something many synod fathers wanted to rule out. For weeks, those synod fathers had been arguing for a final relatio that closed the door on Communion for the divorced and remarried. They didn't win the day. The synod—which is a consultative body, not a deliberative one—could have sent Pope Francis a document that simply reaffirmed the current practice of barring the civilly remarried from the Eucharist. It didn’t. That’s important.
ROME—Today the Holy See published final suggestions from the small groups before the synod drafting committee submits its summary document for voting this Saturday. On the most contested issue—whether the church should do something about the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried—the synod fathers seem evenly split. (Even while few said they completely rejected to the idea.) Some who favor taking action suggested that Pope Francis appoint a special commission to study the problem. Others proposed addressing the issue on a case-by-case basis through the “internal forum,” that is, a spiritual discernment in concert with a priest, perhaps with guidance from the local bishops conference or even the Holy See itself, which might lead to reconciliation and Communion.
At least that’s what comes through in the reports of the individual language groups. There were four English-language discussions, a diverse group that included people from the Americas, Asia, Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. The only one to definitively call for action on Communion for the remarried was Group B, whose moderator was Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, and whose relator was Archbishop Diarmiud Martin of Dublin. Their group proposed a process of “reverential listening,” that might include: Considering whether the first marriage should be annulled (that’s the external forum), or whether it should be considered in the internal forum, “with recourse to a delegate of the bishop where one is established for this purpose.” This process, it was proposed, might also mean “attending to the wounds caused by divorce,” an account of the second marriage—including “its stability, fruitfulness, and the responsibilities that flow from it,” and focusing on the spiritual growth through repentance.
This group also discussed the possibility of “spiritual communion” for those whose “objective state of life—an irregular union” bars them from receiving the Eucharist but may not be “subjectively culpable of any continuing state of sin.” Something like this was proposed by Pope Benedict XVI back in 1984. In Commonweal’s interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, he addressed the issue: “Spiritual communion is to be one with Christ. But if I am one with Christ, I cannot be in a situation of grave sin. So if they can receive spiritual communion, why not also sacramental Communion?”
The same group also asked Pope Francis to set up a commission to study the situations of Catholic in “irregular unions,” including the divorced and remarried, and those in polygamous relationships.
ROME—In the beginning was the letter. And the letter was published. By Sandro Magister, longtime Vaticanista, sometime critic of this papacy, and current insinuator of the idea that one of those responsible for leaking the text may be the most famous resident of Casa Santa Marta.
Last week, Magister published a letter sent by several cardinals to Pope Francis, criticizing the synod process for favoring those who want to change church practice on a range of contested issues. The letter, which was sent to the pope before the synod began, received a direct response when Francis delivered an unscheduled address on the second day of the proceedings. He reminded the synod fathers that he had personally approved of the synod process, and urged them not to fall victim to a “hermeneutic of conspiracy.” (That memorable line was amusingly interpreted by the camptastically named “Xavier Rynne II”—who has been aiming his firehose of verbiage at the goings-on here since the synod began. And by George if he doesn’t think the pope’s phrase wasn’t really referring to those who have been hoping for some change out of this meeting. XR2 assures that the leak “certainly did not involve the Holy Father.” So that’s a relief.)
ROME—Hoping to see a resolution to the most neuralgic issues being debated at the Synod of the Family by the time it ends next weekend? Don’t hold your breath. That’s the message that came through during today’s briefing at the Holy See Press Office. While “there is confidence” among the synod fathers that “something can emerge from this process of fermentation,” according to Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, there is no consensus on questions related to Communion for the divorced and remarried, homosexuality, and others living in “irregular relationships.”
That makes it highly unlikely that the final summary document, which synod fathers will vote on—paragraph by paragraph—later this week, will include definitive language on any of the contested issues. That doesn’t mean Pope Francis won’t step in at some point—my money is on a post-synodal study commission—and it certainly doesn’t mean that these three weeks of discernment have been a waste. To the contrary, as Francis made clear in his remarks commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the synod on Saturday, the synodality established by this meeting of bishops is a preview of what he wants to see from the whole church. “A synodal church is a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing.” He continued: “It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.”
Synoding is hard work—this has been a constant refrain of all the synod fathers who have appeared at the press conferences. And who could doubt it? It’s not unusual for participants to put in twelve-hour days. Coleridge spoke of a sense of “weariness” among the synod fathers. “I have a strong sense that we wonder how we’re going to get through to Sunday morning [when the synod concludes]—how we’re going to write a final document.”
ROME—In an interview with America magazine, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., makes it clear that he is having none of the agitation against Pope Francis’s Synod on the Family.
ROME—The Holy See Press Office has taken to holding two-part press conferences, which is great if you want to hear more voices explaining what’s happening inside the synod hall, but not so great if you want lots of time for Q & A. Yesterday was one such presser. First we had reports on the synod fathers’ various interventions, and then we heard a couple of “fraternal delegates” to the synod—that is, representatives of non-Catholic religious communities.
So, what’s happening inside the aula? Discussions are becoming “more emotional,” according to one Vatican spokesperson. There’s been a slight shift from earlier interventions. The synod fathers are hearing about a very wide range of issues, including Humanae vitae, violence between Christians and Catholics (was this a reference to Ukraine? Unclear), the suffering of childless couples, adoption, intrafamily violence, families displaced by migration, care of the elderly, who often suffer isolation and a feeling of uselessness that leads to suicide, families torn by sexual abuse, “the martyrdom of silence in many families where incest has taken place.” The synod fathers also heard interventions about sexual education. One urged the church to resist the dominant, “disastrous” secular model of sex-ed. It should present its teachings as a pathway of love, not sin.
Some synod fathers spoke at length about Pope Francis’s reform of the annulment process (it’s speedier now, and less expensive). Others shared personal experiences of ministering to couples, recounting the experience of being formed by the husbands and wives they had set out to form. It’s easy for bishops to be drawn into the sense of being in control, one synod father said in the aula, as though they are the only ones to impart knowledge. But, he continued, ministry with couples always involves mutual enrichment.
At the heart of the synod, according to one participant, is human sexuality. He acknowledged that most bishops don’t know how to talk about it because they’re celibate. This is why married couples are essential to the discussion. And indeed, the synod fathers heard from some—Sharron Cole, a former board member of a natural family planning organization, even pressed them to reconsider Humanae vitae.
ROME—The bells of St. Peter’s tell me that it’s 8 a.m. The traffic on the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri, the six-lane thoroughfare that bends along the Vatican’s southern wall where it meets Paul VI Audience Hall—where synod meets—tells me that it’s rush hour. The calendar tells me that nearly two weeks of this General Synod on the Family are in the books. All anybody wants to tell me is that they have no idea whether, when the whole shindig wraps next Sunday, the bishops will have anything to show for it.
We the media honestly have no idea. We learn what we learn from interviews with synod fathers, from three-minute speeches some release to the public, from near-daily Holy See press briefings, which sometimes feature a bishop or two, and satellite press conferences that may or may not actually be press conferences.
I’m thinking of the one called by Voice of the Family, a pop-up activist supergroup intent on holding the line on any and all church doctrine and discipline regarding the family. Somehow they got press credentials for last year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family (as did several other activists); this year, it seems, not so much. Yesterday morning VOF managed to fill an upper room at the Hotel Columbus, just off St. Peter’s Square, with a bunch of journalists hoping to catch some news from the headliner: Cardinal Raymond Burke. The cardinal spent much of the 2014 synod, and the year between that meeting and this one, resisting any change in church practice. So, as expected, when reporters had finished sitting through the undercard—which presented so close a reading of the synod’s working document as to determine that, in the words of one speaker, one of its paragraphs constituted a “direct attack on parental rights” that is “opposed to Catholic teaching”—and the main event, which was generally much calmer, they wanted to ask the cardinal some questions.
But the organizers wouldn’t have it.
ROME—A couple of quick developments before the daily press briefing, where reports from the synod's small-group discussions will be distributed.
First, before Pope Francis began his Wednesday catechesis, he offered a mysterious apology: “In the name of the church, I ask forgiveness for the scandals that recently have occurred in Rome and at the Vatican.” Then he delivered an address on the “scandal” of breaking the promise to love our children. “Jesus taught us to become like little children; in protecting our children, and protecting the family, may we keep the great promise which God has given to us in them, an through them, to our human family,” Francis said.
So what was Francis apologizing for? Take your pick: The sexual-abuse scandal (as he did in Philadelphia)? The leak of a letter criticizing the synod process signed by who-knows-how-many cardinals, which Cardinal Müller* recently compared to the Vatileaks scandal (more on that in a moment)? The Polish priest who announced he was in a relationship with another man—and that there are many more like him—on the eve of the synod? The Polish priest who had been spokesman for World Youth Day until it came to light that he had fathered a child? The absurdly ostentatious funeral for an alleged mafia boss? The financial scandals of the Vatican Bank? It could be any of these, or others (see John Thavis’s blog), or all. But the fact that Francis offered so general a mea culpa could indicate his frustration with the drip-drip of stories that make it look like little has changed since Benedict’s Vatican fell under the shadow of scandal.
ROME—In one of my favorite scenes from the Mel Brooks classic, History of the World: Part I (there was no second part), Moses descends from Mt. Sinai to deliver God’s laws, carrying not two but three stone tablets. “I have these fifteen”—he announces, just as one tablet crashes to the ground—“oy…ten commandments!” That came to mind as the day’s major synod news—that thirteen cardinals had signed a letter to the pope more or less calling the entire process into question—went from looking like a potential threat to Francis’s project to a strange episode that could leave the synod’s critics looking disorganized.
To those of you who haven’t been playing along at home, a recap: Early this morning, veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister—who lost his Holy See press credential for leaking a late, but not final draft of Laudato si’—reported that thirteen cardinals, several with senior positions in the Vatican, signed a letter criticizing key features of the synodal process. According to Magister, the list included Cardinal Pell, Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Müller, and Cardinal Napier, among others. High-energy church observers such as Damian Thompson soon announced that the synod was on the verge of a breakdown: “The seniority of the signatories shows how close the church is to civil war.” But reports of the synod’s collapse appear to have been exaggerated. Because by late this afternoon, four of the thirteen alleged signatories had denied signing the letter: Cardinals Erdő, Piacenza Scola, and Vingt-Trois.
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