That’s how veteran Vatican reporter John Thavis described a document released this morning:
In pastoral terms, the document published today by the Synod of Bishops represents an earthquake, the “big one” that hit after months of smaller tremors.
The relatio post disceptationem read aloud in the synod hall, while defending fundamental doctrine, calls for the church to build on positive values in unions that the church has always considered “irregular,” including cohabitating couples, second marriages undertaken without annulments and even homosexual unions.
Regarding homosexuals, it went so far as to pose the question whether the church could accept and value their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine.
While defending the traditional teachings that reject divorce and gay marriage, the synod said the modern church must focus more on the “positive elements” in such relationships, rather than their shortcomings, and open a patient and merciful dialogue with the people involved. The ultimate aim, it said, is to use these “seeds” of goodness to bring people more fully into the church.
It summed up the pastoral challenge for the church in this way:
“It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.”
The document clearly reflects Pope Francis’ desire to adopt a more merciful pastoral approach on marriage and family issues. It is subject to revisions by the bishops this week, and in its final form will be used as part of a church-wide reflection leading to the second synod session in October 2015.
The relatio emphasized the “principle of graduality” – the idea that Catholics move toward full acceptance of church teachings in steps, and the church needs to accompany them with patience and understanding. And it emphasized the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which leads the church to recognize positive elements even in the “imperfect forms” found outside of sacramental marriage.
The relatio said a “new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation.” Where such unions demonstrate stability, deep affection and parental responsibility, they should be considered a starting point for a dialogue that could eventually lead to sacramental marriage, it said.
It cited situations of couples who choose to live together without marriage for economic or cultural reasons, or those in Africa who enter into traditional marriages in “stages,” and said that in response the church must keep its “doors always wide open.”
“In such unions, it is possible to grasp authentic family values or at least the wish for them. Pastoral accompaniment should always start from these positive aspects,” it said.
The reflections put forward, the fruit of the Synodal dialog that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015. These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view. [Emphasis added.] All the same the collegial path of the bishops and the involvement of all God’s people under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will lead us to find roads of truth and mercy for all. This is the wish that from the beginning of our work Pope Francis has extended to us, inviting us to the courage of the faith and the humble and honest welcome of the truth in charity.
The laity will have to step up. The priests will need the support of a nursing and nurturing laity — a laity willing to humbly assist the patients, and their priests, with hands-on support and their prayers, and with a minimum of hand-wringing about how it “looks” to have all these spiritually bedraggled people milling about the pews, giving scandal to the church, as though we do not do that, all of us, every day, anyway.
We really must pray, and ask the Holy Spirit to forcefully guide the synod and its wisdom, and then keep praying all the way through to the next synod, next year. It’s that grave an issue.
There are a lot of prodigals who are “still a long way off” and whom the church wants to “run out to meet.” Gradualism is effective ministry, but it’s a long healing. Done correctly, it can completely renew the church. Implemented poorly (as was VCII) and it can be a wrecking ball, and pfft goes Catholic credibility and too, too many souls.
None of this means that Catholic doctrine is on the brink of changing, as the synod has made clear that’s not in the cards. It may, however, augur a new era of what might be called “lifestyle ecumenism,” in which the church approaches people living outside its ideal for marriage with friendship rather than condemnation.
Underlying that press is a similar Copernican revolution in theology.
As Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary made clear today in his speech summarizing the opening round of discussion, upholding church teaching on marriage does not exclude “the possibility of recognizing positive elements even in the imperfect forms that may be found” in other relationships.
Repeated references during the synod to the “law of graduality” cut in the same direction, since they imply acceptance that people move towards moral ideals through different stages and at different paces. The fact that someone may be in a situation less than what the church considers ideal therefore doesn’t mean that there’s no moral value at all in their current circumstances.
In other words, just as Vatican II taught that elements of truth and holiness can be found outside the Catholic Church, in other Christian denominations and even in other religions, the Synod of Bishops seems to be saying there are pieces of truth and holiness outside Catholic marriage in all sorts of other relationships.
It remains to be seen whether that insight will have a similar transforming effect on the way Catholicism engages the outside world. Like the original ecumenical vision of Vatican II, however, it does seem to correspond to a widely held hunger at the grassroots for a new way of relating to people in unconventional family situations.