The optics weren’t very good. In fact, the optics were downright embarrassing.
The Ordinary Synod on the Family that concluded after a raucous three weeks in October gave the world, including the Catholic world, the impression that Church doctrine was up for grabs, albeit after a debate and — of all things — a vote.
It was exhilarating for some that the Church was considering changing doctrine that would allow those living in sincere, yet persistently adulterous relationships to take Communion and that the Church would find some sort of blessing in couplings based, at least in part, on sexual acts that are mortally sinful. Such prospects were both embarrassing and horrific for others who saw Church doctrine begin to crumble with the damage both inevitable and incalculable.
The “progressives” in this debate insisted that changing Church “praxis” would not change Church doctrine, though I become immediately suspicious when Church types start bandying about the word “praxis.” The “conservatives” insisted, rightly it seems to me, that changing practice is tantamount to changing doctrine and that such a change amounts to nothing less than heresy.
The optics were especially bad in the Vatican pressroom. Given that the proceedings were private and the interventions of the bishops were not released, outsiders were left largely with the spin of Vatican pressmen. In the case of English speakers, that of Fr. Thomas Rosica.
Early on Rosica announced that the Synod fathers were discussing the gay issue quite a bit and that the feeling was the Church needs to be less harsh concerning gays and certainly more welcoming. Archbishop Charles Chaput contradicted Rosica almost immediately, saying the issue was discussed hardly at all.
In the midst of this mess came a messy book by Vatican journalist Edward Pentin about how the Extraordinary Synod a year before had been hijacked by the progressives and how the German bishops — along with those tasked by the Pope with organizing and running the meeting — conspired to advance what’s come to be known as the German Proposition to allow Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.
The book comports with a letter that several senior cardinals sent Pope Francis at the start of the Synod on Oct. 5 in which they made similar charges that the Synod was being jiggered for a particularly progressive outcome. The letter became quite controversial with some identified signers backing away and with the Pope delivering a talk to the Synod in which he condemned what he called the “hermeneutic of conspiracy.” The conspiracy, however, seemed to be quite real.
It was hard to see that the Synod wouldn’t go off the tracks from the very beginning. People forget that well before it began, the Vatican sent around, of all things, a survey asking for the bishops to poll the laity about their concerns. Naturally, the progressives latched onto the survey and used it as a tool to advance their agenda.
As the Synod progressed, it became clear the conservatives were routing the progressives. The progressive fallback was that these nettlesome decisions should be left to the bishops’ conferences or to individual bishops, but even this failed in the end. The final document can be read as a victory for the conservatives, for the most part anyway. Communion for adulterers was left out. Celebration of homosexuality was left out.
Progressives celebrated and some conservatives bemoaned a final paragraph that talked about “discernment,” “conscience,” and “internal forum,” which is fancy-talk for speaking with your spiritual director and your bishop. Some think those four words are the key to progressive victory in the end. After all, if after discussions in the “internal forum” and proper “discernment” of your “conscience” you decide that after leaving your first wife for another, you are fine with receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, so be it.
The final document is non-binding. The Synod of Bishops is not a part of the hierarchical Church and can only inform the Pope who will now write an “apostolic exhortation” on the topic of the family.
Catholics are advised to pray. Some say that is all we can do. But that is simply not true. Catholics must do much more than pray. They must act. Legates are in a unique position to gain access and make their case to bishops — their own and others. There is a lull in the fighting, but the fighting is not done — yea, not until the consummation of the age.
AUSTIN RUSE is president of C-Fam, a New York and Washington, D.C.-based research institute on life and family matters. He is a Knight of Malta and a recipient of Legatus’ Cardinal John J. O’Connor Award.