Conservative Hardliners at Synod Prompt Question: “What Are We Doing Here?”

As the first week of the second installment of the bishops’ synod on the family draws to a close, it seems that some of the bishop participants haven’t gotten the memo from Pope Francis that they’re supposed to find ways to change the church without really changing the church.

On Monday, Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, the secretary of the synod, sought to strike a preemptive blow for conservatives, who were blindsided by resurgent progressives last fall pushing for more leeway for divorced and gay Catholics. Erdő declared that it would be impossible to find a way to extend communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, as suggested by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, because they are living in sin. “It is not the failing of the first marriage but the living in a second relationship that impedes access to the Eucharist,” he said, arguing that only by agreeing to live chastely could such Catholics be readmitted to communion.

He also threw cold water on any pastoral talk of being more welcoming to LGBT couples in committed relationship, which last year’s synod praised as having “positive values”: “There is no basis for comparing or making analogies, even remotely, between homosexual unions and God’s plan for matrimony and the family.”

As John Allen reports in Crux, Erdő’s remarks prompted Italian Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli to ask “what are we doing here?” if any changes in even pastoral practice were off the table.

What are the bishops doing there indeed? As Ross Douthat observed in the New York Times, there is only one likely outcome to this synod. It’s unlikely, given his preference for consensus, that Francis will override the bishops and go “full Kasper,” issuing an edict giving divorced and remarried Catholics a path to communion. But it’s equally unlikely that given all the effort put into the two-year-long, two-part synod process, he won’t do anything.

That makes the most likely outcome, according to Douthat, “simple ambiguity,” with Francis issuing a post-synod exhortation that:

1) officially reaffirms the indissolubility of marriage, 2) doesn’t endorse any specific pastoral approach for the divorced and remarried (or for the cohabitating, or gay couples, etc.), but 3) also doesn’t condemn any propositions or approaches to these issues, and simply calls bishops and pastors to further study, experimentation, and debate, and to a “courageous accompaniment” of couples living contrary to the church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage.

All that to basically certify what’s been more or less the status quo? With the more progressive bishops like the German bishops’ conference already experimenting with a more pastoral approach to divorced and remarried Catholics and a host of LGBT friendly churches? Not to mention that very few priests in the West refuse to marry couples who cohabitate before marriage.

But it’s hard to feel sorry for Pope Francis and those pushing for a more “welcoming” church because they’re basically stuck in a box of their own design. By declaring that certain doctrines, such as the ban on contraception and women’s ordination, are untouchable because they are settled church teaching, Francis undercuts his argument that other teachings, such as the ban on communion for the remarried, have some wiggle room.

Not only are many conservatives making what is essentially a Humanae Vitae-type argument against easing the pastoral application of the marriage teaching—that it would lead down a slippery slope to the complete undermining of the Church’s teaching regarding sexuality—but now they’re directly countering Francis’ contention that there is much in the church that even needs fixing.

The preliminary reports from the first small group discussions held this week indicate that a sizable number of bishops believe that the preparatory document is all doom-and-gloom and doesn’t do enough to celebrate the sizable number of Catholics who are successfully leading a traditional Catholic family life, reports John Allen:

The synod’s final report ‘should begin with hope rather than failures, because a great many people already do successfully live the Gospel’s good news about marriage,’ said the English-language group headed by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, warning against breeding a sense of ‘pastoral despair.’

However, one of the German bishops cautioned that holding the hard line on the communion teaching in the face of the realities faced by divorced couples makes people “doubt God.” Archbishop Heiner Koch said, “More than a few people concerned leave the Church with their children on the basis of what they see as a rejection,” reports Joshua McElwee in the National Catholic Reporter.

And that’s the fundamental question facing the bishops over the three-week synod. Do they keep whistling Dixie and pretending that the church’s teachings regarding marriage and sex have any relevance to the majority of Catholics (who stay with the church in spite of these teachings, not because of them)? Or, as the pragmatic Germans (and Pope Francis) suggest, do they face reality head-on and try to meet Catholics somewhere in the middle?

  • DKeane123

    “…but now they’re directly countering Francis’ contention that there is much in the church that even needs fixing.”

    As you alluded to at the end of the post, I guess they could take this attitude if they want to be preaching to entirely empty pews within the next 50 years.

  • Liza Liza

    all christian churches are experiencing decline in the west… even the most liberal anglican church. It is not U.S. and Europe which will save the church. It is the millions and millions of Africans and Latin Americans and Asians.

  • DKeane123

    Based upon these policies, the Church certainly isn’t going to save Africans or Latin American…

  • Liza Liza

    the church is growing in the three continents… africa, asia, latin america… the west is a dying culture… christianity is dying and population is in decline….

  • GaryLockhart

    Prior to being excommunicated ferendae sententiae for their heretical views, all German clerics should be drug tested.

  • colkoch

    The West is an evolving culture in which patriarchy is in it’s death throws. If the RCC thinks a similar evolution won’t happen in Latin America, Africa, and Asia it’s only because they choose to be blind.

  • Liza Liza

    it is secular ideas which are killing europe and the west. The Church has no option but to re-affirm the traditional teaching. Almost all churches which embraced secular ideas are declining faster than the Catholic church. Anglican church is the most liberal Christian church and it is declining faster than any Christian denomination. Europe and America must wake up and accept the fact that Secular ideas will destroy Western culture. Muslims are migrating and producing more babies in Europe and America. Time will come, Europe and America will be Muslim…

  • Celtic Tiger

    I hope, while at this Synod, the bishops and Francis settle the long-standing argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
    It continues to amaze me that these often doddering old celibates (as far as we know) consider themselves interpreters of their god’s will and meaning. I suppose it’s all they’ve got for a life lived in fantasy. Any thinking person who’s relationship to the Church is simply familial, cultural, social will continue to ignore these political clerics even while enjoying the current Pope’s PR offensive.

  • colkoch

    I don’t think the land mass of Europe particularly cares which kind of humanity populates it. The Anglican Church in the US is not declining any faster than any other anglo Church and that includes the RCC.

  • Liza Liza

    you can keep denying it… facts and figures never lie… contraception, abortion are all secular ideas and they are responsible for the decline of population in the west…. In france alone, 5% of the population are already Muslim. Anglican church in England is declining so fast. All European countries are not producing enough babies. Islam is flourishing in Europe. The fastest growing religion today is Islam. They are producing so many babies.

  • colkoch

    I am not terrified of a Muslim takeover of Europe. Nor do I think it behooves anyone to get in a baby population war with Islam. I happen to think Islamic women will very quickly realize they too have rights when it comes to their reproductive choices. The internet is already having a major impact on Islamic culture and that is not going to go away.

  • Pony

    The Catholic Church has enough wealth to keep it going without people for at least 500 years. And its doctrines are about objective spiritual ideas that simply get muddied by subjects.

  • Liza Liza

    tell that to France which experienced recent terrorism in by Muslim immigrants. The fact of the matter is, Muslim immigrants can’t assimilate in a secular society.

  • colkoch

    And you know this for 100% fact. My Native American friends have a very different opinion of what it was like for their ancestors to deal with white European immigrants. Karma maybe.

  • Terri Hemker

    A good day to remember this as many of us celebrate not Columbus Day but Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

  • Liza Liza

    that’s already an old issue. We are living in the 21st century. Islam Fundamentalists do not even care if you are a native american or not. As long as you are against Muslim religion and you do not affirm that Allah is God, you are an enemy.

  • Jim Reed

    nothing

  • Smknws

    If the Vatican doesnt know that divorced Catholics go
    to church and receive all the sacraments

    and have been doing so for centuries. Have they forgotten they lost England
    over a divorce ?

    I cant believe they haven’t learned a lesson yet . The priest doesnt ask
    every one at the alter

    if they are divorced they don’t even know if they are catholic !!!
    and people dont wear a badge

    to identify married or divorced .

    The churches would be empty if divorced people or couples with kids living
    together for yrs or gay people stayed away … The Vatican thinks its OK for a
    mother of six to stay fore ever with an alcoholic man who comes home drunk and
    beats her in front of the kids , so badly, covered with blood , he has no
    job , she has to work and get food stamps . Staying with him and being true to
    her catholic belief is what the Vatican wants for abused women , or will they
    be shunned by God if they divorce …In case the Vatican doesnt know ,
    excommunication cant really stop anyone going to church or communion and the
    only way to be separated from God … is to die , but NO death of the body
    allows God to leave ..

    about going to HELL which part of US would go there , the body returns to
    dust and the IMAGE of God our SOUL goes back to God who is the S
    ource O f Universal Life

    Thats why the Catholic church is declining so fast, ridiculous rules and
    regulations when most other churches move with the times . SO MANY Catholics are
    going to churches who have female priests and divorce is not a problem those
    churches give communion & accept LGBT people as equally made in the “image
    of God ” there is only one God no matter what church a person belongs to ..

    There would be a lot more priests if they allowed priests to marry , it
    would be easy to reverse that LAW seeing as it was created by the Vatican so
    that the descendants couldnt claim property … or ask for support …GREED …I
    am sure there would be less divorce if priests actually had the experience and
    problems that come along with marriage .

    Vatican had turned a blind eye to a larger problem than birth control and
    divorce until the sex abuse by “pedophile priests ” hit the headlines .

    When will the Vatican evolves into the 21st century and realize birth
    control is a gift from God and most Catholics in every country use it in one
    form or another , otherwise there would be a world wide famine and millions more
    abortions . If any church or government want to deny birth control , fine as
    long as they have to fully support the unwanted children till they graduate from
    college , maybe they would rethink some of those man made religious rules and
    give women back the power to choose for themselves .