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?