Did Pope Francis Win, Lose or Draw at the Family Synod?

How you view the no-consensus outcome of the just-concluded Extraordinary Synod on the Family very much depends on whether or not you are rooting for Pope Francis to change the Catholic Church. The unexpectedly warm welcome given to gay Catholics in the mid-synod report raised hopes that a major change in the church’s attitude, if not its teaching, was just around the corner.

The fact that those changes were scrapped—along with language acknowledging value in “irregular” partnerships and a possible opening for divorced Catholics to receive communion—in the final document shouldn’t come as a surprise. The overwhelming majority of bishops and cardinals at the synod were appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict and these conservatives don’t plan to go gently into that good night.

Even watered-down language reaffirming that same-sex unions weren’t remotely like “real” marriage but saying that Catholics with a “homosexual orientation” should be treated with respect didn’t get the required two-thirds vote to be considered the consensus of the synod.

Progressive Catholics, however, see it as a win and a sign of progress that there was even open discussion about these issues allowed at the synod. Most encouraging, says Andrew Sullivan, is the new level of transparency under Pope Francis and his decision to include the failed paragraphs and their vote tallies in the final document:

And there you see why it is not wishful thinking to believe that something profound has indeed occurred so far in this Synod. Neither of the two previous popes would ever have allowed the original language to even see the light of day – Ratzinger as arbiter of church doctrine for decades could sniff heterodoxy on this like a beagle with a distant potato chip – and stamp it out with relentless assiduity. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI would have excised the outreach to gay people altogether. And the idea of a transparent vote tally – revealing a vigorous internal division on these questions – would have been unthinkable.

The true headline of this past remarkable week is therefore: the Vatican hierarchy cannot find a consensus on the question of pastoral care for gays, the divorced and the re-married, and the Pope is happy for this fact to be very, very public.

These issues will be on the table again next fall, when the bishops reconvene for the next phase of the synod, and as Grant Gallicho notes, the outcome may be different:

When the synod reconvenes, it won’t be quite the same. Some who participated in this year’s meeting won’t be back (I’m thinking of papal critic Cardinal Raymond Burke). And Francis will likely select new cardinals come February. Why might a new-look synod matter? Because the sections that failed still had majority support [though a 2/3 majority is required for passage]. The paragraph on gay people, for example, failed by just six votes. But the synod fathers who want divorced and remarried Catholics to be able to receive the Eucharist have a longer row to hoe. Those sections failed by larger margins—and they did nothing more than state what had been discussed.

Conservatives, on the other hand, took comfort in the fact that nothing really did change. At First Things, William Doino see the essentially status quo of the final report as evidence of the immutability of Catholic teaching and says the so-called Francis revolution is a fantasy:

The final report—not a magisterial document, but expressive of the synod’s will—was published with the full approval of the Pope, and is by any measure “conservative” in nature. The statement even quotes from a 2003 Vatican document—signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and approved by St. John Paul II—which is quite strong in its teaching against homosexual conduct and same-sex unions. … Claims from alarmists that Francis was about to “rock” the Church, and repudiate the legacy of his predecessors, now look dated and overhyped.

In the Washington Post, however, theology professor David Cloutier cautioned against viewing the synod in political terms:

Unlike secular political movements, the church is not staking out positions on social issues with the goal of effecting—or blocking—legal or cultural change…. Instead, the goal is to facilitate the encounter with God, in the person of Jesus and in the community of the church.

But at the end of the day, the decisions that the Vatican takes on these issues do have real-world implications that are inevitably “political,” as the church’s efforts to oppose same-sex marriage and contraceptive access have shown. And while the pope and the bishops debate how many divorced or gay Catholics can fit on the head of a pin, these temporal realities continued to evolve—with or without them.

On the one hand, Notre Dame announced that it will extend benefits to employees in same-sex unions following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Indiana. On the other, Catholic dioceses around the country are imposing “morality clauses” on employees that essentially threaten to fire anyone who goes public with a homosexual relationship. It’s no wonder Catholics, at least in the West, largely make up their own minds on these issues.

It’s perhaps fitting then that on the last day of the synod, Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI, the pope who dithered for years about birth control while society, and Catholics, evolved on the issue. By the time he finally released Humanae Vitae in 1968, Catholics had already made up their minds and largely ignored it. The church is still trying to figure out how to get back the moral authority it lost on sex-related issues with that blunder. But even with Francis at the helm, it’s not clear it can do anything but talk.



  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    I think you meant to use the word devolved.

  • chrysaet05@yahoo.ca' Dennis says:

    Why is it that so called progressive attitudes continue to be so backwards thinking. The church has done exactly what the church needed to do. Those that were trying to impose their own beliefs were stopped. Thank God for that as the so-called progressive approach is destroying peoples lives and families.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    No one was trying to “impose their own beliefs,” and both sides of any disagreement were entirely within the Church.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Oh, Frank. You’re making a fool of yourself. How sad.

  • khughes7@woh.rr.com' khughes1963 says:

    The other thing that has helped to destroy any moral credibility that the hierarchy has with many lay Catholics has been the revolting way the bishops around the world have handled the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by the clergy.

  • enotsra@hotmail.com' Shnide says:

    The Apostle Paul warned: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3) Hats off to the cardinals for resisting this, and not giving in to public pressure to normalize sin.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Eyeroll. Maybe they already did, years ago. That kind of prophecy can suit everyone’s fancy.

  • Pope Frankie won the moment he finished his opening speech.

  • joannesthilaire@yahoo.com' sleepingquail says:

    How could one possibly devolve from deMontfort and Liguori. Tearing down a superstructure founded on idolatry and codified devotional queerness might be a start in the church actualy representing the body of Christ and not the delusions of its self proclaimed head.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    How embarrassing for you.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Do you ever tire of making a fool of yourself, Frank? What a shame you are to the name of Christ.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    There is a solution to this problem. There is nothing stopping us from having two popes, one conservative, and one progressive. Then individual people or families can decide which one they want to listen to. 1900 years of Christian history has shown us this is often the best solution, and sometimes the only possible solution to political differences in the body of Christ. As events continue, and new problems arise, this can be instituted multiple times, as often as is necessary to keep Christians happy and spiritually growing.

  • benf2001@yahoo.com' BWF says:

    Shnide, do you think you’re more Catholic than the pope?

  • enotsra@hotmail.com' Shnide says:

    Nope…just more biblical

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    It is important for us to continue to make progress toward a more loving and just world, and so we can’t just react every time people use the Bible to define things as sin.

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