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.