Pope Francis at the Synod.

Pope Francis at the Synod.

The Interim has not covered the goings-on of the Synod on the Family, which was really two Catholic synods: the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2014, and the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2015. Pope Francis called the extraordinary synod in 2014 to examine the “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” Many liberals, both secular and within the Catholic Church, thought the year-long process would result in a massive overhaul of Catholic teaching on moral issues; many conservatives, feared the same thing. Although this was a momentous moment in the Catholic Church, this paper provided minimal coverage because many of the reports coming out of the Vatican at the time were either speculative or reflected internal church politics, which is outside the purview of this paper. But now that the synod is over, it is time to examine the process’s impact on the debate over abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and divorce, and what kind of leadership on these issues the Catholic Church will continue to take.

Some critics questioned the process from the beginning, saying at best the synod on the family would provide moral confusion and at worst, result in overturning the traditional moral teachings of the Catholic Church.

Reading the leaked reports throughout the year-long discussion, one would assume that the Catholic Church was about to radically alter its moral instruction on the supposedly “contentious” issues surrounding human sexuality and family. But as George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote in First Things, the Catholic Church was never going to change its teaching, although it might alter its approach and tone. Did it?

Three contentious issues were addressed by the synod. As summarized by the National Catholic Register in the U.S., they were: “How welcoming should the Church be to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people?” “How positive should the Church be about ‘irregular’ relationships, such as (having sexual relations) without being married?” and “Should divorced Catholics who remarry without first getting an annulment be able to receive Communion?” Those were the controversial elements of the Instrumentum Laboris, the synod’s working document. The Relatio Finalis (final report) was not as bad as many conservatives expected.

Janet E. Smith, the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, wrote in First Things, “while before I never thought things would become as good as they have, now I have trouble believing that dissenters were given such a prominent venue in which to market their discredited views.” The final document is “not fully satisfactory,” she wrote, as it provides pastoral accommodation that represents more change than many conservatives wanted to see, but neither was it as troublesome as she expected.

Each of the 94 paragraphs in the Relatio Finalis was passed with the support of more than two-thirds of the bishops present voting for them. Most of the report examined non-controversial issues such as meeting the pastoral needs of families facing various ordeals: poverty, migration, persecution, widowhood, and frail health. These, in fact, make up the bulk of the report.

On marriage it called for greater integration within the Church of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, although it did not provide any specifics. The document says that doing so does not weaken the Church’s “witness as to the indissolubility of marriage,” but rather “the Church expresses its own charity through this care.” What this means for the pastoral care for divorced Catholics is unclear, including whether or not such Catholics could receive the Eucharist if they were remarried; critics of the softened tone say that Paragraph 85 suggests that Catholics living in non-sacramental second marriages might be readmitted to the Eucharist, without first annulling their first marriage, but, again, this is unclear.

In another example of confusion, the document acknowledges the reasons couples choose cohabitation over marriage, but it called for priests to reach out to couples living together before marriage to suggest they strive for “the fullness of marriage and family.”

On the issue of homosexuality, it reiterates Catholic teaching that all individuals should be treated with dignity; it also affirmed that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others. It promoted greater pastoral outreach in non-specific ways to self-identified gay persons and their families, while rejecting pro-gay policies such as international aid being tied to developing countries liberalizing their policies on homosexuality and policies that promote the notion that gender is not fixed.

Weigel says the beginnings of the synod in 2014 sent worrying signals about liberalization through the working document. Weigel wrote, “at times, the working document seemed almost embarrassed by the settled doctrine of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage, on the conditions necessary for the worthy reception of Holy Communion, and on the virtues of chastity and fidelity. The final report reaffirms the Church’s doctrines on marriage, Holy Communion, and the possibility of living virtuously in the post-modern world.” He also noted the working document “was virtually silent on the gift of children,” whereas the final report “describes children as one of the greatest of blessings, praises large families, is careful to honor special-needs kids, and lifts up the witness of happily and fruitfully married couples and their children as agents of evangelization.” The working document “made something of a hash out of conscience and its role in the moral life,” while the final report “does a much better job of explaining the Church’s understanding of conscience and its relationship to truth, rejecting the idea that conscience is a kind of free-floating faculty of the will.”

Janet Smith does not share Weigel’s rosier view of the final report undoing the damage done by the working document. Like Humanae Vitae dissidents who argued the “spirit” of Vatican II permitted a broad understanding of conscience to pick away at clear moral teachings, Smith says that dissidents and reformers will likewise argue the spirit of the dialogue Pope Francis legitimized will spur further questioning of Catholic teaching on life and family. However, Smith is optimistic. Today, she wrote, “we are much better situated to fight and win this battle than we were to fight the troubles that came after Humanae Vitae,” because “we now have very good materials and resources, brave and good bishops, highly trained and well-placed academics and a considerable army of lay people who are seasoned soldiers ready to man their posts.”

Smith said the real reform of the church is needed at the parish level so that Catholics experience authentic community, from which proper pastoral care and evangelization can occur. From there, she wrote, “priests need to learn how to preach joyfully and authoritatively on the basic teachings of Christianity and of the Church, especially on controverted and complex moral issues.”

Pope Francis, no doubt, contributes to confusion and the false hopes of reformers. At the synod’s conclusion in October he wondered what will it mean for the Church? He said it was “not about settling all the issues having to do with the family, but rather attempting to see them in the light of the Gospel and the Church’s tradition and two-thousand-year history.” He stressed “it was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family, but rather about seeing these difficulties and uncertainties in the light of the Faith, carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand.”

Cardinal George Pell, former archbishop of Sydney, Australia and now Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, said at the synod’s conclusion, “Doctrine does develop, we understand truth more deeply, but there are no doctrinal backflips in Catholic history.”

At the (unrelated) Humanum conference Nov. 17-19 – formally, An International Interreligious Colloquium on The Complementarity of Man and Woman – evangelical pastor Rick Warren and Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore said the Catholic Church cannot change its understanding of marriage and sexual morality. Warren said, “to redefine marriage would destroy the picture that God intends for marriage to portray, and we cannot cave on this issue.” He said the “stakes are too high” for the Church to “cower in silence.” Moore echoed the synod’s final document’s anthropological take on the complementarity of man and woman and condemned the toll the sexual has taken on modern society.

The message was clear: Catholics and all Chrisitans need leadership, regardless from where it comes, that stands up against modern mores, the anything-goes morality. Moore talked about the broken marriages that afflict every congregation, getting to the point made by the synod that there is much more pastoral work to be done, and, more importantly, that abandoning moral truth is not how churches and pastors need to reach out to a confused and troubled world.

Unfortunately, controversy surrounding the synod will likely result in as many interpretations of the document as occurred after Vatican II , instead of the crystal clear teaching that reflects the church’s 2000-year history.