The III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that ended on October 19 left many questions regarding divorced and gay Catholics unanswered. While the media hyped the statements made in both the mid-report and the final report from the conference, observers emphasize that the most important thing about the Synod was the way Pope Francis and other Bishops conducted the assembly.
The groundbreaking part of this Synod was the transparent way with which it was handled. The synod is a gathering of Catholic bishops from all over the world that meets to discuss issues of concern for the Catholic Church. Since its creation after the Second Vatican Council, previous assemblies have been almost entirely scripted in advance. This was not the case for the most recent synod where debate was open and lively.
“Pope Francis is leaving his mark by saying that we have nothing to fear from open and honest debate,” Richard Gaillardetz, the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systemic Theology, said of the recent synod.
This “extraordinary” synod is a prelude to the “ordinary synod” schedule for next year. No official guidelines regarding marriage were made at the assembly nor was this the purpose of the assembly. Rather the synod was held as a means of preparing for the ordinary synod that will take place next October.
On October 13 the Synod came out with a mid-report that documented the general ideas and the comments made thus far. The two ideas within that document that sparked the most controversy were those about gay members of the church and divorced and re-married members of the church.
One paragraph of the mid-report stated, “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” Another controversial paragraph on divorced and re-married Catholics stated that “access to the sacraments (of Holy Communion and Reconciliation) might take place if preceded by a penitential practice—determined by the diocesan bishop—and a clear commitment in favor of the children,” and another asked, “If spiritual communion (of divorced Catholics) is possible, why not allow them to partake in the Sacrament?”
Conservative members within the synod pushed back by revising the English translation of the mid-report and voting against the sections that contained these passages. After toning down the language, two sections of the final document did not receive a two-thirds majority from the Synod but all received a simple majority.
Of the two sections voted down, one pertained to divorced and remarried Catholics and stated the disagreement between priests about whether or not they should receive the Eucharist. The other pertained to homosexuality and demanded that “men and women with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and delicacy,” while at the same time stating “there does not exist any basis for assimilating or making analogies, however remote, between homosexual unions and the design of God for marriage and the family.”
It is unclear why these sections were voted down. For some bishops it may have been that the statements were too progressive, and for others it may have been that the statements were not progressive enough in their watered down form. It is also important to note that because the synod contains members from all over the world there is not simply a divide between liberal and conservative bishops but a cultural divide between North and South as well.
Because the final document from this synod is considered only a work in progress, Pope Francis opted to keep all the sections in the final document and display the vote counts along with them. “The vote count was useful to show that all points had an ample consensus even if not two-thirds. There was no need to cancel them from the document because these are themes we have to develop,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.
There will likely be no new official guidelines regarding marriage and family life until after the ordinary synod taking place next October. The issues brought up at the most recent synod will serve simply as talking points for next year’s meeting. It is also important to note that the conclusions from next year’s assembly are simply recommendations for Pope Francis who will then make a decision on these matters.