Many are no doubt disappointed at the seeming failure of the final relatio or report issued on Oct. 18th by the special synod or meeting of bishops that began in Rome beginning Oct. 5th. But what seems to be overlooked or ignored by the media is that the overall subject of the whole meeting was family life in general and not just the particular hot button issues of how the Catholic Church should treat gays or whether the divorced and remarried should be allowed to receive Holy Communion.
In fact, except for three paragraphs touching on those particular issues, the report in general received an almost unanimous acceptance and even those three paragraphs received the approval of more than half of the bishops present. It's just that those three paragraphs lacked the requisite two-thirds required to be considered a true majority. Nevertheless, Pope Francis has ordered that those three controversial paragraphs are to be published along with the rest of the document. Why is this?
The reason for this unusual move is that this document is really not meant to be final at all, but rather an outline or summary of topics that the pope wishes to be debated and discussed by Catholics around the world in preparation for another high-level meeting a year from now. It is only then that we can expect anything like a definitive statement as to where the Church really stands on these subjects. And even then, we might ask, will the result be fixed for all time?
I ask this last question for several reasons. One is that during the passage of time, our understanding of human nature changes -- indeed, to a certain extent, not just our understanding, but perhaps, to some extent, human nature itself. But even short of that, no doubt the structure of human society changes. For example, in the ancient world, polygamy for those who could afford more than one wife at the same time, was for the most part taken for granted. And even in Christian cultures, until recently, women, much like children, were considered a man's property.
From this point of view, monogamy, the life-long union of one man and one woman who are seen as equally sharing in the responsibility of raising their children is something of an innovation, one that is still not accepted by a large segment of the world, even today. It also happens to be a specifically Christian innovation. No other major religious figure or great ethical teacher ever insisted upon it, neither Moses, the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, nor did Mohammed. Nor has Christianity itself ever fully achieved this goal.
It is this challenge that is the crux of the problem that the Church faces. It is the conflict between the ideals set by Jesus and the worldly realities that threaten them or at times make them seem impossible. What is the Church to do? Is it to betray or give up on these ideals altogether in order to make Christian life easier, or is it to insist that only those who meet the demanding goals set by Jesus as the bottom line for admission to what he called the "reign of God" or "the kingdom of heaven"? Or is there some middle way, some compassionate means by which the Church can remain true to the teachings of Christ while nevertheless including within its fold those who fall short of the ideal but have not given up trying to reach it?
It is only within this broader context that the particular issues of what welcome the Church can give to the divorced and remarried, or even to those who wish to share their whole life with someone of their own sexual orientation. And it is this pope, in particular, who seems wise enough to understand that although it is up to the bishops, united under his leadership, to make the final decisions, that they must first discern these matters not so much through their own views or experience but through the experience of their married parishioners.
After all, most of the bishops, including the pope, personally chose to forgo marriage entirely "for the sake of the kingdom." So in this matter especially, they must rely on what theologians have called the sensus fidelium -- the "sense of the faithful" -- the experience of those who are actually doing their best to live out the Gospel ideal that "What God has joined, no man must put asunder." Only when all that feedback comes in over this coming year, can they presume to decide wisely.
Yet there is an added note of irony to all the above. On Oct. 19th, the Sunday following this special synod, Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI, an official first step to declaring him to have been a saint. Despite his own admiration for his predecessor's advances in ecumenism, social justice and world peace, one might wonder if Pope Francis is not in danger of repeating what seems to have been Pope Paul's biggest mistake, which was to have ignored the advice of his own specially appointed commission set up to study and make recommend policies concerning birth control. The commission was made up mostly of experts in the fields of pastoral and moral theology, medicine, psychology, demographics, sociology, and most of all, married couples.
Yet Pope Paul caved in to pressures exerted by a few high-ranking bishops and theological conservatives. The result was the 1968 encyclical letter Humani generis, which in forbidding all forms of artificial contraceptives, including "the pill," succeeded in alienating or driving from the Church who knows how many millions of otherwise faithfully married Catholic couples. One can only hope and pray that Pope Francis knows better than to make that same mistake.