Monday, October 26, 2015

Catholic paper on family is hailed by all sides, raising fears of disputes


OCTOBER 26, 2015

VATICAN CITY — Any good compromise allows everyone to claim victory. And that is exactly what the document on family matters approved late Saturday by 270 bishops from around the world did.

But the conflicting interpretations — witnessed in headlines and Catholic blogs in Italy and elsewhere on Sunday — underscored the contention and confusion that remains on issues like divorce, homosexuality and cohabitation for Catholics.

Both conservative and liberal commentators and news outlets, deliberately or not, seemed to interpret the passages in a way that reinforced their views, raising the question of whether what the bishops billed as a consensus document may widen divisions over critical issues, rather than bridge them.

The bishops’ final report to Pope Francis amounts to their recommendations. Deliberately uncontroversial in controversial areas, the synod “achieved consensus through ambiguity,” the Rev Thomas Reese wrote on Saturday in The National Catholic Reporter.

That ambiguity served to reassure bishops who feared change to Catholic doctrine that there would be no change at all, while giving those who wanted change the hope that the pope could act freely to liberalise the church should he want to.

But the same ambiguity did less to bring clarity to the pressing family issues that some Catholics and their parish priests must deal with in their daily lives. It may even have added to the confusion, if Sunday’s headlines were anything to go by.

Some Catholic commentators hailed the document as “a prudent opening to divorced remarried Catholics,” as the Rome daily La Repubblica reported. Others noted that the bishops had built on the existing norms — in effect changing nothing.

“Synod report: Nothing new, merely reinforcing existing pastoral practices with an emphasis on helping with continual conversion,” Brother Gabriel Mosher, a Dominican friar, wrote on his Twitter account.

The best example of conflicting interpretations was, perhaps, on the issue of whether divorced Catholics who have remarried without an annulment could receive the sacrament of communion. If anything, the document indicated that the bishops were open to leaving the issue up to the “discernment” of local clergy on a case-by-case basis.

That was not the takeaway for many.

A front-page headline in the centrist Rome newspaper Il Messaggero read: “Yes to communion to divorces.”

In its headline, the conservative newspaper Il Giornale summed up the conclusions in four words: “Divorces yes, gays no,” a reference to the bishops’ clear rejection of same-sex marriage.

Some newspapers interpreted the synod, as the bishops’ assembly is called, as a body blow to the pope. “Bishops Hand Francis Defeat on Divorce Issue,” The Wall Street Journal said.

Mr Gerard O’Connell, writing in the Jesuit magazine America, came to quite the opposite conclusion. Despite a strong push to close doors, the bishop’s document “has greatly strengthened the hand of Pope Francis in his effort to build a church” that is merciful and not judgmental, he wrote.

Others were simply disappointed. While an initial draft of the document last year suggested there could be greater opening toward gay Catholics, the final report this year did not expand on the church’s teaching that gays should be treated with respect.

It also confirmed that the church did not consider same-sex unions to be part of “God’s plan for marriage and the family.” Ms Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an organisation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics, said the document was “deeply disappointing,” blocking “civil and moral equality for our community.”

The widely diverging interpretations spoke to the church’s concerted attempt to present a united front after intense deliberations that revealed profound divisions among the prelates. Though the discussions among the 270 bishops were held in private, signs of discontent emerged along with a tinge of intrigue and accusations of conspiracy against the pope.

The divisions raised the question among some commentators about “whether this was a healthy or destructive experience for Catholicism; whether it leaves the church stronger or weaker, more energized or simply more fractured,” as Mr John L Allen Jr, associate editor of Crux, a Catholic website, put it.

Those divisions emerged most clearly and deeply in the passages on divorced Catholics who later get civil marriages and are considered to be living in sin if their first marriage has not been annulled. Voting suggested that nearly 1 in 3 bishops still holds that the current teaching should not be changed.

A section calling on the church to better integrate divorced and remarried people, and to see whether some people can be included in elements of church life from which they are now excluded, was adopted by a vote of 187-72.

And another section delineating how the remarried Catholics might be more fully integrated into church life through a process of reflection and penitence with a priest barely made the necessary two-thirds majority, with a vote of 178-80. Receiving Communion is not mentioned in either section, “because that was the only way the paragraphs could get a two-thirds majority,” Reese wrote in The National Catholic Reporter.

The implication, however, is that the door is left open for people who had no options before, to at least initiate a “dialogue with a priest,” as the document states, which could lead to some form of fuller participation.

That notion of dialogue emerged in the pope’s homily Sunday, at a Mass to observe the end of the synod. Jesus, he said, “wants to hear our needs.

Pope Francis continued, “A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts.”


[When I was in University, away from my family, I attended a church with an interesting priest. One Vocation Sunday, when all the churches talk about a religious vocation to try to encourage young people to consider a vocational life, the Parish Priest spoke about how he became a priest quite late in his life.

He was a cop first. Then after another night of partying and drinking, as he waded through the aftermath of the house party, he wondered what was the purpose of his life. And for some reason, he found himself heading towards God and Church and the Priesthood. He took his vows quite late in life, but I always felt that he had a better appreciation of the reality of life, and the need to accept people whatever the choices in their lives. 

I felt that his humanity, his humility, his appreciation of human weakness, and a shared struggle in the great endeavour that is LIFE, came through in his homilies. 

And it is in this context, that I want to tell the story I overheard between two churchgoers after one Sunday's Mass.

Two women were talking and one found out the other lived some distance away and should be going to another church, but she did not. She preferred this church with the ex-Cop who was the parish priest because the other church I think, did not "approve" of her divorced status or Single mother status (sorry, I can't remember which. It was over 20 years ago). 

Whatever her status, the priest there sought to limit her participation in church. Or her daughter's. (again I can't recall which). And she was indignant. If not furious. about this.

The ex-Cop priest was not as judgmental and she felt more welcomed at that church.

At the time, I remembered thinking, that's not a very nice thing for the other priest or church to do. And that I was glad that there was a church that she could find acceptance.

And the rigid rule part of me was a little bit affronted by this pick-and-choose religious practice (a sin is a sin! You can't decide what sin to accept or not!)

But that priest taught me one thing: It's not for us to judge. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. 

So that ex-cop Priest, I am sure he has had his fair share of sins. And that is why he is forgiving. Only a sinner can understand. ]

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