This afternoon the Vatican Synod on the Family amended and approved the final document summing up three weeks of chaotic and sometimes poisonous debate – much of it focussing on whether divorced and remarried people should be allowed to receive communion.
The majority view of the Synod Fathers is that they don’t want the rules changed. They especially don’t want one rule to apply in, say, Germany and another in Tanzania. Pope Francis has just given a cautiously worded (but also, alas, rather waffly) address in which he acknowledges as much:
… we have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.
Significantly, the Fathers didn’t back a ‘solution’ suggested by liberal cardinals, whereby divorced and remarried Catholics could consult their consciences and their confessors over whether they should follow the rules.
This was the liberal Plan B, hastily put together after it became clear at the beginning of the Synod that there was no chance that Cardinal Walter Kasper’s radical plan to scrap the communion ban would be voted through.
Please don’t ask me to explain Plan B in detail. Liberal journalists got very excited about this supposed ‘breakthrough’, associated with the German-speaking cardinals Marx and Schönborn, plus Archbishop Cupich of Chicago. But they didn’t manage to tell us how it would work in practice, given that the Synod Fathers are sticking by St John Paul II’s ruling that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can’t receive the sacrament and that’s that.
The final report of the Synod encourages pastors to ‘accompany’ divorced and remarried Catholics as they ‘discern’ their culpability – on a case-by-case basis, as not every divorced Catholic is equally guilty (very true, but a point already made by St John Paul). However, there’s no mention of readmitting them to communion. If I were a Catholic in this situation, I wouldn’t read the report as giving me any sort of permission to receive the sacrament, though I might – with a leap of the imagination assisted by liberal Catholic journalists – recognise the tiniest of steps in that direction.
As for homosexuality – no change at all. How could there be, when the most powerful African bishop, Cardinal Robert Sarah, described gay rights and ISIS as twin evils threatening Christendom? (I’m sick of pointing this out, but opposing homophobia in the Church is not high on Pope Francis’s agenda. Fighting gay marriage is.)
I’m going to stick my neck out and say that conservatives basically ‘won’ this synod – they fought successfully behind the scenes and in the debates to block changes to pastoral practice that (a) they believe go against the teaching of the very anti-divorce Jesus of Nazareth and (b) would have outraged the increasingly powerful churches of Africa.
The key moment was the revelation that 13 senior cardinals had written to Pope Francis telling him, in diplomatic language, that any softening on divorce and homosexuality would divide the Church along Protestant lines. Fr Raymond de Souza, writing in the Catholic Herald, has a theory about the importance of that letter in this fascinating post. He also has a stab at explaining the liberal’s Plan B (or maybe it was Plan C, since there seem to have been three pro-Kasper positions).
But the conservatives won’t regard this as a famous victory, and the liberals won’t despair. That’s because Francis, so far as we can tell, supports some form of pastoral change and he is, after all, the Pope.
He may choose to overrule the synod, or turn a blind eye to bishops bending the rules – which would be very dangerous for him, given the conservatism of the report published today. Then again, he lives dangerously.
But, whatever happens, this synod and the preparatory one that fell to pieces last year, will overshadow his pontificate. The naive hopes of divorced and gay Catholics have been raised and dashed. Clergy and active lay people are more divided today that at any time since the aftermath of the Vatican Council 50 years ago. Maybe the next pope will be able to heal these wounds; probably not.