Church attitudes in major shift at Synod on Family
The Synod on the Family’s mid-term report has created an ‘earthquake’ within the Church, with its call for greater acceptance and appreciation of divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabiting couples and homosexuals.
The report’s view on personal situations that are contrary to Catholic teaching is posed in strikingly conciliatory language, and has been broadly welcomed by groups that hitherto have often clashed with the Church.
With the Holy Father listening intently, the realtor of the synod, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, said: “It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations.”
Cardinal Erdo, who has the task of guiding the discussion and synthesising its results, gave an almost hour-long speech that drew on the synod’s first week of discussions.
“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” the cardinal said. “Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and evaluating their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”
The statement represents a marked shift in tone on the subject for an official Vatican document. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls for ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’ toward homosexuals, it calls their inclination ‘objectively disordered.’ A 1986 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called homosexuality a ‘more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.’ In 2003, the doctrinal congregation stated that permitting adoption by same-sex couples is ‘gravely immoral’ and ‘would actually mean doing violence to these children.’
However, in markedly different language Cardinal Erdo said that same-sex unions can exemplify “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice (that) constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.”
He noted that the “Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasising that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.”
The cardinal said a “new sensitivity in the pastoral care of today consists in grasping the positive reality of civil marriages and … cohabitation, in such unions it is possible to grasp authentic family values or at least the wish for them,” he said.
“All these situations have to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk toward the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel. They need to be welcomed and accompanied with patience and delicacy.”
Similarly, the cardinal said, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics deserve an “accompaniment full of respect, avoiding any language or behaviour that might make them feel discriminated against.”
Cardinal Erdo noted that various bishops supported making the annulment process “more accessible and flexible,” among other ways, by allowing bishops to declare marriages null without requiring a trial before a Church tribunal.
One of the most discussed topics at the synod has been a controversial proposal by German Cardinal Walter Kasper that would make it easier for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, even without an annulment of their first, sacramental marriages.
Cardinal Erdo said some synod members had spoken in support of the “present regulations,” which admit such Catholics to Communion only if they abstain from sexual relations, living with their new partners as “brother and sister”.
But the cardinal said other bishops at the assembly favoured a “greater opening” to such second unions, “on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of graduality, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances”.
As an historical example of the “law of graduality,” which he said accounts for the “various levels through which God communicates the grace of the covenant to humanity,” the cardinal quoted Jesus’ words in the Gospel of St. Matthew (19:8) acknowledging that, “because of the hardness of your hearts, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so”.
Critics of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal commonly cite another Gospel verse, in which Jesus states that “whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery”.
At a news conference following the synod’s morning session, Cardinal Erdo said no one at the synod had questioned Church teaching that Jesus’ prohibition of divorce applies to all Christian sacramental marriages.
In a press statement issued on Tuesday Cardinal Vincent Nichols pointed out that the report was “not a doctrinal or decisive document,” but was “intended to raise questions”.
Additional reporting by Francis X Rocca