Wednesday 15 July 2015

The Documents of the Synod on the Family – A Layman's View

By Nicholas Bellord

In a letter published in the January/February edition  of Faith Magazine I asked a question about the “Law of Graduality” and its use or abuse at the Synod on the Family in October 2014.  As nobody replied to my question I decided to have a closer look myself.

My understanding of the Synod, gained from reading various reports but not the documents themselves, was that there was a  Relatio post disceptionem largely drafted by Archbishop Bruno Forte which was highly objectional but nevertheless, with a few amendments, got voted on.  Three of the sixty odd propositions did not receive the necessary two-thirds majority but received a simple majority but this was the extent of the fightback by a few brave Cardinals wishing to maintain orthodoxy.  According to Cardinal Baldisseri, Pope Francis insisted on these three propositions remaining in the Relatio so as to become part of the Lineamenta for the second half of the Synod.  I was not alone in this understanding as many have seen the Synod as attempting to rewrite the Church's teaching on marriage and also on homosexuality.  Many have had their faith shaken and some have even talked of a developing schism.

However having read the documents and relying on those alone my understanding has changed and the purpose of this article is point out why my understanding changed.  There was indeed a  Relatio post disceptionem of 6th October 2014 which was seriously heterodox but the Relatio Synodi of 18th October 2014 is a radically different document which with a few exceptions seems to me to be in accordance with the traditional teaching of the Church.  This latter Relatio is the one that was put to the vote and it is very instructive to look at the voting pattern for each clause.  It is quite clear that it received the overwhelming support of the Cardinals and that the opposition which I will call the Kasperite lobby was in fact very small – perhaps 15% at the most.

The first document was a Preparatory Document issued on 5th November 2013.  Part I lists problems facing the family but remarkably has no mention of abortion, IVF, euthanasia or artificial contraception although they do arise in a list of questions at the end.  Part II remarks that “The teaching of the Pastors has been clear.” Really?

Following on that the list of questions was duly circulated.  In England & Wales the faithful were asked to respond despite the fact that many of the questions were obviously directed at the Church hierarchy and the clergy.  It was evident at the time that many thought this was a kind of survey as to what people thought about the teachings of the Church and an opportunity to voice their views as to how they might be changed, for instance, by ditching “Humanae Vitae”.

The answers to these questions having been collated by Dioceses and Bishops Conference and sent to Rome (one wonders how much was carefully edited out!) there followed the Instrumentum Laboris published on 26th June 2014 as a guide for  the discussions at the Synod in October.  Evidently the authors of this did not buy into the idea that there had been some sort of democratic vote on the Church's teaching but pointed out how confused many people seemed to be about that teaching.  

The document barely touches on the problem that the clergy have almost entirely failed to teach their sheep about the family;  That “ the formation of the clergy stands out as particularly decisive” (clause 10) is true but there is little appreciation of how much the problem does arise from the failure of the clergy.  I suppose it is always difficult for any institution to admit how the management has been wanting.  The result though is “The People of God's knowledge of conciliar and postconciliar documents on the Magisterium of the family seems to be rather wanting, though a certain knowledge of them is clearly evident in those working in the field of theology” (clause 11).   So just a few working in the field of theology have a grasp of the teaching?  A slight exaggeration surely but what an admission as to just how bad things are!

Some observations attribute the responsibility for this lack of knowledge to the clergy” 

Who else one asks?  But there is no mention of those numerous members of the clergy who have actively preached against the teachings of the Church from Archbishop Roberts of Bombay S.J. onwards.  I suppose one should not expect such self-criticism.

The document then goes on to mention how people misunderstand the concept of Natural Law (clause 22) but then  suggests that the Bible should be used to explain the concept as something becoming clear in the Bible story (clause 30).  I would have thought that this is precisely the wrong approach.  Revelation and Natural Law should be kept separate.  In our secular society too often one hears that  somebody's views on homosexuality or abortion are described as being based solely on the Bible and therefore a religious view not binding on anyone who is not religious rather than based on natural law which binds everyone.

On abortion we are told 

Many bishops' conferences are greatly concerned about the widespread practice of abortion” (clause 65) 

Why only 'Many'?

Clauses 91 onwards set out very clearly the teaching on marriage. Cardinals Kasper and Marx could have profited from reading these.  The authors comment on communion for the remarried:

In Europe (and also in some countries in Latin America and Asia) the prevailing tendency among some of the clergy is to resolve the issue by simply complying with the request for access to the sacraments.” (clause 116). 
“136. The responses point out how Catholic schools, at all levels, can play an important partin transmitting the faith to young people”. 

The operative word is “can” but do they?

The next document  was the  Relatio ante disceptationem of 6th October 2014.  Here matters have moved into the hands of Cardinal Erdo of Hungary and it formed the agenda for the Synod discussions.  It fleshes out the agenda that was suggested in the Instrumentum Laboris.  It insists upon the indissolubility of marriage:

“The teaching on the indissolubility of marriage as such is not questioned. Indeed, it is unchallenged and for the most part observed also in the pastoral practice of the Church with persons who have failed in their marriage and seek a new beginning. Therefore, what is being discussed at this synod of an intense pastoral nature are not doctrinal issues, but the practical ones — nevertheless inseparable from the truths of the faith.” viz: 2(a)

Further on with regard to Humanae Vitae there is a mention of the Law of Gradualness:

He [Pope Paul VI indicated in the audience of 31 July 1968] then specified that the moral norm cited in the document needs to be considered in light of the “law of gradualness,” according to the suggestions already made in 34 of Familiaris Consortio: keeping in mind that each person is a historical being, who “... knows, loves and accomplishes moral good in stages of growth.”

But it is worth looking at clause 34 of Familiaris Consortio to see what it actually says:

“They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy.  And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations”.

That is very different from what is proposed later in the  Relatio post disceptionem.

We then come to the Relatios  of which there are two – the first Relatio post disceptionem dated 6th October and the second the Relatio Synodi dated 18th October 2014.  For the sake of brevity I will refer to the first Relatio of 6th October as RPD and the second of 18th October as RS.  Comparing the two it would appear that after the unhappy reception of RPD and further discussion Cardinal Erdo took the matter in hand and completely rewrote it although following the same format and roughly the same clause numbers.    As I have said it was overwhelmingly indorsed by the Synod. There were 178 Cardinals and two-thirds of the clauses received less than 10 non-placets.  Just as an example of the rewrite compare the first substantive clause being no 5.  RPD reads:

5. Anthropological and cultural change today influences all aspects of life andrequires an analytic and diversified approach, able to discern the positive forms of individual freedom. It is necessary to be aware of the growing danger represented by an exasperated individualism that distorts family bonds and ends up considering each component of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the prevalence of an idea of the subject formed according to his or her own wishes, which are assumed as absolute.

Whilst RS reads:

5. Faithful to Christ’s teaching, we look to the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with both its lights and shadows. We turn our thoughts to parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, close and distant relatives and the bonds between two families forged by marriage. Anthropological and cultural changes in our times influence all aspects of life and require an analytic and diversified approach. The positive aspects are first to be highlighted, namely, a greater freedom of expression and a better recognition of the rights of women and children, at least in some parts of the world. On the other hand, equal consideration needs to be given to the growing danger represented by a troubling individualism which deforms family bonds and ends up considering each component of the family as an isolated unit, leading, in some cases, to the idea that a person is formed according to his own desires, which are considered absolute. Added to this is the crisis of faith, witnessed among a great many Catholics, which oftentimes underlies the crisis in marriage and the family.

So we are to follow Christ rather than the world!  Did a few suffer from 'exasperated individualism' on reading the new text RS?

Generally  RPD is full of confusing and imprecise wording;  some of the translation is baffling e.g. “precariousness in the workplace” suggests unsafe ladders to me.  The word “affectivity” appears – a neologism which  I am still not sure what it means.  One longs to take the authors of RPD by the scruff of the neck and ask them what exactly they meant.

In RPD the law of gradualness gets introduced at clause 13:

“Through the law of gradualness (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), typical of divine pedagogy, this means interpreting the nuptial covenant in terms of continuity and novelty, in the order of creation and in that of redemption.”

This law, as reinterpreted by them, is basic to the argument by those Kasperites advocating communion for the remarried and yet this crucial clause 13 in RPD gets rewritten in RS leaving out any mention of the law.  Instead the emphasis is on the divine pedagogy i.e. Christ's teaching.  This revision received 174 placets to 7 against.  The Kasperites must have been asleep.  But perhaps it did wake them up as the number of non-placets exceeds 10  for the first time with the next two clauses receiving  18 and 13 non-placets,  viz clause 14 in which  RS gives greater emphasis, at length, to the indissolubility of marriage cutting out a reference to divine condescension in RPD.  “By looking at the sinner with love, Jesus leads the person to repentance and conversion (“Go and sin no more”), which is the basis for forgiveness”.  So are the 18 non placets objecting to this indicative of the extent of support for the Kasperite lobby?

Indeed from thereon there are major changes.  Clauses 17 to 23  of RPD about the law of gradualness and finding positive elements in second marriages and cohabitation have been completely discarded and replaced by new clauses 17 to 28 in RS dealing with 'The Family in the Church’s Documents', 'The Indissolubility of Marriage', 'Joy of Sharing Life Together', 'The Truth and Beauty of the Family' and 'Mercy Towards Broken and Fragile Families' all giving the traditional teaching on marriage. 
There was a measure of opposition to the new clauses 22 to 28 ranging from 11 to 39 non placets.  Taking into account that some of the non-placets probably came from those considering the new clauses not orthodox enough it rather looks as the support for the Kasperite theme was in the twenties.

It is easy to pick to pieces the clauses 17 to 23 in RPD but as the Cardinals seem to have done this for us there is not much point in my doing so.   In RPD there is considerable confusion as to what is meant by 'natural' and 'civil' marriage and some of this confusion spills over into RS.  Clause 35 of RS is a bit wobbly about 'the richness of various religious experiences' and received 17 non placets this time probably from the more orthodox.  Clause 39  in RS mentions 'chastity' for the one and only time in any document of the Synod!  Obviously a concept that had not crossed the mind of the author of RPD.

Clause 41 in RS still has the unfortunate words taken from clause 36 in RPD :  

'A new element in today’s pastoral activity is a sensitivity to the positive aspects of civilly celebrated marriages and, with obvious differences, cohabitation. While clearly presenting the Christian message, the Church also needs to indicate the constructive elements in these situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to it'.

How can elements that do not correspond to the teaching of the Church be constructive?  Not surprisingly this clause received the highest number of non-placets yet – 54.  Of course the sentence is ambiguous – deliberately?

Clause 52 in RS replaces 47 in RPD.  It says “The synod father (sic!) also considered the possibility of giving the divorced and remarried access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist”.   This is typical of the conflating twaddle in RPD.  What is the problem with access to the Sacrament of Penance?  Surely this is available to anyone in any circumstance.  Evidently the Kasperites are thinking of some new form of the Sacrament of Penance where a firm intention of amendment is not required. 'Carry on sinning'?  It goes on to set out the Kasperite suggestions as to communion for the remarried.  No wonder this clause failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority.  A reference to the law of gradualness gets replaced by a quote from the Catechism – a work that never got mentioned in RPD.

Clause 53 about spiritual communion also failed to get the necessary majority.  I would have thought there are obvious differences between the rather loose concept of spiritual communion which is merely a desire for communion and actual sacramental communion.

Clause 54 mentions Orthodox practice but only as an ecumenical problem.  I imagine that means the problem posed by a remarried couple from the Orthodox seeking reception of communion in the Latin Church. 

Clause 55 in RS drops the idea put forward in RPD that homosexuals have gifts and qualities arising from their homosexuality.  Instead a reference is added to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's document: Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.

 This is interesting as that document effectively condemns civil unions between persons of the same sex as well as marriage between persons of the same sex.    This clause failed to get the two-thirds majority receiving 62 non placets.  I find this difficult to interpret.  Presumably the Kasperites did not like it but perhaps there is a bigger lobby in favour of liberalising the Church's teaching on homosexuality then there is on communion for the remarried.  Cardinal Vincent Nichols said he thought the clause was insufficiently welcoming of those with homosexual inclinations but did not say how he had voted.  More to the point this clause was surely voted down by the heterodox rather than the orthodox as I and others had previously thought.

Clause 56 in RS protests against aggressive lobbying by the LGBT lobby.  There were 21 non placets.  Perhaps that represents the extent of the homosexual lobby.

A new clause 58 emphasises Humanae Vitae.  Clause 59 mentions parents' right to choose the kind of education for their children and clause 61 brings in the role of Our Lady as regards the family.

This version RS becomes the Lineamenta for the next session of the Synod in 2015.  In December 2014 it was republished with a list of questions for the hierarchies and Bishops' Conferences.  These are for them to answer  so I have no comment except two:

1.      There is mention of assessing  the Orthodox practice on remarriage.  This goes further than the mention of the purely technical ecumenical point in clause 54.  Who put that in?
2.      There is a mention of abortion which appears nowhere in the Lineamenta.

So what can one make of all this?  I am encouraged by the fact that the new Lineamenta which is RS is a complete revision of the heterodox RPD.  I see it as mostly in line with the teaching of the Church with perhaps a few minor lapses and it had the overwhelming approval of the Cardinals with the principal exceptions of three clauses.  Each of those three clauses suggested further study which is why I imagine Pope Francis wanted them left in so that the studies take place or is he trying to keep the Kasper line alive?  In my judgement the voting shows that the heterodox lobbies promoting communion for the remarried and tolerance of homosexual activity are in fact a minority of perhaps fifteen percent of the Cardinals.  It has therefore calmed my worries about the possibility of some great schism.

However it must be said that the heterodox lobbying has been a great distraction which has meant that the Synod so far has failed to address a number of very important issues concerning the family as was so ably explained by Jacqueline Stewart in the January/February issue of Faith magazine.  


This lists the subjects that have NOT been adequately treated:  The Natural moral law, Abortion, Marriage, Contraception, Euthanasia and “assisted suicide”, Homosexuality, “Gender theory”, Sex Education, Parents as primary educators, and Threats to freedom.  These are all burning issues.  There is a great deal of work to be done.  But in the long run it is going to be the final document that the Synod writes that will count and I feel more confident that it will support the traditional teachings of the Church although no doubt there will be a “Spirit of the Synod” wafting up from some Northern bog to try and confuse us all. 

For a further analysis of events since then, including the release of the Instrumentum Laboris and Synod 15, read the post by OTSOTA:


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  3. Just a word of explanation. I wrote this paper at the beginning of 2015 with the idea of getting it published in a certain magazine but this did not happen. The Bones has kindly published it here but it is somewhat out of date! Recently we have had the Instrumentum Laboris which is similar to the Relatio Synodi but with a large number of interpolations by the commissariat - sorry secretariat - amongst which is the reintroduction of the false interpretation of the Law of Graduality as OTSOTA has already drawn our attention to. It needs further study.

  4. Disastrous attempts to comment here so I've blogged [with some cutting and pasting] my response]
    Apologies at the length but I have severe time constraints at present and it's faster to type than to precis.

  5. IMHO its still a very good piece. I shall also put up a link to OTSOTAs piece on the ongoings since then.

  6. Spelling error: it's "disceptationem". Thanks.


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