Divided bishops in Rome for synod on the family

Vaticanologist Frank Zammit shares his views on the synod of bishops who will discuss family issues, including how to reach out to gays

The Roman Catholic Church today enters a three-week synodal process, which will see some 270 bishops discussing some important questions about marriage and the family. Experts believe that the discussions could fundamentally alter the Catholic understanding of the indissolubility of marriage and teaching on same-sex marriages.

The synod has already been marked by a bumpy opening: as it prepares to discuss Church outreach to gays, the Vatican yesterday dismissed a priest from his post in a Holy See office after he told a newspaper he was gay and urged the Catholic Church to change its stance on homosexuality.

Monsignor Krzystof Charamsa, 43, was removed from his position at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal arm where he had worked since 2003.

The Polish theologian said he wanted to challenge the Church’s “backwards” attitude to homosexuality. The Vatican was not impressed and called his actions “very serious and irresponsible”. Insisting that the dismissal had nothing to do with his comments on his personal situation, the Vatican said it was “grave and irresponsible” given their timing on the eve of the synod.

According to the Vatican Radio, 270 bishops from across the globe, 75 auditors and experts, lay and religious, and 14 representatives from other Christian Churches will be taking part in the Synod. It will include 30 women, including religious sisters, married couples and professional women working in different areas of the family ministry.

But what will the Synod be all about?

“It will surely have to delve on the present ecclesial situation: on one hand there is the need for renewal of the Church. On the other hand, it has to keep pace with changes in the modern world while avoiding any likely division or a schism in the church,” Vaticanologist Frank Zammit told MaltaToday.

The Synod, he explained, must maintain “the traditional family” as the most important jewel in today’s society but needs to help those family members that are calling for help.

“It needs to produce “good wine” to heal the wounds of the afflicted! It has to deal positively with the various forms of marital unions cropping up in today’s world.”

During the deliverance of his homily in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Pope Francis said the purpose of the synod was “to mature a true spiritual discernment and find its concrete solutions to the many difficult and important challenges families must confront in our times.”

During the same homily, the Pope had described the traditional family as “a small Church, called ‘a domestic Church’ which, along with life, also mediates God’s tenderness and mercy. In the family, we imbibe faith with our mother’s milk. When we experience the love of our parents, we feel the closeness of God’s love.”

While defining the family as such, the Holy Father yet admitted that “the perfect family doesn’t exist nor is there a perfect husband or a perfect wife, and let’s not talk about the perfect mother-in-law! It’s just us sinners.”  

Zammit pointed out that the synod fathers are braving a new world and navigating in unchartered waters: “Theirs is a very difficult voyage as they are obliged to steer their vessel in the narrow straits between two lines of thought. Both thoughts love the Church in their own way and both sides see deadly perils in the line of thought of the other.”

There are great thinkers inside this great debate such as Cardinal Walter Kasper and Bishop Johann Jozef Bonny of Antwerp. They want to offer a “wooden raft”, a last chance for a spiritual survival to those experiencing a marriage breakdown and explore new roads that the Church can offer to these people.

Others, like Cardinal Ludwig Mueller – the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – and Cardinal Robert Sarah would like to stick to the doctrine that states and considers the Curia’s liberal “project” as a dangerous initiative.

“The Pope’s intent is to instigate a very delicate and sensitive debate, so that afterwards, he will set the course and decide where to draw the Church’s lines,” Zammit said.

For this reason, the Pope urged the faithful on various occasions to pray for the Synod Fathers as he did throughout his Apostolic Voyage to Ecuador.

“The Pope seems to be very doubtful about the outcome of this great venue. He knows that he is treading on very dangerous ground. Francis knows that he risks a schism if he accepts to follow the line of the liberal prelates and allows the Church to distribute Holy Communion to the divorced,” Zammit said.

He went on to add that the Pope was already hearing the distant drums beating the word ‘heresy’. At all costs, the Pope will not allow his pontificate to be synonymous with another great schism.

“There were experts who tried to compare the voting patterns of Vatican II with those of last year’s Synod. I do not concur with their line of thought,” Zammit said.

He referred to documents which were almost unanimously approved during the Vatican Council II: “Bearing this in mind, and a 92.5% approval rating obtained to the 62 paragraphs of last year’s Relatio Synodi, this shows a relatively lower consensus with respect to Vatican II.

“Extracts from the Relatio Synodi highlight the existing difference in topics regarding access to the sacraments of communion and reconciliation, spiritual communion and the acknowledgement of the positive elements in those who are not living out a Christian marriage, and the respectful and the subtle reception of the homosexuals.”

On these issues, the level of complete resistance has surpassed the 30% and in the case of access of the sacraments for people in an irregular marriage states, it has reached the 40%.

Today’s journey starts with a Mass presided by the Holy Father, who will then signal the opening of the Ordinary General Assembly on ‘The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the contemporary world’, allowing the faithful of the World to join the common path of the pastors cum Petro et sub Petro.

The assembly is the culmination of the synodal journey undertaken two years ago, Zammit added.