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Understanding the Issues in the Synod of Bishops on the Family

Fr. Jerome R. Secillano, MPA

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In the Code of Canon Law, the Synod of Bishops is supposed to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops (cf. Canon 342) but what we have learned so far about the ongoing Synod in Rome is a split between those allied with the Pope’s vision of an inclusive Church and those who vehemently uphold the Church’s centuries-old doctrines and traditions.

This year’s Synod reveals a plot resembling one of Dan Brown’s novels with accusations of conspiracy and manipulation of the process aimed at advancing reforms supposedly to make the Church more effective in dealing with family issues at the cost of adversely affecting Church’s doctrines.

Asked about the veracity of these reports, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said, “Unfortunately, we all came to this Synod with a hermeneutic of suspicion already floating out there. There are people inside the Synod who talk about this. The media didn’t create these stories.”

Even if the Pope already assured the participants of the importance of subsidiarity, which in secular language means decentralization, and openness in their discussions and deliberations, the very obvious division among participants, especially among clergymen, still exists. Telling the Synod fathers that such a gathering is not just about giving communion to the divorced and remarried also did not help. This controversial issue continues to dominate the discussions and together with the so-called gay or homosexual unions, they are proving to be the real causes of division between what the media portrays as the liberals and traditionalists.

John Allen, Jr., a renowned Vatican reporter, reported a very interesting remark from the Bishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) who said, “Those are important questions, no doubt, but there’s a much bigger picture of issues facing the family today.” The Bishop went on to mention some, namely: migrants, refugees, and war.

It is still not clear whether the Synod has already identified new methods or strategies to support families in conflict zones except to say that the Holy Father already called for the opening of international borders to accommodate those affected by war and terrorism even before the Synod began.

While the existence of myriad of family problems, like incest, violence, sexual abuse, poverty, and those mentioned by the good Bishop of UGCC, cannot be denied, they have not been given much attention in the media and have not been thoroughly discussed and debated. Why? My theory is that, these issues can very well be addressed by pastoral or practical interventions without these pastoral approaches necessarily causing undue harm to Church’s doctrines. In contrast, if the Church allows communion for the divorced and remarried, it directly infringes on the long-held doctrinal teaching that those in the state of sin should not receive Holy Communion.

Commenting on this proposal, Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, the General Relator of the Synod said, “The prohibition for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion is not an arbitrary ban. The reason they cannot receive the Eucharist is not because of the failure of their first marriage, but because of cohabitation in their second relationship.”

While giving communion to the divorced and remarried in the name of mercy and compassion is very charitable indeed, the doctrinal repercussions of doing such are enormous that critics said it undermines the indissolubility of marriage (Mt. 19:6) and it amounts to an attack on the sanctity of the Eucharist since receiving Holy Communion in sin is sacrilegious.

It is hard to say that those advocating change do not necessarily understand the points put forward by the doctrinally inclined Synod fathers. In the first place, these so-called liberals are made up of bishops and cardinals also on account of their orthodoxy and fidelity to the truth. Perhaps it is true that the change they are advocating is only in approach, methodology, and emphasis and not on some doctrinal substances. The problem is these proposed pastoral approaches under the principle of mercy and compassion put in peril the very doctrines that the Church is supposed to uphold and protect.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia movingly expressed this dilemma and seemed to provide the direction the Church should take when he said, “We need to be a welcoming Church that offers refuge to anyone honestly seeking God. But we need to remain a Church committed to the Word of God, faithful to the wisdom of the Christian tradition, and preaching the truth of Jesus Christ”. In short, an inclusive church is indeed a necessity but it should not be one that is “doctrinally corrosive”.

The Synod fathers, while heavily involved in debates and discussions as to what the Church should do in face of mounting challenges against the family, are tasked merely to set forth recommendations and not to settle matters or to draw up decrees. It rests with the Roman Pontiff to ratify the decisions of the Synod (cf. Can. 343). These clerics can debate all they want, but clearly the buck stops with the Pope.

With the controversies it has generated, the results of this gathering of bishops will be highly anticipated. What the Pope will do after all has been said and done in the Synod floor is worth waiting for. The expectation is so high that no less than the divorced and remarried Catholics and those taking up their cause are hoping for a more inclusive Church. At the other side of the fence are those waiting for the Pope to reinforce his role as defender of faith and morals and enforcer of ecclesiastical discipline.

Early in his papacy, Pope Francis said, “If the church is alive, it must always surprise.” Will we be in for a big surprise? It remains to be seen but maybe it is best that we be prepared too.

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