Apparently, the just-concluded Vatican Synod on the Family came out in favor of — wait for it — traditional families.

That might not seem too astounding. However, many on the less-traditional side of Roman Catholic treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics and the acceptance of same-sex relationships were hoping for more.

Why should non-Catholics care? One reason is that Pope Francis, a pivotal figure in this discussion, heads a church that represents more than half the world’s 2.3 billion Christians, so what Catholics do resonates all around the globe.

The Wall Street Journal’s Oct. 24 report on the synod called its silence on the question of admitting remarried Catholics to communion “an embarrassing defeat” for liberals that showed “the strength of conservative resistance to the pope’s liberalizing agenda.”

Still, the synod’s report is seen as open to interpretation by some observers, and it is only a recommendation to Pope Francis, who will issue his own conclusions. As of this date, he has not revealed what he intends to do.

But his pronouncements, too, will be judged by a wider church where the issue of who has the final say remains, oddly enough for such a hierarchal organization, very much in doubt.

One prominent Italian Catholic blogger, Sandro Magister, wrote on Oct. 23 on his www.chiesa.repubblica.it website, “Between the synod of 2014 and this one of 2015, Francis chalked up more than 50 public statements perfectly in line with the traditional doctrine of the Church: against ‘gender’ ideology, against the divorced and remarried who ‘demand’ communion, and even in favor of an old forgotten virtue like chastity before marriage. ‘Catholic doctrine is not to be touched,’ he repeated at the opening of this synod.”

But Magister noted those comments sometimes seem to be contradicted in Francis’ spontaneous remarks to the media (“Who am I to judge?”).

Some detected mixed messages in the final report. As The New York Times reported Sunday, “Both conservative and liberal commentators and news outlets, deliberately or not, seemed to interpret the passages in a way that reinforced their views, raising the question of whether what the bishops had billed as a consensus document may widen divisions over critical issues, rather than bridge them.”

That also can be read, however, as simply saying that those seeking changes in doctrine still will pursue them, possibly by appealing directly to Francis.

What do I think? Just what I’ve thought all along, that Francis figures you can’t get people to follow doctrine until they first understand that God loves them, so his outreach focuses on the latter point while his internal messages support the former ones.

The National Catholic Register, a journal leaning to the traditionalist viewpoint, said on Sunday, “Despite the calls by some for the Church to change its doctrine by allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics without an annulment to receive communion, the synod’s final report upheld current Church teaching and practice on the issue.”

However, the journal also cited a passage saying that “… divorced and remarried couples are baptized persons who must be ‘more integrated into the Christian community,’ while ‘avoiding every occasion of scandal.'”

With regard to same-sex relationships, the Register said the report “reiterated that ‘every person, independently of their sexual tendency, must be respected in their dignity and welcomed with respect,’ but clarified that ‘there is no foundation whatsoever to assimilate or establish analogies, even remotely, between homosexual unions and God’s design for marriage and the family.'”

The Register said the synod made no changes in Catholic teaching on abortion and contraception, concluding, “Only God ‘is the Lord of life from its beginning to its end. No one, under any circumstance, can claim for themselves the right to directly destroy an innocent human being.’ Openness to life was also underlined as an ‘intrinsic requirement of married love.'”

However, John L. Allen Jr., associate editor of the www.cruxnow.com web journal and a usually clear-eyed, objective voice about Catholic matters, sees the report as representing a church with a traditional majority strong in Global South countries, confronting dissidents who have their greatest influence in First World nations.

Contrary to the traditionalist sources cited above, he sees the report as tending toward eventually allowing communion for the remarried (under conditions yet to be established), something the pope may want to pursue (he already has made the annulment process more accessible).

However, Allen concurs that the door is still tightly closed to validating same-sex relationships.

“The question,” he said on Oct. 24, “is whether Catholics will allow the divisions that surfaced at the (2014 and 2015) synods to become all-consuming, triggering a cycle of tribal combat, or if they’ll try to forge a deeper spirit of common cause, more lasting for being clear-eyed and realistic.”

As he notes, much of that depends on Pope Francis.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. Email at: [email protected].


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