The Roman Catholic Church held an Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the family. The synod gathered 253 bishops from around the globe to discuss the results of a survey sent to dioceses around the world, which asked about issues relating to the practice of the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and family life, and how the church might address issues, such as same-sex marriage or Catholics who have divorced and remarried.
The synod issued a final report on Oct 31 detailing the initial findings of the synod, which will be reviewed in 2015 at the ordinary synod. The report addresses the issues of same-sex unions, reaffirming the Church’s teaching against same-sex unions. The issue of divorce and remarriage will be discussed further at the synod in 2015.
Rev. James Piszker gave insight into the effects this synod might have on the Catholic Church as a whole. “The doctrine of the Church is not going to change,” Piszker said. “But the way we look at some particular issues pastorally, and pastoral theology, is that which is subject to change and development.” Issues such as those mentioned above, as well as others, were “not much present even 50 years ago,” but are now “part of the landscape and are not going to go away,” according to Piszker.
Mary Hembrow-Snyder, Ph.D., a theologian, noted that sections of the Catholic Church have been attempting to address difficulties regarding its teachings which have appeared over time.
“Most bishops have taken Francis’ challenge to really understand the experience [of their parishioners],” she said. “Part of the problem comes from the fact that a percentage of the bishops have no relationships with people outside of their clerical circle.”
Those bishops who have not “taken Francis’ challenge” to become involved in the lives of their parishioners, as a result, lack “an understanding of the suffering of the people” who face difficult choices of how to follow the church’s teaching, according to Hembrow-Snyder.
The synod is part of the reforms Pope Francis has instituted since his election in March 2013, and the open nature of this synod is part of his push for transparency within the Vatican. It has also been a chance for the public to see the wide-range of opinions among the bishops regarding the issues discussed.
“There are tensions even among the bishops,” Hembrow-Snyder said. “Between those who tend to take a more legalistic approach and those who are more inclined to be more merciful and compassionate. Those are not dualistic…It’s about working with how do we meet the reality of people’s lives in 2014, and at the same time, deepen our own understanding of what our teachings really are.”
One of the approaches which has been discussed over the course of the synod is the idea of graduality, an approach, which according to Cardinal Vincent Nichols of the UK during a Vatican press conference, “permits people, all of us, to take one step at a time in our search for holiness in our lives.” The approach is a way of reaching out to Catholics in particular who have divorced and civilly remarried.
“It’s not about just dumping doctrine on people and saying, ‘You follow this,’” Piszker said. “Particularly not today because it doesn’t work. But rather meeting people where they are, just as Jesus did, and then allowing them to move forward in understanding, if they’re in a place of safety, acceptance, of pastoral sensitivity, that that will be the catalyst for growth and change.”
Journalists who sympathize with more conservative elements of the Catholic Church, such as Ross Douthat with the New York Times, have expressed concerns over the synod and the changes that appear to be occurring within the Church. However, the nature of the church, according to Piszker, “is always changing.”
The Catholic Church is both pastoral and doctrinal in its nature, and he says, “those two sides have been present within the Church from its very beginning…Over the past 30 years, it would seem to a lot of people that it has drifted from the [doctrinal] side as opposed to the [pastoral] side.” Piszker believes that this synod, as well as other actions Francis has taken, is an attempt to bring the Church back to the center between doctrine and pastoral care.