Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has been making headlines for his seemingly progressive statements on a number of social issues. He suggested, for example, that God looks at a gay person with love; he also told the United States Catholic Church to stop spending so much time talking about birth control and abortion. And just this week, for that matter, he appeared to say that the theories of the Big Bang and evolution are not inconsistent with the Bible’s story of how the world came to be.
This progressive tone, along with certain well-publicized acts of humility, such as his decision to live in the Vatican’s guest suite rather than the Papal apartments or his trips to visit the poor dressed simply as a priest, has made many people hopeful that he would usher in new, more liberal doctrines during his papacy. Unfortunately, such concrete changes have yet to emerge—and the results of a recent two-week meeting between Pope Francis and trusted advisors seem to continue the trend of inaction.
Called the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the fortnight-long gathering last month to discuss topics such as family planning and marriage equality certainly seemed like it could be an important turning point. In 1965, Pope Paul VI set up the Synod to “make greater use of the bishops’ assistance in providing for the good of the universal Church” and to enjoy “the consolation of their presence, the help of their wisdom and experience, the support of their counsel, and the voice of their authority.”
The Pope calls an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod when there is an issue that requires immediate attention and demands a speedy solution, although participants in the synod itself do not have the power to enact any changes. At its conclusion, the Synod fathers release a paper that is meant to provide guidance to the Pope, but not to issue a decree on any doctrines. Moreover, the Synod is meant to act as the start of two years of discussions in parishes across the world, rather than the final word on any topic. Still, many progressives were optimistic that this year’s Synod would spark vital, perhaps even transformative, conversations regarding the Church’s stance on everyday realities for many Catholics.
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This Synod, nicknamed “Synod on the Family” for the topics of discussion, took place from October 5 through October 18. Its 253 participants included men, women, and married couples, in addition to cardinals, bishops, priests, and representatives from other Christian denominations. Out of the 253 attendees, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Catholics for Choice, 192 are considered Synod fathers, most of whom have the right to vote. Only 25 participants in the synod were women; none of them were voting members, though they could engage in discussions.
As expected based on previous Vatican announcements, the Synod discussed the matters of divorce and remarriage in the church, annulments, cohabitation before marriage, marriage equality, birth control, and who can receive communion. Midway through the two-week meeting, a committee picked by Pope Francis released a preliminary report that had hopes in the media and among progressive Catholics soaring even higher. The draft talked, for example, of welcoming gay people and said that they had “gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community;” it also noted that some gay people provide “precious support in the lives of their partners.” The 12-page report also said that pastors should recognize there are “positive aspects to civil unions and cohabitation.”
An article in the New York Times said the report might be “the first signal that the institutional church might follow the direction Francis has set in his first 18 months of the papacy, away from condemnation of unconventional family situation and toward understanding, openness, and mercy.”
Still, not everyone was convinced. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told Rewire in a conversation after the Synod ended that the suggestion that anything major was going to change at the end of the two weeks had showed an overabundance of optimism. “I don’t like raining on people’s parade, and people are very hopey-changey, but really, it’s all much ado about nothing,” he said.
O’Brien said he had concerns about the warm take on gay parishioners that seemed so apparent in the preliminary document, primarily because such language “doesn’t mean that hierarchy are no longer equating gay with a sin.” He offered this analogy: “If your pastoral situation is ‘Hey, let me give you a hug’ and your interpretation of doctrine is that the person you’re hugging is a sinner, it’s like asking someone over for dinner and telling them they can’t eat.”
He also hadn’t expected the undertaking to get far at the Synod, because in the end, “Bishops’ conferences are more political than pastoral.”
O’Brien was correct: After attendees heavily debated the preliminary document and leadership made changes to the committee in charge of writing the report, the end result was something far less revolutionary. The welcoming tones with which the initial report discussed gay people, for instance, were replaced with phrasing right out of the catechism stating simply that they must be met with “respect and sensitivity.” In addition, the bishops voted against any changes to language around divorce and civil unions.
The final report also discussed birth control. And, not surprisingly to O’Brien, nothing changed here either. “To some degree,” he said in choosing these topics, the church “admitted what is going on in the real world—violence against women, many marriages ending in divorce but few in annulment, most Catholic women using birth control.” In fact, a preparatory document released by the Vatican before the meeting noted that “even when the Church’s teaching about marriage and the family is known, many Christians have difficulty accepting it in its entirety.”
But acknowledging the problem does not mean working on a solution. O’Brien feels that the bishops’ take on birth control in the report essentially constituted an admission that no one is listening to them on this issue. However, he notes, the bishops chose to instantly reframe the topic, focusing on their fears of shrinking birth rates in some areas. In the end, the Synod fathers reaffirmed natural family planning, the importance of married couples being always open to new life, and the restriction on modern methods of birth control from Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.
Despite this apparent setback, O’Brien believes that the Synod’s apparent reluctance to change should be a rallying cry for those who want to see progress in the church. He reiterated that the 253 members of the Synod do not necessarily speak for everyday Catholics. “The report is the bishops’ interpretation, and what the bishops think is not what Catholics think or do, the church is not the bishops, the Church is all of the people,” he said.
With that in mind, he said, “It’s business as usual in the Vatican. The idea that we’re going to be rescued by some super Pope, or by a meeting of men who have a vested interest in the institution not changing, is unreasonable. We have to get out there and do the work,” he said. “There’s nothing in the deliberations of the Synod that suggests we don’t have to work harder and better and smarter, standing up here and internationally, for change.”