The just-concluded Synod of Bishops has fueled intense debate over where the Catholic Church stands on issues that it has long considered as taboo.
Pope Francis wanted the gathering of 191 bishops at the Vatican to be a free-wheeling forum on Church teachings and views affecting the family. ‘Speak clearly,’ he exhorted the prelates. “No one must say, ‘This can’t be said.’”
Never before has a pope urged such openness from the leaders of the Church. His message was clear: Speak your mind, don’t hold back.
And the bishops did just that. For two weeks they dissected Church teachings on marriage and litigious issues linked to it —birth control, divorce and homosexuality.
The Church has been unflinching in its opposition to these concerns and considers them as damaging to a family’s social and moral core. But there is a small but growing bloc in the clergy that feels the Church has lost touch with the realities on the ground, and that it is time to reconnect with its flock.
Pope Francis wanted the synod to transform the cacophony of voices into a consensus, a document that could determine the path the Church would take in the years to come.
In the end the document got the nod of majority of the bishops, but not enough for a consensus, which needs a two-thirds vote. Key provisions covering divorce and gays did not pass, but according to one participant, were not “completely rejected.”
The synod, however, is just the beginning of a long process. Dioceses around the world will be consulted and their inputs taken up at a larger gathering of bishops in October next year. The final paper will be presented to the Pope.
The ambiguity that emerged from the synod exposes the chasm between the progressives and conservatives in the Church. It also reflects the enormous task Francis faces as the shepherd of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. The Pope, widely considered to be an advocate of change, must for now find a middle ground, assume an impartial stance in weighing the arguments presented by opposing sides.
Francis made his position clear at the start of the synod. He cautioned against “hostile rigidity” by “so-called traditionalists,” but also warned against “progressives” who would “bandage a wound before treating it.”
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, attended the Vatican assembly, and provides an insight into how the synod will impact Filipino Catholics. “Filipinos who presently find themselves in irregular relationships — live-in unions, de facto separation from spouses and partnerships with other persons — must be helped by pastors, particularly by the Sacrament of Penance,” the bishop said.
The Church, he stressed, will be a “mother” to gays who are “sons and daughters of God.” “Discrimination against them is contrary to the Gospel spirit. Verbal and physical violence against them is an offense against the good Lord Himself.”
But in the same breath, Archbishop Villegas expressed misgivings about legitimizing same-sex marriages. He reminded legislators who support such a set-up that “the Church declares there is no equivalence or even any remote analogy whatsoever between marriage between a man and woman as planned by God and the so-called same-sex unions.”
Some Vatican observers see the Pope as sending a mixed message to his flock. We see it as prudence on his part. Francis wants to introduce profound changes to a dogma-encrusted institution, but he knows the changes will not be happen overnight.
What he has done is plant the seeds, expose them to the light of transparency and discussion. He has time to watch the seeds grow.