Roman Catholic bishops voted against liberal reforms in the Church’s approach to homosexuals and divorcees after a special synod on the family, in an apparent blow to the reformist agenda of Pope Francis. The final vote closed a synod of bishops from around the world, which has seen bishops and cardinals clash publicly with liberal counterparts over a drive to radically reshape the Church’s approach to irregular unions.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said participants had approved a “re-balanced” final report that took into account the concerns of a majority of bishops. In a final vote after two weeks of fierce debate, three paragraphs touching on the hot-button issues of a change in approach towards gays, and allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, did not get the two-thirds majority needed.
The Controversial Mid-Term Report
The controversial paragraphs first appeared in the mid-term report published on October 13. The said report sparked a fierce backlash from bishops and cardinals, who complained that it misrepresented the discussions on the synod, and erroneously attributed to the synod body a position that goes against centuries of Church teaching.
The controversial paragraphs in the mid-term report include citing “positive aspects” in sinful situations: that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community”, and that “with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons, it is the task of the Church to recognise those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries…”
The report was roundly criticised by numerous prominent Cardinals, including Gerhard Muller, Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Raymund Burke, head of the Apostolic Signatura, the President of the Polish Bishops Conference, and many others. The cardinals complained that the text, instead of encouraging people to holiness and repentance, seemed to encourage continued living in a state of sin by acknowledging “positive aspects” of sinful situations.
A further complaint of the synod fathers with the mid-term report was the fact that it was published by the synod organizers without even consulting the bishops themselves. In fact, the press got hold of the mid-term report even before the bishops had even read it – even though the report was made to be appear as if it was representative of the thoughts of the entire body, which was clearly not the case. After much backlash, organizers attributed the fiasco to Archbishop Bruno Forte, Synod special secretary personally appointed by Francis, who was apparently the sole author of the said controversial paragraphs without any consultation from the synod body.
Prominent cardinals, such as Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat of the Economy, publicly criticised Synod organizers, particularly Cardinal Baldisseri, the Synod Secretary, for “manipulation” of the Synod and the media.
The Bishops Revolt
After the publication of the controversial mid-term report, the bishops gathered in several smaller groups, where according reports, they roundly criticised the controversial paragraphs in the report. The individual reports of these small groups completely eliminated the controversial paragraphs, and instead re-affirmed the timeless teaching of the Church on marriage and divorce.
At the conclusion of the small groups meetings, on October 17, Cardinal Baldisseri, Synod Secretary General, announced that the position papers of the small groups would not be published. At this stage, the cardinals and bishops revolted, with Cardinal George Pell reportedly standing up, slamming his hands on the table, and exclaiming: “Stop manipulating this Synod!” A vote was called, and the Synod body overwhelmingly approved the publication of the reports of the small groups.
Can the Pope Change Doctrine?
Despite mostly being a general observer in the synod proceedings rather than an active participant, the unseen, powerful hand of the pope can clearly be seen behind this liberal, reformist push to redefine the Church’s timeless teachings on marriage. It was the pope, after all, who invited his favourite theologian, the arch-liberal Cardinal Walter Kasper, to speak in front of all the bishops in February 2014, where he initially presented his controversial proposal to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.
It was the pope who allowed the Australian couple Ron and Mavis Pirola to speak during the synod and encourage the bishops to accept gay couples. The couple testified about a friend who allowed their gay son to invite his “partner” to Christmas dinner with the entire family.
It was the pope who appointed Archbishop Bruno Forte, who as Synod special secretary, wrote the controversial paragraphs of the mid-term report. It was the pope who allowed the subsequent distribution of such report to the media, even before the bishops themselves had seen it – sparking a global media firestorm proclaiming a “change” in the Church’s approach to gays and divorcees.
Clearly, the events show where the sympathies of the pope lie – squarely on the side of the liberal agenda of Cardinal Kasper and company. The difficult question, therefore, needs to be asked: If the pope changes Catholic doctrine, and adopts a teaching contrary to the clear words of Jesus in the gospel, are we as Catholics still obliged to follow a wrong teaching?
American cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, former head of the Vatican’s top canon law court, told the US news website Buzzfeed: “The pope is not free to change the Church’s teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts or the insolubility of marriage or any other doctrine of the faith.”
This synod will be followed by a year of consultations, and a follow-up questionnaire will be sent out to dioceses around the world. A second, larger synod will then be held in October 2015.