Thursday, 13 November 2014

Pope Francis’ Universe


As I outlined in the first installment of this series, I am in the process of looking at how the universe is being thought of from different perspectives and by thinkers of different backgrounds. After a brief look at Chiara Lubich’s intellectual visions concerning creation, I would now like to share a high-level view of how Pope Francis has been speaking about this topic.

The first thing to note is that he uses the terms “universe,” “creation,” and “nature” (with the odd mention of “cosmos”) interchangeably, while referring to social, economic and cultural spheres when speaking about the “world.” With this categorization, we can look at what Francis thinks the universe is, how he speaks about approaching and understanding it, what value he gives it and what relationship he proposes for us to have with it.

The most important point in terms of which to read all that follows is the intimate relationship Francis sees between God and “the universe, the precious gift of the Creator”:
“[T]he Holy Trinity […] leads us to contemplate and worship the divine life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: a life of communion and perfect love, origin and aim of all the universe and of every creature: God.” (Angelus, 15th June 2014)
Not only is the universe God’s gift to us and a gift that has both source and destination in the inner life of the Trinity, but it is also permeated by God’s presence:
“God and Christ walk with us and are present also in nature, as the Apostle Paul affirmed in his address at the Areopagus: “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However, it was not like that. He created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time that He assured them of his continual presence, giving being to every reality.” (Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 27th October 2014)
God is paradoxically, simultaneously present throughout the universe, giving it being, and at the same time investing it with laws and autonomy. He desires its development, but remains close to his creation. Francis then, in the same speech, elaborates on the significance of these God-given laws of nature:
“The beginning of the world was not the work of chaos, which owes its origin to another, but it derives directly from a Supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big-Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it. The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”
The world is not arbitrary, but has order, which it turn leads to repeatability and therefore rationality, making the universe knowable - an aspect of God’s gift that Francis values highly, and about which he speaks in the context of its relationship with faith and truth in the encyclical Lumen Fidei (§34):
“A common truth intimidates us, for we identify it with the intransigent demands of totalitarian systems. But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. [... F]aith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all. Nor is the light of faith, joined to the truth of love, extraneous to the material world, for love is always lived out in body and spirit; the light of faith is an incarnate light radiating from the luminous life of Jesus. It also illumines the material world, trusts its inherent order and knows that it calls us to an ever widening path of harmony and understanding. The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation.”
Believing in God being the creator of the universe is not an alternative to a scientific world view, but its enabler for the Christian scientist, who trusts in the inherent order of their object of inquiry and who responds to God’s invitation to know Him also through His creation. Francis elaborates on this point in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (§242-243), also calling for a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the universe:
“Whereas positivism and scientism “refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”,[190] the Church proposes another path, which calls for a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself [...]. Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since “the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God”[191] and cannot contradict each other. [...]

The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. […]”
In fact, on a separate occasion, Francis puts the Church’s appreciation of science in maternal terms: “as a mother rejoices and is rightly proud as her children grow “in wisdom, and age and grace” (Lk 2:52)” and adds art to the modes of engagement with the universe, saying:
“In every age the Church has called upon the arts to give expression to the beauty of her faith and to proclaim the Gospel message of the grandeur of God’s creation, the dignity of human beings made in his image and likeness, and the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to bring redemption and rebirth to a world touched by the tragedy of sin and death.”
The sense of awe and wonder that drive both rational and artistic engagement with the universe (for believers and non-believers alike) is further emphasized in one of Francis’ catecheses about the Holy Spirit:
“When our eyes are illumined by the Spirit, they open to contemplate God, in the beauty of nature and in the grandeur of the cosmos, and they lead us to discover how everything speaks to us about Him and His love. All of this arouses in us great wonder and a profound sense of gratitude! It is the sensation we experience when we admire a work of art or any marvel whatsoever that is borne of the genius and creativity of man: before all this, the Spirit leads us to praise the Lord from the depths of our heart and to recognize, in all that we have and all that we are, an invaluable gift of God and a sign of his infinite love for us.”
And to round out this picture of how a knowledge of the universe complements faith, it is worth reading Pope Francis’ words from this year’s Epiphany homily, where he places the two side-by-side as “great books”:
“[O]ur life is a journey, illuminated by the lights which brighten our way, to find the fullness of truth and love which we Christians recognize in Jesus, the Light of the World. [… E]very person has two great “books” which provide the signs to guide this pilgrimage: the book of creation and the book of sacred Scripture. What is important is that we be attentive, alert, and listen to God who speaks to us, who always speaks to us.”
Pope Francis also points to Jesus himself having made use of this “book of creation” in his own teaching:
“When he speaks to the people, Jesus uses many parables: in language understandable to everyone, with images from nature and from everyday situations.”
Far from being optional or even frowned upon, knowledge of the material world is a guide to the Christian as is that of Scripture, which is further underlined by the universe being seen as good (as opposed to evil or even just neutral):
“In the first Chapter of Genesis, right at the beginning of the Bible, what is emphasized is that God is pleased with his creation, stressing repeatedly the beauty and goodness of every single thing. At the end of each day, it is written: “God saw that it was good” (1:12, 18, 21, 25): if God sees creation as good, as a beautiful thing, then we too must take this attitude and see that creation is a good and beautiful thing.” (General Audience, 21st May 2014)

““And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25). The biblical account of the beginning of the history of the world and of humanity speaks to us of a God who looks at creation, in a sense contemplating it, and declares: “It is good”.” (Vigil for Peace, 7th September 2013)
What then ought to be our attitude towards a universe that we can relate to in truth (through knowledge), beauty (through the senses and art) and goodness (through contemplation)? Francis’ answer, unsurprisingly, is “respect and gratitude”:
“[I]f God sees creation as good, as a beautiful thing, then we too must take this attitude and see that creation is a good and beautiful thing. [...] Creation is not some possession that we can lord over for our own pleasure; nor, even less, is it the property of only some people, the few: creation is a gift, it is the marvellous gift that God has given us, so that we will take care of it and harness it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude. […] We must protect creation for it is a gift which the Lord has given us, it is God’s present to us; we are the guardians of creation. When we exploit creation, we destroy that sign of God’s love. To destroy creation is to say to God: “I don’t care”. And this is not good: this is sin.”
An important aspect here is the harnessing of the universe for the good of all, which Francis also ties to the universe’s “grammar”:
“The human family has received from the Creator a common gift: nature. The Christian view of creation includes a positive judgement about the legitimacy of interventions on nature if these are meant to be beneficial and are performed responsibly, that is to say, by acknowledging the “grammar” inscribed in nature and by wisely using resources for the benefit of all, with respect for the beauty, finality and usefulness of every living being and its place in the ecosystem. Nature, in a word, is at our disposition and we are called to exercise a responsible stewardship over it.”
And on another occasion he then links the care for nature to the care we must have for one another:
“All of creation forms a harmonious and good unity, but above all humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, is one family, in which relationships are marked by a true fraternity not only in words: the other person is a brother or sister to love, and our relationship with God, who is love, fidelity and goodness, mirrors every human relationship and brings harmony to the whole of creation. God’s world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other.”
In summary, Francis’ universe is a gratuitous gift from God whose being He sustains and in which He is close to us, but also where He instituted laws and, at the same time, autonomy. It is a gift that has its origin and being in God and its destiny too, via its being harnessed for the good of all. It is a gift that exhibits goodness and beauty and whose nature can be expressed in truth. As a result it invites respectful stewardship for the good of all, contemplation and rational understanding. Francis, using a rich metaphor, therefore issues an “appeal for respect and protection of the entire creation which God has entrusted to man, not so that it be indiscriminately exploited, but rather made into a garden.”

Thursday, 6 November 2014

The Extraordinary Synod: Family, Church, God

Francis w baby

[Guest post: The following is a talk about the Extraordinary Synod on the Family given at a retreat by Dr. Ján Morovič, which is reproduced here with the author’s permission.]

What I’d like to do today is to give you an overview of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that took place from 5th to 19th October, by covering the following:
  • First, to give you an “executive summary” in Pope Francis’ own words from a week ago,
  • second, walk you through the process that is underway towards a renewal of how families are cared for by the Church and how they form part of the Church,
  • third, give you a flavor of the key topics discussed during the Synod,
  • fourth, focus on Francis’ role in the Synod,
  • and finally, argue that what is at stake here both goes far beyond the family, and doesn’t :)

Francis’ executive summary

The best, most concise exposition of why there is a need for the question of the family to be addressed today and, therefore, of why there was a need for the Synod that concluded a couple of weeks ago, comes from Pope Francis himself, who addressed a meeting of the Schönstatt movement last Saturday with the following words:
“The Christian family, the family, marriage, have never been attacked as much as now. Attacked directly or attacked as a matter of fact. Maybe I am mistaken, and the historians of the Church could tell us, but the family is being beaten, is being bastardized, as if it were just a loose association, as if you could call anything a family. And then, how many wounded families there are, how many broken down marriages, how much relativism there is, as far as the understanding of the sacrament of marriage is concerned. From the sociological point of view, from the point of view of human values, and from the point of the Catholic sacrament, the Christian sacrament, there is a crisis of the family. It gets beaten up from all sides. It ends up being very wounded.

So, we have no choice but to do something. So, what can we do? Yes, we can give nice talks, declare some nice principles, this we do have to do for sure to have clear ideas. Look, these things you are proposing, they are not marriage. It is an association, but it is not marriage. Sometimes it is necessary to say things very clearly. And they must be said. But, the pastoral help that is needed is body to body. Accompanying. And this means loosing time. The greatest teacher of how to lose time is Jesus. He lost time by accompanying, helping consciences mature, healing wounds, teaching. Accompanying means to share a journey.

Evidently, the sacrament of marriage has been devalued. And, unconsciously, there has been a move from the sacrament to the ritual. A reduction of sacrament to ritual. This leads to thinking about the sacrament as a social matter. Yes, with religious elements, for sure, but the strong point being the social. […] The social aspect obscures that which is most important about marriage, which is union with God.”
With the above landscape in mind, consisting of the scaramentality of marriage, its being under attack, the ubiquity of wounded families, the need for imitating Jesus’ closeness to all, and the importance of understanding marriage as union with God, let’s look at how the Church arrived at this Synod and what journey it is on, moving forward.

The process

The Extraordinary Synod on the Family, whose full title is: “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation,” was called by Pope Francis in October 2013. It being an extraordinary synod, as opposed an ordinary one, taking place at regular intervals, points directly to its purpose being to “deal with matters which require a speedy solution” (Code of Canon Law, canon 346 §2). And the fact that it was announced as part of a pair of Synods - the one we just had, and its follow-up that will take place from 4th to 25th October 2015 - indicates the complexity of the topic, and the need for a year’s work and discernment to be part of the process.

Within weeks of the Synod’s announcement last October, a preparatory document was published by the Synod’s secretariat, consisting both of some thoughts on the key challenges facing the family and - in an unprecedented move - a questionnaire that was sent to dioceses around the world for completion. It is a questionnaire that asked very open and direct questions about what of the Church’s teaching was understandable, and what positions were held with regard to its teaching on abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, etc. Importantly, many dioceses opened the questionnaire up to the public (e.g., including Brentwood and Westminster), which resulted in a very large-scale response.

The Synod secretariat’s next move was to publish an extensive summary (the “instrumentum laboris”) of the responses at the end of June. This was a great move of openness and transparency, further underlined by its very frank presentation of the questionnaire’s responses. There was both a reinforcing of positives here - i.e., the continuing recognition of the value and beauty of marriage - and an identification of and admission to problems - e.g., the general lack of an understanding of the Church’s teaching, a loss of meaning of the concept of “natural law,” the damage caused by the sexual scandals in the Church, and the mounting external and internal pressures that families face today.

Next, the Synod Fathers, comprising heads of all local episcopal conferences, the heads of some religious orders and a number of members directly appointed by Pope Francis, were asked to submit written statements in response to the “instrumentum laboris.” The Synod’s secretariat then summarized these in its first working document - the “relatio ante disceptationem,” whose reading took place during the first morning of the Synod. A week of interventions followed - including “witnesses” from married couples at the beginning of each of a day’s two sessions, after which an updated working document was produced - the “relatio post disceptationem.” Note, that it was written single-handedly by Archbishop Bruno Forte, appointed to this role directly by Pope Francis. The following week saw work in groups of around 30 people each that resulted in feedback to the small team in charge of editing the working document and producing the official outcome of the Synod. Finally, this “Relatio Synodi” was voted on, paragraph by paragraph, and published as a guide for what topics to deepen during the following year.

Next year, the second Synod, still on the topic of the Family, will result in proposals to the Holy Father, who can then freely choose how to take them into account in the measures he takes with regard to the care for and role of families in the Church. When looking at the details of the content discussed at the Synod, it is worth noting the very loose relationship between the Synod on the New Evangelization that took place in 2011 and Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, that, procedurally, follows from it. In the end, the paradigm that applies here is the Jesuit concept of “You discern, we discern, I decide.”

The topics

Turning to what was discussed at the Synod, I’d like to pick out some key themes for you, without being comprehensive, as it may otherwise turn into sounding like a shopping list, and I’d like to focus on the areas that have received either the greatest support or where there was most debate. Before diving into these “hot” topics, it is worth noting that the sacramentality and indissolubility of marriage, its being a source of joy, its being between a man and a woman, and the sanctity of life that originates, runs its course and completes its earthly journey there, were unanimously reaffirmed. There was also broad agreement on the need to revise and strengthen marriage preparation and accompanying of married couples, and the pressures following from economic hardship (unemployment, separation as a result of traveling for work, the inequitable treatment of women) and the tragedy of wars were also a theme running through the Synod.

Subjects of evangelization

First, there was an emphasis on the family not only as object of evangelization (i.e., an entity to be evangelized), but also as its subject (an entity that evangelizes). In particular, movements like the Focolare and the Neocatecumenal Way (which were mentioned explicitly), were highlighted as examples of families carrying out evangelization by “patient and delicate accompanying” and by presenting “the attractive testimony of authentic Christian families.” As a consequence, it was also declared that “the Church must be more open to dialogue, and must listen more frequently (and not only in exceptional cases) to the experiences of married couples.”

A new language

Second, a very prominent topic throughout the Synod has been the call for a new language to be used when announcing the Gospel, calling for “forms and suitable language […] to be devised to proclaim that all are and remain God’s children and are loved by God the Father and the Church as Mother.” The need to listen to the world, so that it may listen to the Church was emphasized and it was noted that “dialogue may be based on important themes, such as the equal dignity of men and women and the rejection of violence.” As an example, “terms like “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered,” and “contraceptive mentality” were singled out by the Synod Fathers as instances of “harsh language,” where there was a need for change that would demonstrate the Church's openness and love.” Let me quote a passage from Dublin’s Archbishop Dairmuid Martin’s intervention that regards this point:
“To many the language of the Church appears to be a disincarnated language of telling people what to do, a “one way dialogue”. I am in no way saying that the Church is not called to teach. I am not saying that experience on its own determines teaching or the authentic interpretation of teaching. What I am saying is that the lived experience and struggle of spouses can help find more effective ways of expression of the fundamental elements of Church teaching. Jesus himself accompanied his preaching the good news with a process of healing the wounded and welcoming those on the margins. His teaching was never disincarnated and unmoved by the concrete human situation in which people could come to be embraced by the Good News. Jesus’ care for the sick and the troubled and those weighed down by burdens is the key which helps to understand how he truly is the Son of God.”
I also found the words of our Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the next day, to be a great example of what this new language might look like:
“I don’t doubt that most young people aspire to having their own family, having their own family within the stable relationship between husband and wife, having that family with a sense of permanence and a permanent, faithful commitment. Nobody wants a wife or a husband who is unfaithful. And so what we have to get across to people is that casual relationships before marriage is actually being casual with somebody’s future husband or wife. And its that sense of the real value that’s written in us, its in the hearts of people, that they aspire to, that has consequences for how we behave today as well.”

Seeds of the Word

Third, one of the most revolutionary ideas of the Synod is that of recognizing whatever good there is also under imperfect circumstances, which the “relatio post disceptationem” puts as follows:
“Some ask whether the sacramental fullness of marriage does not exclude the possibility of recognizing positive elements even the imperfect forms that may be found outside this nuptial situation, which are in any case ordered in relation to it. The doctrine of levels of communion, formulated by Vatican Council II, confirms the vision of a structured way of participating in the Mysterium Ecclesiae by baptized persons. […] (§18)

Realizing the need, therefore, for spiritual discernment with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons, it is the task of the Church to recognize those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries. Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings. (§20)”
The idea of “levels of communion” is with reference to how ecumenism is presented in Lumen Gentium (§15): “The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter.” It is also important to note that this analogy was proposed by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who was the general editor of the current Catechism. Another way of looking at what these changes mean is what Antonio Spadaro SJ (the editor of Civiltà Cattolica, and Synod Father by direct papal appointment) tweeted about it: “Today […] we have seen a church that pays more attention to sowing seeds than to pulling out weeds.”


Closely related to the above desire, to look for the traces of God’s presence under all circumstances, is the focus on mercy that has been the backbone of the Synod:
“[M]ercy is not a justification to sin but rather the sinner's justification, to the extent that he converts and aims to sin no more. Mercy, the central theme of the God’s revelation, is highly important as a hermeneutic for the Church’s actions (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 193 ff.). Certainly, she does not do away with truth nor relativize it, but seeks to interpret it correctly in the hierarchy of truths (cf. Unitatis redintegratio, 11; Evangelii gaudium, 36-37). Nor does she do away with the demands of justice.” (Relatio ante disceptationem, 3b)
One of the Spanish-speaking Synod Fathers put this point particularly forcefully:
“Above all we must kneel before the Holy Spirit and remember that we aren’t the bosses of God’s mercy. We must remember that the mission that Jesus entrusted to his apostles, and by extension to us as their successors, is to evangelize and to heal. And this means, spreading the Good News.”
And finally, one of the English-speaking working groups feedback on the “relatio post disceptationem” has been the affirmation that mercy is needed by all of us:
“All of us need the help of the mercy of God. The mercy of God is not just a medicine, much less a consolation prize, for those who fail. None of us can be faithful without experiencing God’s mercy. No one should devalue the place of mercy in the economy of salvation.” (Relatio - Circulus Anglicus “B”)


A consequence of the above mercy is also the emphasis that inclusion has seen throughout the Synod, which was put particularly emphatically by the German Cardinal Reinhard Marx:
“We must be close to everyone, each with their particular circumstances. We must give them opportunities to find their place in the Church. No one is excluded! No one is redundant! No one is marginalized! Exclusion is not the language of the Church!”
It is also a point that Pope Francis underlined during the Angelus address he gave half-way through the Synod:
“The goodness of God has no boundaries and does not discriminate against anyone: this is why the feast of the Lord's gifts is universal, for all. Everyone is given the opportunity to respond to his invitation, to his call; no one has the right to feel privileged or to an exclusive claim. All this leads us to overcome the habit of positioning ourselves comfortably in the middle, as did the chief priests and the Pharisees. This mustn't be done; we must open ourselves to the peripheries, recognizing that even those who are on the margins, even one who is despised and rejected by society, is an object of God's generosity. We are all called to not reducing the Kingdom of God to the confines of a “little church” - our “tiny little church” - but to widen the Church to the scale of the Kingdom of God. There is only one condition: to wear a wedding dress, which is showing love towards God and neighbor.”

The law of gradualness

Looking at the above, the mistaken impression may arise that there is a departure from a striving for perfection, or that virtue and a close adherence to the Church’s teaching and the Gospel are somehow secondary or optional. Such a reading of the Synod’s discussions would be missing an important point though:
“In the Christian life, the reception of Baptism brings the believer into the Church through the domestic church, namely, the family; thus beginning “a dynamic process [which] develops, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God” (Familiaris Consortio, 9), in an ongoing conversion to a love which saves us from sin and gives us fullness of life.” (Relatio Synodi, §13)
Cardinal Marx, putting the above into his own words, declares that:
“On every human journey, including one that may be based on a mistake, there is growth and increasing maturity, there is improvement, there is something that can be lived through the spirit of the Gospel.”
The key here is that the recognition of goodness in imperfection is a stepping stone, the beginning of a journey towards fulness.

Divorced and remarried

The first case to which the above focus on inclusion, mercy and the recognition was applied, and one that has had a lot of media attention already before the synod, are the divorced and remarried, and the question of their access to the Eucharist. Here the main aspects of discernment revolved around, on the one hand, the indissolubility of marriage being recognized by all, and, on the other hand, there being differing conceptions of the Eucharist, ranging from a focus on a compliance with prerequisites by some and a focus on its being a healing gift by others. The latter is best represented by Fr. Adolfo Nicolas SJ, the Superior General of the Jesuits, saying: “A divorced person has suffered, but we withdraw medicine from him or her who needs it most. No, this cannot be!”

At the conclusion of the Synod, there was great variety in how this challenge is to be addressed, ranging from some, few, being emphatic about there being no way to provide the divorced and remarried with access to the Eucharist, to a variety of positions that called for further study and discernment both with an initial proposal for what a solution might look like, and without. Here the types of solutions ranged from individual, case-by-case discernment by the local bishop to prolonged penitential processes.

An example of the more cautious, yet not categorically opposed position here is that of Cardinal Angelo Scola:
“Personally, on a substantial level, I can not find an answer yet to the possibility that [the divorced and civilly remarried] could have access to sacramental communion without this clashing with the indissolubility of marriage. In short, indissolubility either has an impact on the reality of daily life, or remains a Platonic idea.”
The attitude to adopt already while potential solutions are considered was best expressed by Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Brussels:
“In the first place we are invited to greatly respect our brothers and sisters, the divorced and remarried. Mercy starts where we have unconditional respect for all who want to live within the Church but can’t marry again for the Church and receive Communion. […]

It is so important to speak with them, to let them speak about the beauty of marriage and the Christian family. Beauty is so powerful! This is obviously not esthetic beauty, but beauty who is the sister of truth and goodness. According to Aristotle “beauty is truth in all its glory”.”

Welcoming homosexual persons

The second case under discussion was the question of the Church's relationship with gay people, where the “relatio post disceptationem” declared:
“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony? (§50)

The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension: it appears therefore as an important educative challenge. The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. […] (§51)

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. (§52)”
The above represents a very clear application of the desire to seek the presence of good under all circumstances and to recognize in it the potential for a journey towards perfection, not being exclusive of anyone. It was Cardinal Marx again who also put the position most bluntly here:
“[... I know] a homosexual couple who have been together for 30-35 years in a faithful relationship, which as a sexual relationship is not accepted by the Church, but they live together, one looks after the other, during the last phase of his life. Here, as Church, I cannot say that everything that these people have done during their lives is without value, because they have a homosexual relationship. […] It would be unthinkable to say that because you are homosexual, you can live nothing of the spirit of the Gospel. That's unthinkable! At least for me.”
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, also spoke about homosexual people with great warmth, putting the ball in our, the Church's, court to make the first step:
“[Homosexuals] are our brothers or sisters. To be loved as children of God to the end, to be embraced, accompanied, sustained, to be close to. Another question is that of marriage. Because marriage, since the world has been the world, is between man and woman. [...] Then ... affection ... well we can be attracted by anyone. What’s more, I wish for all of us that we would all love each other, so we aren’t like frigid sticks that don’t encounter each other! The challenge is how to be close to those who are maybe in difficulty, and here I believe that it is all of us, believers, who need to take the first step. Whoever is in difficulty is to be embraced and helped.”
Again, as in the case of the divorced and remarried, the path forward is not clear and there was a great deal of difference in opinion on this subject (including objections to the use of “welcoming” with reference to gays), but that we must - as followers of Jesus - direct a merciful, loving gaze at them too is crystal clear. Not because they are gay or divorced, but because we are all children of God, members of the one family.

Francis’ role

Having given you a taster of what the process has been and a flavor of what has been discussed and how, I would like to turn our attention to Pope Francis’ presence in the above picture, and I would just like to pick out a few of the key moments, since I think they offer a model that we can learn from also.

First, I’d like to give you a sense of the timescale and consistency of Francis’ vision. Already during the meeting of cardinals before the consistory that elected him, the then-cardinal Bergoglio said:
"Holy Week challenges us to step outside ourselves so as to attend to the needs of others: those who long for a sympathetic ear, those in need of comfort or help. We should not simply remain in our own secure world, that of the ninety-nine sheep who never strayed from the fold, but we should go out, with Christ, in search of the one lost sheep, however far it may have wandered.”
And it is on the back of this vision that he is elected, and it is a vision he re-iterates the very next day, when addressing the cardinals:
“[A]ll together, pastors and faithful, we will make an effort to respond faithfully to the eternal mission: to bring Jesus Christ to humanity, and to lead humanity to an encounter with Jesus Christ: the Way, the Truth and the Life, truly present in the Church and, at the same time, in every person.”
Note the focus on bringing Jesus to humanity and on his pointing to His presence in every person. Eight months later, he reaffirms this commitment in his apostolic exhortation - Evangelii Gaudium, a magisterial document of the Church, where he says:
“Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself “the door”: baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
And finally, on the eve of this Synod on the Family, Francis’ homily focuses on excessive burdens and on “God’s dream”:
“[E]vil pastors lay intolerable burdens on the shoulders of others, which they themselves do not lift a finger to move (cf. Mt 23:4). We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the Lord’s vineyard. [...] We are all sinners and can also be tempted to “take over” the vineyard, because of that greed which is always present in us human beings. God’s dream always clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants. […] My Synod brothers, to do a good job of nurturing and tending the vineyard, our hearts and our minds must be kept in Jesus Christ by “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). In this way our thoughts and plans will correspond to God’s dream: to form a holy people who are his own and produce the fruits of the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 21:43).”
Taken with everything he has done during the year and a half between his election and the Synod, he couldn’t have been clearer about what he wants to see from his brothers, and, so - after encouraging them to speak their minds freely on the first morning of the Synod, he spends the following two weeks attending all but one of the sessions (skipping only one due to a General Audience) and doing so in silence. This, to me, is a remarkable approach and one that makes me immediately think about how Chiara saw Mary in Paradise - “as the blue of the sky contains sun and moon and stars.” In fact, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi pointed out that Pope Francis’s silence was fundamental for the Synod’s discussions to be possible, quoting the Latin saying “Roma locuta, causa finita.” If Francis had spoken, it would have been the end of the discussion.

What Francis did at the end of the Synod is another important lesson though. First, he had the entire final report - the “Relatio Synodi” published, instead of only the paragraphs that received 2/3rds of the Synod Fathers’ votes, as follows from the Synod’s constitution. Not only that, but he ordered for the vote counts to be published for each paragraph too. This ensured that all topics discussed during the first Synod would be deepened over the next year and discussed again at next year’s Synod - including those that did not get a 2/3rds majority, which were all of the controversial ones regarding the challenges of welcoming divorced and gay people, and ones that spoke about the need to recognize the presence of the seeds of the Word in imperfect circumstances.

To further underline his resolve and his commitment to the need for an opening and a going out to the peripheries that he has been pioneering since before his election, Francis gives an unscheduled closing speech that effectively upstages the Synod’s final report.

There, he first chastises the Synod Fathers for having succumbed to some of four types of temptation:
“- One: the temptation of hostile rigidity, that is, wanting to enclose oneself in the written (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, the God of surprises (the spirit); within the law, in the certainty of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and achieve. Since the time of Jesus, there has been the temptation of the zealots, the scrupulous, the cautious, the - today - so-called “traditionalists” and even the intellectuals.

- The temptation of destructive do-goodery, which in the name of a false mercy bandages wounds without first curing and medicating them; which treats symptoms and not their causes and roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders”, of the fearful and even the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

- The temptation to turn stone into bread so as to break a long, heavy and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4), and also to turn bread into stone and throw it at sinners, the weak and the sick (cf. Jn 8.7), that is, to turn it into “unbearable burdens” (Lk 10:27).

- The temptation to come down from the cross, to please people, and not to stay, to fulfill the will of the Father; to bow to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.

- The temptation to neglect the “deposit of faith”, not considering themselves custodians, but masters or owners, or, on the other hand, the temptation to ignore reality by using meticulous language and language so polished that saying many things result in not having said anything! Such language used to be called “byzantine”, I think, such language ...”
Next, he reiterates what the Church is:
“And this is the Church, the Lord’s vineyard, the fertile Mother and caring [female] Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on the wounds of men (cf. Lk 10: 25-37); who does not look at humanity from a glass castle to judge or categorize people. This Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, in need of His mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, seeking to be faithful to her spouse and to his doctrine. It is the Church who is not afraid of eating and drinking with prostitutes and tax collectors (Luke 15). The Church that has doors wide open to receive the needy, the repentant and not only the righteous or those who think they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and does not pretend not to see him, what’s more, she feels involved and almost obliged to raise him and encourage him to continue his journey, and she accompanies him to the final encounter with her ​​Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

This is the Church, our mother! And when the Church, in the variety of its charisms, is expressed in communion, she can make no mistakes: this is the beauty and strength of the sensus fidei, of that supernatural sense of faith, which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that, together, we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and to learn to follow Jesus in our lives, and this must not be seen as a source of confusion and discomfort.”
And, finally, after quoting an extensive excerpt from an address Pope Benedict XVI gave about who the pope is, he concludes by speaking to those who have been misusing the law as a veto against the renewal that the Holy Spirit has been driving in the Church since the first Pentecost, by quoting canon law to them:
“So, the Church is Christ’s – she is His bride – and all the bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter, have the task and the duty of guarding her and serving her, not as masters but as servants. The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” (Can. 749) and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (cf. Cann. 331-334).”
“You discern, we discern, I decide.” :)

What is at stake

To conclude this long, but still only very sketchy and incomplete run through the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, I would like to argue that it hasn’t really been about the family. Much greater things are at stake here than “just” the nature of how man and woman unite to welcome each other and be open to new life.

What is at stake here is the very nature of the Church. Is she restricted to the virtuous few, to the wholly compliant, to the pious and proper, to the i dotters and t crossers? Or is she the mother who seeks out her children wherever they may be, welcoming them with open arms and an even more open heart, healing their wounds, but also delighting in their child-like achievements, and enveloping them in a warm embrace? Francis’ position is very clear here, but so is that of many of our bishops and pastors. Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow puts it as follows:
“[T]he Church has to find a way to speak St Paul’s words of love, which compassionately excuse and forgive, but which also heal and renew and lift up again; where forgiveness is not accommodation or indifference but genuine and sometimes hard-won reconciliation, engendering new trust, new hope, new endurance, and new faithfulness, a new page in the story of love.”
And the notes from one of the Synod’s sessions emphasize:
“[T]he Church is not a customs [checkpoint], but rather the house of the Father, and must therefore offer patient accompaniment to all people, including those who find themselves in difficult pastoral situations. The true Catholic Church encompasses healthy families and families in crisis, and therefore in her daily effort of sanctification must not show indifference in relation to weakness, as patience implies actively helping the weakest.”
In fact, what is at stake here is not only what the family is, who the Church is, but also who God is. Here, our understanding of both Church and family flow from who we believe God is, and Pope Francis again places a crystal-clear image in front of us, an image projected from the words of Jesus about his Father, brought into focus by the Holy Spirit’s presence today:
“God is good to us, freely offering us his friendship, his joy, salvation, but often it is us who do not accept his gifts, we place our material concerns, our interests in the first place and also when the Lord calls us, it often seems to bother us.” (Angelus, 12 October 2014)

“God is always new; He never denies himself, never says that what He said was wrong, never, but He always surprises us.” (Homily at Santa Marta, 13 October 2014)

“Our name is in God’s heart, is in God’s bowels, just as the baby is inside its mother. Our joy lies in our being elected. We cannot understand this with our head alone. We cannot understand this even with our heart. To understand this we must enter into the Mystery of Jesus Christ. The Mystery of His beloved Son: ‘He has poured out his blood for us in abundance, with all wisdom and intelligence, making known to us the mystery of His will’.” (Homily at Santa Marta, 17 October 2014)
Yet, in spite of having said that more than the family is at stake, it is also true to say that we have been talking about the family all along, which becomes clear through the words of St. John Paul II: “[T]he primordial model of the family is to be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery of life. […] The family itself is the great mystery of God.” (Letter to Families, 1994, §6, §19)