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Synod report ‘clear and compassionate’, Archbishop Coleridge says

Synod mother

Synod mother: A mother holds her child as she observes a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican last Saturday.
Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

ARCHBISHOP Mark Coleridge said the Synod of Bishops had provided Pope Francis with a “clear and compassionate” report summarising more than two years of discussion on the Church’s approach to modern families.

Archbishop Coleridge has returned to Brisbane after almost a month in Rome, where he was among more than 270 bishops discussing issues including the role of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in the Church.

At a vote last Saturday, the bishops approved all 94 paragraphs of the final synod document which will be handed to the Pope for his consideration.

Archbishop Coleridge said the document was written in a positive tone and provided the Pope with a “doctrinally sound and pastorally sensitive” view.


Accompaniment is key word for synod on family

ex journey to try to deal with people in a way that respects the truth … but at the same time accompany people. Don’t just hurl doctrine in their general direction,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

“If there was any word that came to dominate the language of the synod, it was ‘accompaniment’. In other words, you have to walk with people.

“Church teaching has not been touched at its heart, and it won’t be, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s all or nothing.

“It’s exploring that difficult but crucial middle ground where we can walk together.

“We mightn’t agree but we can agree that we’re human and we can agree that we’ll walk together, we’ll listen to each other, we might even learn from each other.”

Archbishop Coleridge wrote a daily blog on Brisbane archdiocese’s website, reporting on the workings of the synod.

The blog posts were reported in media outlets including The New York Times, Washington Post, Vatican Radio and BBC as reporters looked for insights into a synod that did not have unanimous agreement on all points.

In his final post, Archbishop Coleridge said the long synod process had been worthwhile.

“Did the synod achieve much? Yes and no. The very fact that we voted to accept all 94 paragraphs of the final document was important, no matter that some of the votes were close,” Archbishop Coleridge wrote.

“The synod brought to the surface what had been submerged – that the pastors are not of one mind and heart on some of the deepest and most complex issues facing the Church.

“This might be considered a negative of the synod, but I see it as a positive.

“An essentially pastoral approach has to start with the facts. It’s no good living in some idealised Pollyanna world where all the bishops are supposed to be perfectly united, mind and heart.

“We’re living in the world that is, rather than the world as we might wish it to be. Yet our differences didn’t amount to open warfare or lead to irretrievable breakdown.

“That’s what the final voting showed and why it mattered.”


Understanding the report

While the final report did not specifically mention the controversial proposal of a path toward full reconciliation and Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, it emphasised an obligation to recognise that not all Catholics in such a situation bear the same amount of blame.

The report highlighted the role of pastors in helping couples understand Church teaching, grow in faith and take responsibility for sharing the Gospel.

It also emphasised how “pastoral accompaniment” involved discerning, on a case-by-case basis, the moral culpability of people not fully living up to the Catholic ideal.

Bishops and other full members of the synod voted separately on each paragraph and the Vatican published those votes.

The paragraph dealing specifically with leading divorced and remarried Catholics on a path of discernment passed with only one vote beyond the necessary two-thirds.

Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna told reporters last weekend the key word in the document’s discussion of ministry to divorced and civilly remarried people was “discernment”.

“I invite you all to remember there is no black or white, no simple yes or no,” Cardinal Schonborn said.

“The situation of each couple ‘must be discerned’, which is what was called for by St John Paul II in his 1981 exhortation on the family.”

The cardinal told Vatican Insider, a news site, that although St John Paul called for discernment in those cases, “he didn’t mention all that comes after discernment”.

The synod’s final report, he said, proposed priests help divorced and remarried couples undergoing conversion and repentance so they recognised whether or not they were worthy to receive the Eucharist.

Such an examination of conscience, he said, was required of every Catholic each time they prepared to approach the altar.

As Pope Francis said at the beginning of the synod, Church doctrine on the meaning of marriage as a lifelong bond between one man and one woman open to having children was not up for debate.

The final report strongly affirmed that teaching as God’s plan for humanity, as a blessing for the Church and a benefit to society.

While insisting on God’s love for homosexual persons and the obligation to respect their dignity, the report also insisted same-sex unions could not be recognised as marriages and denounced as “totally unacceptable” governments or international organisations making recognition of “’marriage’ between persons of the same sex” a condition for financial assistance.

The report also spoke specifically of: the changing role of women in families, the Church and society; single people and their contributions to the family and the Church; the heroic witness of parents who love and care for children with disabilities; the family as a sanctuary protecting the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death; and the particular strain on family life caused by poverty and by migration.

The Catholic Church recognised a “natural” value in marriage corresponding to the good of the husband and wife, their unity, fidelity and desire for children. But the sacrament of marriage added another dimension, the report said.

“The irrevocable fidelity of God to his covenant is the foundation of the indissolubility of marriage,” it said.

“The complete and profound love of the spouses is not based only on their human capabilities: God sustains this covenant with the strength of his Spirit.”

But human beings were subject to sin and failure, which was why synod members recommended the need for “accompaniment” by family members, pastors and other couples.

“Being close to the family as a travelling companion means, for the Church, assuming wisely differentiated attitudes: sometimes it is necessary to stay by their side and listen in silence; other times it must indicate the path to follow; and at still other times, it is opportune to follow, support and encourage,” the report said.

A draft of the report was presented to synod members on October 22, and 51 bishops spoke the next morning about changes they would like to see in the final draft.

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