At the conclusion of the most recent synod, Pope Francis encouraged bishops assembled to continue their journey. During this ongoing journey, Pope Francis warned against “hostile inflexibility” and to allow one’s self to “be surprised by God.”
Will seeking an understanding into the differences between civil and sacramental marriage help to diffuse church tension? Can religious and civil liberties peacefully coexist?
The words and actions of Pope Francis certainly indicate a desire to explore such a path. The question then becomes: will others follow him on this journey?
Pope Francis returned to Rome Sept. 28 after the longest and perhaps most challenging foreign journey of his pontificate: a trip that lasted 10 days and took him from the communist outpost of Cuba to the capitalist superpower of the U.S., where the popular pontiff faced some of his toughest critics — both inside and outside the church.
Now comes the hard part.
On Oct. 4 in the Vatican, Francis formally opens a three-week meeting of some 270 bishops from around the world who will discuss — or, more likely, argue vociferously about — church teachings on family life, a topic that encompasses hot-button questions about the church’s views on divorce, homosexuality, and cohabitation.
Pope Francis used his weekly audience Dec. 10 to challenge media reports of “clashes between factions” at the recent bishops’ synod on family issues.
“Some of you have asked me if the synod fathers fought,” Francis said. “I don’t know if they ‘fought,’ but they spoke forcefully. This is freedom. This is just the kind of freedom that there is in the church.”
In a bid to set the record straight, the pope acknowledged the extensive media coverage of the global gathering in October and likened it to “sports or political coverage.”
“They often spoke of two teams, pro and con, conservatives and liberals,” the pope told thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square.
“There was no clash between factions … but a dialogue between the bishops, which came after a long process of preparation and now continues, for the good of the family, the church, and society. It’s a process.”
The tug-of-war at the Vatican over calls for the Catholic Church to be more open to gays and cohabiting couples intensified Oct. 16 as conservative bishops sought to rein in or renounce draft language they feared might condone lifestyles not in accord with church teachings.
The lobbying at the two-week summit of church leaders — a synod on family life that is set to wrap up Saturday with a final report — was epitomized by the retranslation of a headline from “welcoming homosexual persons” to “providing for homosexual persons.”
In the text, the line “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?” was changed to, “Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing … them … a place of fellowship in our communities?”
The change in the English version was not made in the Italian original, where the term “accogliere,” which means “to welcome,” was kept.
The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the first document was only a “transitory text” and suggested there were errors in translation.
Pope Francis and his bishops got a wake-up call Oct. 7 from a Wisconsin couple who said the Catholic Church was failing to deal with the collapse of the traditional family.
Jeff and Alice Heinzen of La Crosse told the pope and 180 bishops attending a synod devoted to family issues that they were alarmed by the number of young people born out of wedlock or living with divorced parents.
The couple are one of 14 married couples invited to give their testimony.
“We have seen the number of marriages decline each year and the rate of cohabitation increase,” said the Heinzens, who have been married 34 years. “We know countless divorced adults who have joined other faith communities because they do not feel welcomed in the Catholic Church.”
What’s more, the couple added, the church’s pastoral programs were failing to address the forces impacting marriage and family life.
Public disagreements over whether the Roman Catholic Church can change its teachings on Communion for remarried Catholics are growing sharper on the eve of a major Vatican summit, with conservatives led by U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke making another push against loosening the rules.
In a conference call with reporters on Sept. 30, Burke, who currently heads the Vatican’s high court, singled out the leading proponent of reforms, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, and his claims that critics of his proposals are really attacking Pope Francis.
Kasper has said that the pope supports his efforts to find ways to fully reintegrate divorced and remarried Catholics into church life. The proposals have become a prime focus of the upcoming Vatican meeting, called a synod, which will convene on Oct. 5 for two weeks to consider changes in family life in the modern world.
“I find it amazing that the cardinal claims to speak for the pope,” said Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, speaking from Rome. “The pope doesn’t have laryngitis. The pope is not mute. He can speak for himself. If this is what he wants, he will say so.”
I met my wife, Joy Carroll, at Greenbelt, a summer festival of faith, arts, and justice held annually in England. It was August 1994. A few months earlier, in May, Joy was one of the first women to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England. We were both speakers on a panel one day at Greenbelt, in a tent with 5,000 young people. Afterwards, we met for coffee. Joy had been an ordained deacon in the church for six years and was a leader in the movement to recognize all the gifts women had to offer both to the church and the parishes they served. She was the youngest member of the General Synod that decided to ordain women, and she was there for the historic vote in Church House Westminster in London. That cup of coffee eventually led to our marriage in 1997.
I have a vivid memory of returning to Greenbelt as speakers in 2002 with our almost 4-year-old son Luke. It was Sunday morning, and Joy was up on the worship platform celebrating the Eucharist for 20,000 people. My little boy was sitting on my lap watching his mom lead worship up on the stage. Luke looked up at me and said, “Daddy, can men do that too?”
As Pope Francis led the world’s cardinals in talks aimed at shifting the church’s emphasis from following rules to preaching mercy, a senior American cardinal took to the pages of the Vatican newspaper on Friday to reassure conservatives that Francis remains opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
Cardinal Raymond Burke acknowledged that the pope has said the church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.” But in his toughly worded column in L’Osservatore Romano, the former archbishop of St. Louis blasted those “whose hearts are hardened against the truth” for trying to twist Francis’ words to their own ends.
Burke, an outspoken conservative who has headed the Vatican’s highest court since 2008, said Francis in fact strongly backs the church’s teaching on those topics. He said the pope is simply trying to find ways to convince people to hear the church’s message despite the “galloping de-Christianization in the West.”
Pope Francis on Thursday opened a major two-day meeting on the church’s approach to the complexities of modern family life, telling the world’s Catholic cardinals that the church needs a “pastoral” approach that is “intelligent, courageous, and full of love” and not focused on abstract arguments.
In brief introductory remarks released by the Vatican, Francis pushed the closed-door summit of about 150 cardinals to “deepen the theology of the family and discern the pastoral practices which our present situation requires.”
He asked that they do so “thoughtfully” and by keeping the focus on “the beauty of family and marriage” while at the same time showing that the church is ready to help spouses “amid so many difficulties.” Francis added the phrase “intelligent, courageous, and full of love” extemporaneously.
In an unusual move, the Vatican has asked the world’s bishops to quickly canvas the faithful for their views on topics like gay marriage, divorce, and birth control ahead of a major meeting of church leaders set for next fall.
But it’s not clear how or whether the American bishops will undertake such an effort, or if they will only send their own views to Rome.
The letter from the Vatican to New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was dated Oct. 18 and it asked that a series of questions be shared “immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received” in time for a February planning meeting in Rome.