Clarity before easter

Clarity before easter

Pope Francis celebrates synod closing Mass © Ettore Ferrari

Francis may want to publish his post-synodal letter on the Synod on the Family sooner than many had suspected. As early as March, Catholics are expected to hear the opinion of their pope, it is said.

"The ball is now in the Pope's court," was heard everywhere after the Synod on Marriage and the Family. Until the end, however, it was not at all one hundred percent certain whether Francis would also play the ball, that is, rework the final text of the bishops' assembly in the Vatican into a post-synodal letter of his own, as is customary after synods. This is now as good as official.

The pope will publish the so-called Exhortation in March, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, announced at a meeting in Albufeira, Portugal. Thus, after two family synods in the fall of 2014 and 2015, which were marked by sometimes heated controversies, the magisterial conclusion would soon follow.

Text was not expected until the summer

If he takes up the pen at all, Francis will certainly complete the text quickly, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin had already declared in October. A papal statement must come quickly, he says, or it will lose its power and impact. In fact, however, some observers had expected a publication in the summer at the earliest.

The fact that the letter could now appear after less than half a year is probably due, on the one hand, to the fact that Francis is an energetic worker who likes to get things done quickly. On the other hand, it shows once again that the pope wants to make a new ecclesiastical approach to marriage and family a milestone of his pontificate.

Concrete statements still unclear

It would also have been difficult to imagine that Francis, after the two marathon discussions he convened, would not have wanted to put his own stamp on the debate in the end. During the two- and three-week synods, he had only silently followed the deliberations – and received not only praise for it.

What statements the pope will formulate on controversial ies such as the church's treatment of remarried divorcees, homosexuals or unmarried couples will be among the most exciting questions asked by commentators and speculators in the coming weeks.

Half-hearted compromises or plenty of leeway for pope?

The final document of the 270 synodals, which Francis had explicitly requested be published in October, contains few concrete pastoral proposals and leaves much up in the air. Critics have already described it as a half-hearted compromise paper between progressive and conservative bishops.

Others, however, stressed that the synod has certainly opened doors and leaves the pope plenty of room to maneuver through them. A similar openness as some documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) contained – which leads to debates about the "spirit of the Council" until today.

"Seeing reality as it is"

In the end, the pope alone will decide to what extent paragraphs that did not receive the required two-thirds majority of participants at the time will nevertheless be included in his own text; this could possibly include, for example, an admission of guilt by the church toward homosexuals or divorced persons proposed by the German participants. Archbishop Paglia merely let it be known in Portugal that he expects a "hymn of love to the family" and the witness of a church.

In his closing address to the synodals at the time, Francis had also considered decentralized pastoral solutions to tricky ies. The synod, the pope continued, showed "that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who defend the letter, but the spirit; not the idea, but man; not formulas, but the gratuitous love of God and his forgiveness". The goal, they said, must be to see reality as it is – not as it should be – in a historic period of discouragement for families. How exactly he envisions this and what pastoral conclusions he has drawn from it, the Catholic world will possibly learn before Easter.

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