Family in the garden © Harald Oppitz (KNA)
Bishops at the Synod on the Family © Cristian Gennari/Siciliani (KNA)
Catholic church wrestles with its family image. In October, the Synod of Bishops will discuss the relationship between doctrine and life. But the rifts are deep.
Perhaps the most important bishops' meeting since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) will soon begin in Rome. At the World Synod of Bishops on 4. to 25. October, some 300 bishops and other experts appointed by the pope will discuss the Catholic Church's future stance on marriage and the family, on "The vocation and mission of the family in today's Church and world".
Walking a tightrope between tradition and openness
It is already clear that it will once again be a balancing act – on the one hand, tradition and doctrine, and on the other, openness to secular ideas. A foretaste was provided by the preparatory Extraordinary Synod in October 2014 with its sometimes sharp controversies between the synod members. Particularly in the West, the gulf between church doctrine and the life practices of many Catholics is deep, and the bond between the church people and the magisterium on key ies is often almost nonexistent.
This is confirmed not least by the answers to a questionnaire sent by the Vatican to all dioceses. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops' Conference and a synod member, is not the only one facing crucial questions about the future of the church this fall. Expectations at the grassroots level are also enormous.
The crux of dealing with remarried divorcees
In the focus of the German public is the dispute about the admission of remarried divorcees to the Eucharist.
Although it affects only a small minority of practicing Catholics, it advanced to become a barometer of the church's willingness to reform, especially in secular media. The synod's working paper again puts up for debate the possibility of inviting those affected back to communion in individual cases after a path of repentance and reconciliation. This path, however, must take place under episcopal supervision, he said. Last year, the synod fathers did not give the necessary two-thirds majority to do so. Similar sentiments applied to the idea of showing more ecclesiastical appreciation to homosexual couples who take on special responsibilities for their partners.
Different composition of the synod than usual
It is questionable whether the changed composition of the synod this time can influence a change of direction. In 2014, each local church sent only the president of its bishops' conference, giving a strong voice to more conservative African bishops, for example, who warn of an "ideological destruction" of the Christian family.
At the Ordinary Synod now, however, conferences send up to four bishops, depending on their number of Catholics. That could give a boost to Episcopal conferences in Western Europe, North America and South America, which tend to be more progressive, if not homogeneously aligned.
From Germany, Marx was joined by Archbishop Heiner Koch (Berlin) and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode (Osnabruck), all of whom expressed some openness to reform. But they also warn against exaggerated expectations that cannot be reconciled with the unchanging Catholic doctrine, and against trench warfare that in the end leaves only "victors and vanquished". Fear of a test of strength is great.
Pope Francis as a decision-maker
Pope Francis will have to weigh up the positions in the end. The Synod of Bishops is seen as the acid test of his pontificate. Here he can intervene magisterially, or he can give more space to the principle of collegiality between the pope and the bishops – a principle he holds in high esteem. Already the double convocation of a family synod showed his will for reform under the key word of mercy.
In this sense he expressed himself, with all restraint in the matter, again and again. He did not want to judge homosexuals, and remarried divorcees should not be lumped together, especially not if children from the new marriage are affected. Which positions he will include in his final document, however, remains open.
On his South American trip in July, the pope prayed that "everything that seems impure to us, causes scandal or frightens us" would be transformed by God into a miracle – like the water turned into wine in the biblical account of the wedding at Cana. His conclusion: "The family today needs such miracles."