Welcome diverse families, Catholic synod urges

By Savi Hensman
October 14, 2014

The Roman Catholic church should be more welcoming to cohabiting and divorced couples, lesbian and gay people and their children, according to a document issued by a Synod on the Family.

The ‘Relatio post disceptationem’ (report after debate), published halfway through the two-week gathering of bishops, signals a radical shift to a more pastoral approach, though doctrine at present remains basically unchanged.

It underlines the need to reach out to people where they are, encouraging “the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church”, including among “those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations.”

This follows the example of Jesus, who “looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God.”

The focus should be on building on what is positive, rather than punishing those whose family life does not fit the church’s ideal, for instance “with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons”, and highlighting “the primacy of grace.”

When couples split up, “Each damaged family first of all should be listened to with respect and love.” Pope Francis is quoted: “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’, which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Es 3,5).”

With regard to lesbians and gays, “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” and “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

Indeed, though “unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman” and there are “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.”

This is the start, not the end, of a process: “The reflections put forward, the fruit of the Synodal dialog that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015.”

There are occasional factual weaknesses, perhaps arising from the wish also to please ‘traditionalists’. A lament about “the sharp drop in the birthrate... rendering the view of the future less certain” ignores an ongoing rapid rise in the global population. And the claim, in the section on homosexuality, that it is unacceptable “that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology” is misleading. Calling for decriminalisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is a basic matter of compassion and justice.

However the report has been broadly welcomed by those wanting the church to become more inclusive, but attacked by those opposed. It reflects a recognition by church leaders of a shift at grassroots level and willingness to reflect seriously on the joys and sorrows of actual families rather than judging from a distance.

The process of change in the Roman Catholic church can be painfully slow but the report suggests that a significant shift is underway. In a homily that morning, the Pope had spoken of the clash between Jesus and the doctors of the law of his time, who “were closed within their system, they had perfectly systemised the law."

Instead it is important to consider, "Am I able to understand the signs of the times and be faithful to the voice of the Lord that is manifested in them? We should... ask the Lord for a heart that loves the law – because the law belongs to God – but which also loves God’s surprises and the ability to understand that this holy law is not an end in itself."

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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