Family Synod – a defining moment for Francis’ Papacy?

The focus of the Catholic world will be on Rome from 5-19 October when the first session of the Synod on the Family, called by Pope Francis, meets. Will this Synod see a significant shift in the practice of the Catholic Church and why might this be a “watershed” moment for the Papacy of Francis?

Last year, on his way back from Brazil, journalists questioned the Pope about divorced and remarried Catholics. He replied, “I believe this is a time for mercy…” He alluded to the Orthodox practice of permitting a second marriage. He did not say he wanted to change Church teaching, but suggested that it was a concern of his and that he was open to change.

In preparation for the Synod a questionnaire was sent, on family issues, to the whole Church. Many interpreted this as another sign of the Pope’s openness to change in Church teaching on “hot-button” issues like divorce, remarriage and contraception. Dioceses all over the world were asked to distribute the questionnaire and then collate responses. Some chose not to do this. The German Bishops were the first to release their findings. They identified a huge gap between the teaching of the Church on contraception and divorce versus the choice and practice of many Catholics.

As soon as issues around family and marriage were addressed, wide-ranging opinions and vigorous debate occurred. Senior church officials came out and disagreed publicly. There are two strong camps: those who want change and those who insist that things cannot be changed.

Last week, just before the Synod next month, a group of Cardinals have published a book entitled Remaining in the truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. The publisher, Ignatius Press, says that the book’s thesis is that change is not possible because what the Church teaches is an irrevocable truth. It’s interesting that the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) Cardinal Gerhard Müller, is one of the editors. Müller insisted earlier this year that the Church has no authority to change teaching and its teaching is not open to question.

Although many divorced and remarried Catholics have been given renewed hope that things might change, much of the discourse seems to suggest that this is unlikely and there will be disappointment. Americans at the Synod are expected to oppose change, Africans and Asians will back them.

African bishops are nervous that any softening of the current position could open the door to polygamists wanting special consideration. Many African clergy have not elicited people’s opinions so there are few reports from lay people in Africa. Therefore the lay African voice is unlikely to be heard.

Pope Francis is very popular – across religious, national and ethnic backgrounds.  He is recognised as a formidable world leader. However, if he does not bring about some change he may well face his first wave of anti-Francis sentiment. He has been placed in a difficult position and stands to disappoint and lose people on both sides of the divide. This synod may be the defining moment of his papacy.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ
B.A. (UNISA) B.D. (Urbaniana) M.Th. (UKZN)

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

r.pollitt@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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