Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The deliberate ambiguity of the Synod statement is a prescription for trouble

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 28, 2015

Some Synod fathers say the final statement opens the way for divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Others say it does not . You might say the Synod’s message is ambiguous.

But Cardinal George Pell would disagree. “It’s not ambiguous,” he told the National Catholic Register. With his usual candor, the Australian prelate went on to say that the wording in the crucial paragraph is “insufficient”—and deliberately so. “The document is cleverly written to get consensus,” he explained.

Thanks to some careful phrasing, the Synod achieved consensus—barely. (Paragraph #86 received just one vote more than the required two-thirds majority.) But we don’t have clarity. The Catholic Church either does, or does not, hold that couples who are involved in a second conjugal relationship should not receive Communion. Which is it? Ask different prelates, and you’ll hear different answers.

When bishops gather in a Synod we expect to learn: to deepen our understanding of what the Church teaches. Admittedly the Synod does not teach with authority; only the Pope, in his own post-synodal statement, will do that. But bishops are teachers, and we have a right to expect instruction rather than confusion or, worse, obfuscation.

During the Synod discussions, we frequently heard suggestions that the Church should use more welcoming language, adopt more compassionate attitudes, make more winsome arguments. Yes, we all want welcoming pastors, compassionate confessors, and winsome evangelists. But from our teachers we want clarity.

At this Synod, we are told, the bishops were taking a pastoral approach, rather than addressing doctrinal issues. But that’s exactly the point at issue, isn’t it? The “Kasper proposal” appeared to raise a major doctrinal question, and rather than addressing that question directly, the Synod tried to finesse it.

On questions of doctrine, as on questions of law, precise language is crucial. If a lawyer is careless in his use of words, his client is likely to suffer for his negligence. A lawyer who deliberately uses ambiguous language, in order to secure an agreement between parties who really don’t agree, is courting disaster.

In this case, since the Synod’s statement is not binding, the danger to the faith can still be averted, if Pope Francis addresses the question that the Synod fathers fudged.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: VICTORIA01 - Oct. 30, 2015 9:38 PM ET USA

    Based on how the Bishops communicated during the Synod it would seem to be a safe bet that divorced and remarried are already receiving Communion in many places - Fenton I am sad to say that I think you are correct. I think that the same thing is already happening with practising same sex attracted people being permitted to receive Holy Communion. A similar thing happened with female altar servers and communion in the hand. These two were presented as a fait accompli and Rome capitulated.

  • Posted by: PS 26 - Oct. 30, 2015 8:38 PM ET USA

    Hope much trump all doubt. We have a tremendous challenge to live a life of self giving in the current culture of the USA. May our Lord grant us His gifts to persevere.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Oct. 30, 2015 3:25 PM ET USA

    The deliberate ambiguity of Pope Francis' summary of the synod is also a prescription for trouble.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 29, 2015 1:00 PM ET USA

    For decades so-called "traditional" Catholics have sounded an alarm. They warned that the early problems were only the beginning. As 2015 draws to a close, and as is evident even by commentary at this site, criticism- even of the Vicar of Christ- by devoted faithful Catholics is becoming more common. No one desires this. It is not as it ought to be. Looking forward there is less confidence. In fact it can honestly be concluded that confidence is now under attack. This has no place.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 29, 2015 1:05 AM ET USA

    Let us keep praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to Pope Francis. The Holy Spirit has never failed the Church.

  • Posted by: shrink - Oct. 28, 2015 10:20 PM ET USA

    Phil, the Synod " finesse" is an attempt by the conservatives to accommodate the angry and determined Francis, who views "clarity" aligned with justice, and justice as the enemy of mercy. Thus, the problem is not with the Synod's finesse, the problem is with Francis. He is the Jesuit romantic who believes that justice and law exclude mercy. In romance, charity trumps law. In romance, the person is good, society corrupts. Francis has arrived to save us from the corrupt structures of the Church.

  • Posted by: adamah - Oct. 28, 2015 5:13 PM ET USA

    I have to be honest. I have no confidence that Pope Francis will provide clarity. Now that it is announced that he will write an Apostolic Exhortation I fear that there will be more confusion. This is a papacy of chaos.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Oct. 28, 2015 4:58 PM ET USA

    Based on how the Bishops communicated during the Synod it would seem to be a safe bet that divorced and remarried are already receiving Communion in many places. The Pope likely knows this. Will he ratify that behavior or condemn? Taking a clue from his streamlining of annulments maybe he will streamline communion as well. I pray that the Holy Spirit will keep us from seeing a destructive action done for pastoral reasons.