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Key synod report calls for 'gradualism' in Church response to irregular family situations

October 13, 2014

An interim report from the Synod of Bishops has called upon Catholic pastors to recognize the positive elements of all family situations, including those at odds with Church teaching.

The document says that “the Church accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care.”

The relatio post disceptationem, which will form the basis of discussions during the 2nd week of the Synod’s deliberations, calls for ‘a conversion of all pastoral practices from the perspective of the family.” The document encourages pastors to work with “the historic family, wounded by sin,” helping those families toward a Christian understanding of sacramental marriage.

Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdo, the relator general of the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, delivered the relatio post disceptationem orally to the assembly on October 13, as the October meeting of the Synod shifted from plenary sessions to smaller working groups. The relatio is intended to summarize the discussions to date and serve as basis for debate in the working groups.

The relatio was prepared by Cardinal Erdo with the help of several other prelates on a committee appointed by Pope Francis. The working groups, after discussing the document during the next few days, will issue reports prepared by their own elected correspondents. (See today’s separate CWN news report.) The interim document, described by one commentator as an "earthquake" in the Church's pastoral approach, emphasizes the need for the Church to offer pastoral care for the many families that do not conform to the Church’s understanding of marriage and family life:

The Gospel of the family, while it shines in the witness of many families who live coherently their fidelity to the sacrament, with their mature fruits of authentic daily sanctity must also nurture those seeds that are yet to mature, and must care for those trees that have dried up and wish not to be neglected.

‘The Law of Gradualness’

Given the many problems of family life today, the report says that pastors should look for the positive dimensions of even trouble relationships, recognizing those positive elements “as a term to be accompanied in development toward the sacrament of marriage.” The document says:

Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm.

The first section of the relatio is entitled “Listening,” and stresses that pastors should seek for evidence of a healthy desire for authentic family life. The desire for family is universal, the Synod document insists, and is strong particularly among young people. However, in today’s world it faces a “growing danger represented by an exasperated individualism that distorts family bonds.”

The relatio acknowledges the multiple problems of family life, including single parenthood, cohabitation, common-law unions, same-sex unions, divorce, and remarriage. The document calls for careful discernment in these cases, suggesting that “it is possible to grasp authentic family values or at least the wish for them” in many cases. Once the desire for real family life is identified, the relatio argues, the Church through her pastors can help couples to realize that they will satisfy that desire by following the Church’s teaching regarding marriage and family life. Troubled or irregular families can be helped toward that goal, the document suggests, by following “the law of gradualness.” I

n using that term—“the law of gradualness”—the document cites Familiaris Consortio, the apostolic exhortation on the family promulgated by St. John Paul II in 1981. In the document, the Polish Pontiff made a somewhat different point, warning that Church teachings should not be treated as relative standards. He wrote:

They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. "And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations. [Familiaris Consortio, 34]

Difficult cases

Regarding the issue that has dominated media attention during the Synod, the relatio reported that during the first week of discussion prelates had presented different perspectives on the question of whether divorce and remarried Catholics should be admitted to Communion:

As regards the possibility of partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering.

The document concluded that “greater theological study was requested” on this issue. On the question of whether the process of seeking an annulment might be streamlined, the relatio reported a greater degree of consensus among the Synod fathers that a more efficient process would be welcome.

Discussing cohabitation outside of marriage, the report stated:

A new sensitivity in today’s pastoral consists in grasping the positive reality of civil weddings and, having pointed out our differences, of cohabitation. It is necessary that in the ecclesial proposal, while clearly presenting the ideal, we also indicate the constructive elements in those situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to that ideal … All these situations have to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk towards the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel. They need to be welcomed and accompanied with patience and delicacy. With a view to this, the attractive testimony of authentic Christian families is important, as subjects for the evangelization of the family.

On the topic of same-sex unions, the report clearly confirmed the Church teaching that “unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.” However, the document calls for a welcoming attitude toward homosexuals, saying that they “have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” The relatio says:

Without denying the 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. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.


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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 31, 2014 2:22 PM ET USA

    From my own experience, I note that many clergy are not nearly as prepared for acts of repentance from those to whom they minister as those people are themselves. Perhaps it is fear of retribution from an aggrieved partner. Perhaps it is fear that the penitent might fall and fail to rise again. Whatever it is, it is surely fear, and it often expresses itself in some of the cruelest replies and rejections. Where is the charity that drives out fear?

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Oct. 14, 2014 7:53 PM ET USA

    Good comments.We tend to forget that many of our leaders in the Church are already dancing with the devil and are blind. Realize Christ came for the one lost sheep but relativism and "respect for sin", I am sure is not what He had in mind.He spoke about saving people but those people musst want to be saved.Those living on the margins of the Church and its doctrines do so because they want to. Time to stand up and be firm on the Church teachings. No more "I'm Ok, You're OK" 1960s on perversions.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 14, 2014 7:06 PM ET USA

    Let your yes be YES and no be NO. Unspecified "gradualness" with no clear direction leads nowhere. Saint Peter and Paul, Saint John Paul II, pray for us!

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Oct. 14, 2014 4:10 PM ET USA

    A message for the Cardinals: Please Fathers in Rome: Let us all show courtesy - of course, but respect and esteem for sin? - never. Don't let yourselves be painted with the same brush as those who advocate sexual deviance, or shutting off the wellsprings of life, or leaving your family. Your loose talk is hurting souls. Show respect and esteem for all those persons who have followed God's way with fortitude.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Oct. 14, 2014 12:11 PM ET USA

    Is this language inviting people into an understanding in which they exercise the Fundamental Option, whose proponents say that mortal sins like adultery and active homosexuality can be committed without losing grace, but which JPII condemned (VS, 65-70)? Likewise, does this understanding into which people in irregular relationships are invited go counter to Scripture's admonition: "do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh" (Gal 5:13)? Other than that, I'm all for greater mercy.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Oct. 14, 2014 2:50 AM ET USA

    Well, that was an expected display of bureaucracy and relativism. Whatever happened to " Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one."

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Oct. 13, 2014 8:49 PM ET USA

    What particular "gifts and qualities" do homosexuals have to offer to the Church at large? The CCC says that the homosexual orientation is a "psychological disorder"; therefore, I am at a loss as to what their particular "gifts and qualities" might be and how these might differ from a person with a heterosexual orientation.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 13, 2014 8:28 PM ET USA

    This Synod won't produce any magisterial documents. Evangelii Gaudium never had a magisterial Latin edition published. Pope Francis indicated this would not either. Anyone following the Synod should read Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio, and other magisterial documents to understand Catholic teaching. It is hard to imagine how hostile the world will be to faithful Catholics when the Left is handed easily misinterpreted weapons like these by clerics rationalizing their decades of cowardice.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Oct. 13, 2014 7:38 PM ET USA

    Instead of constructively helping people who live on the margins of Church teachings to help them on their way to the Christian familial ideal, this document is the slippery slope to the abandonment of Church teachings. The clergy's soft stance on Humanae Vitae gave the green light to most Catholics to practice birth control. The soft approach destroys the fabric of the family and the Church, and the hand that has restrained Satan is being taken away.

  • Posted by: florentine - Oct. 13, 2014 6:44 PM ET USA

    This appears to be in opposition to Christian teachings. St. Paul was very clear about the man who persisted in sin, that he should be cast out of the church at once, in order that he might be still be saved. If the Church is to be Christ's Body, then it seems that to act in the form of His Sacrifice, necessitates purity, holiness. Christ's love encourages strength, self sacrifice, not the weakness and failure of the "I'm Ok, You're OK" 1960s humanistic perversion of His Holy Way.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Oct. 13, 2014 6:03 PM ET USA

    Speaking of the Holy Spirit's part in selecting a Pope, BXVI said "Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined. There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!" Sounds to me like it could apply to this Synod as well.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 13, 2014 3:29 PM ET USA

    This document prepared by Cardinal Erdo and his fellow contributors has the best interests of people involved in irregular or chaotic family arrangements at heart. Like Christ, the Church must be prepared to "wade into the deep", to paraphrase the words of Pope Francis, in order to greet people who live at the margins of Church teachings and constructively help them on their way to the Christian familial ideal.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Oct. 13, 2014 1:55 PM ET USA

    If this is accurate, then it is not as bad as I thought, considering the content of some interventions which gained publicity. Some may wish for a sterner report, but still it must be celebrated that at least this report does not point strongly to heterodoxy and antinomy, which was my greatest fear. Let us wait and see.

  • Posted by: shrink - Oct. 13, 2014 1:41 PM ET USA

    Reminds me of the days of Paul VI: ambiguity is nuance; sensivity training is evangelization; non-judgmental feelings as a cause of unity; sin is not personal its all about social structures; good intentions suffice; hell... God can't be so mean. Let's just all be Unitarians.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Oct. 13, 2014 12:18 PM ET USA

    Can we gradually have hope that the Pope and these Cardinals graduate to enough of an understanding of the Catholic religion to realize that sinners delude themselves about the nature of their sins and may only be interested in graduating to greater sins. Oh, I forgot. To mention sin is like, as a valley girl and chuch prelate might say, too much like, well, you know, like "negativity" and stuff.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 13, 2014 10:27 AM ET USA

    They had better continue onward. This is not complete by any means. What we are wrestling with in the United States is frank & brazen rebellion.