A number of conservative bishops around the world are beginning to push back as Pope Francis tries to reshape the pastoral tenor of the Roman Catholic Church, attempting to bring a more inclusive and accepting ethos to the globe’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
On Monday, in a mid-meeting report of the debates under way at a gathering of bishops in Rome, the pope’s ongoing efforts to change the Catholic Church were again made resoundingly clear.
The report, called a “relatio post disceptationem,” or “report after debate,” has caused a sensation as many have hailed its unprecedented shift in tone about the nature of gay relationships, cohabitation before marriage, and remarriage after divorce.
The preliminary report of the “synod,” which was called by Pope Francis to discuss the church’s response to the many cultural shifts in family life, said the church should appreciate “the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.”
The synod's initial report also called for ongoing theological reflection about the status quo of denying communion to those who divorce and remarry, instead perhaps allowing the sacraments to some couples on a case-by-case basis. It also said the church should recognize that gay relationships, though morally problematic, often include “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice" and constitute "a precious support in the life of the partners.”
But some influential bishops expressed alarm at what they called a “near revolutionary” document. The head of the Polish bishops’ conference, Cardinal Stanislaw Gadecki, said the document was “unacceptable” and deviated from traditional church doctrine. The cardinal, an outspoken critic of those who cohabitate before marriage, also said unsanctioned partnerships are committing “self-mutilation of their love,” according to Polskie Radio.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American who heads the Vatican's supreme tribunal, or highest court, said the Vatican had released “manipulated” information about the bishops’ debates, emphasizing the proponents of inclusiveness without reflecting the “consistent number of bishops” who oppose the dramatic calls for a shift in pastoral tone.
In an interview with the conservative website Breitbart, Cardinal Burke said “far greater attention” should be given to “the ways in which the church can assist the faithful to know and to live the truth about marriage.” And he said, “I also think that far greater attention needs to be given to the essential connection between the sacred liturgy and holiness of life in marriage and in the family.”
Indeed, political maneuverings behind the scenes seem to indicate that the pope has been actively pushing the synod to emphasize his inclusive views. On Friday, he added six progressive bishops representing four continents to the leadership group preparing the mid-meeting report. He did not, however, add an African bishop, who tend to be overwhelmingly conservative when it comes to family and marriage matters, the Associated Press reported.
Catholic theologians, and the report itself, emphasize that the synod is not attempting to change church doctrine, which forbids all sexual relations outside the boundaries of heterosexual marriage and also requires an annulment to dissolve a marriage and allow those divorced to receive communion.
But Pope Francis, who startled many in the past by saying “who am I to judge” those in gay relationships, has been trying to move the church to recognize the “gifts and qualities” that gay people bring to the church and to provide a more welcoming space for them, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.”
The current “extraordinary” meeting of bishops in Rome is just preliminary. After local churches and bishops prayerfully reflect on the discussions this October, a larger “ordinary” synod of bishops will meet next fall. Following the ordinary synod of bishops next year, the pope will issue an “apostolic exhortation” summarizing the conclusions reached.
“In the US and Europe and in parts of the rest of the world, there are very lively local debates among bishops about these pastoral matters, no question about that,” says Paul Griffiths, professor of Catholic theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. “But I think that Pope Francis’ leadership on this will push the world church to make some genuine pastoral moves.”