Marriage, pastoral care for the divorced topics of Cardinal’s Steele Lecture on time at Synod

November 10, 2015

HOUSTON — When bishops from around the world convened in Rome in October for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the world’s secular press waited outside closed doors with anticipation reminiscent of a papal election. They were probably disappointed. 

The Vatican made it clear from the onset that the bishops weren’t going to solve the problems facing the Church as they relate to families and marriages. Not in a mere three weeks. Their purpose was to listen, discern and propose a course of action which will no doubt foster more listening, more discernment and genuine Catholic responses. 

“Everybody [worked] very hard at trying to get at not just the shadows, but also the light that shines through marriage and the family,” said Daniel Cardinal DiNardo. He had only recently returned from Rome before he shared his thoughts and observations in a lecture billed “An Eyewitness View of the Synod on the Family” held Oct. 29 at St. Mary’s Seminary at the University of St. Thomas’s Steele Lecture.

Even though the Synod’s themes were a focus on the assaults on family and marriage, “bishop after bishop got up and said, ‘Wait a minute. Yes, we’ve got these problems. We’ve also got Catholic christian families that are living life brilliantly.’ You can’t leave that alone.”

The bishops met for three weeks in October, six days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 7 p.m. “This was not a vacation. It really was hard work,” the cardinal said — jetlagged but energized. 

“And there really were interesting agreements. Wonderful listenings. Some vigorous disagreements — but always hard work. 

“Genuine tensions. Simultaneous good will.”

The purpose of the Synod was not to make decisions for the pope. “The Synod is not a parliament,” Pope Francis reminded bishops at the Oct. 5 opening session. Its purpose, the pope said, is “an expression of the Church; it is the Church that walks together to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God.”

Cardinal DiNardo reminded that the word, “synod” finds its etymology in the Greek word, “sunodos,” which loosely translates “walk together.” And walking together — the accompaniment of families as they walk their path in life — is a central theme of the Synod.

“The Synod is not only not a parliament, it’s not an ecumenical council,” the cardinal said. “Our voting is purely to make recommendations to give to the pope. The pope can take a look at all the work we did and say, ‘Isn’t that beautiful,’ and leave it in a drawer,” which drew laughter from the overflow crowd.

“Pope Francis is extremely interested in hearing the results of what we did,” he added. 

The report to the pope
At this writing, the report has not been released publicly, although purported excerpts have been widely leaked. The cardinal brought his personally annotated copy of the final report, which was in Italian.

According to the cardinal, it features three parts, which would seem to mirror the format of the report delivered to the pope after the 2014 Synod of the Family: 
1. “See”: A discussion of challenges facing families in the world’s societies and cultures which are growing increasingly secular, and the pastoral challenges that causes
2. “Judge”: Doctrinal and Scriptural support for Church teachings on God’s plan for families
3. “Act”: Recommendations to the pope

Better marriage preparation
Cardinal DiNardo revealed that among immediate recommendations was a plan for strengthening marriages, which strengthens families — notably, the expansion of marriage preparation. It was the one area in which the bishops were in nearly unanimous agreement, the cardinal said.

“One of the things everyone agreed on — whether you were in Africa, Asia, the Americas, the United States or Europe — that the way we prepare couples for marriage is essential. And it’s not good enough right now,” he said. “You can’t start marriage preparation six months before the couple gets married. You have to start marriage preparation — and the meaning of marriage and family life — even with children, even in adolescence.”

“The point is,” the cardinal said, “we are also trying to make disciples who are entering in marriage.”
That point was punctuated by the bishops in their 2014 report to the pope: “Christian marriage is a vocation which is undertaken with due preparation in a journey of faith with a proper process of discernment and is not to be considered only a cultural tradition or social or legal requirement.”

Pastoral care for the divorced
“What happens to people who are civilly married after a divorce?” the cardinal posited. “Pope Francis tried to give us a little bit of help by streamlining the process of annulment. I’m all in favor of that,” he added. (The details are still being worked out by Tribunal lawyers, and a response by Judicial Vicar, Father Lawrence Jozwiak, followed the cardinal’s remarks.)

In cases were the Tribunal process wasn’t going well (for instance, lack of access to witnesses) the cardinal said the bishops considered “a possibility of some genuine repentance, after which, in consultation with the bishops, priests and all, some limited couples would be allowed to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”

The idea was first put forth in a meeting of the College of Cardinals in 2014, and met with “an incredibly lukewarm response,” Cardinal DiNardo said. In the spirit of finding solutions for Pope Francis, a watered-down version of the notion was included in the final document, to the effect, “‘There can be a period of repentance; perhaps this could lead to other things.’ It never mentions Holy Communion. For those who are more traditional, that means, ‘Good.’ For those who are more progressive, it means, “See, it’s not excluded.’ Quite frankly, friends, that’s where we are.”

The cardinal added that personally, he is against the measure as it counters his understanding of the indissolubility of marriage. “However, I’m still open to discussions. …Sometimes, you have to listen. Listen to how God is working. Then you have to speak.”

Holding the line on marriage
The issue of same-sex marriage didn’t come up at the cardinal’s chat. According to reports in Catholic media, the bishops’ report to the pope affirmed the Church’s stance against gay marriage, and also affirmed the Church’s teaching that “every person, independently of their sexual tendency, must be respected in their dignity and welcomed with respect.” 

Massive issues remain
The 2015 Synod built upon the work of the 2014 Synod, which was followed by a lengthy questionnaire and consultation that was answered by 80 percent of all the world’s dioceses. 

“The answers were varied and uneven as to what people thought,” the cardinal said. “But what Pope Francis said was, ‘I’m not taking a poll.’ What’s happening here is: We’re seeing and listening.”

The “massive issues we face can’t put to rest in three weeks,” he said.