But as the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops emphasized, October’s session was never meant to arrive at conclusions on the positions presented and argued, but to pave the way for the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2015, a larger gathering of the world’s bishops that will likely introduce key changes on how pastors will deal with “irregular” couples, that is, those outside the context of sacramental marriage.
But the 2014 Synod was not without fanfare. Truth be told, the closed-door debates were very heated, with some Catholic commentators warning of a possible schism if the disagreements between the so-called conservatives and progressives persist.
There were two schools of thought that emerged during the debates: one that is open to changing pastoral practice towards “irregular” couples without changing doctrine, and another which holds that changing pastoral practice may be misinterpreted as changing doctrine itself.
Initially, providing a warmer welcome in the Church for homosexual persons, by using more sensitive language and a more attuned pastoral care program, seemed to gain steam. However, it was withdrawn after conservative bishops weighed in heavily on the matter. A line in the draft version of the Synod’s report released, on October 15, which referred to homosexuals as having “gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community” disappeared in the final report.
Paragraphs which talked about a more positive attitude towards divorced Catholics who remarried outside the Church and co-habiting couples also did not make the cut.
As a result, all eyes are now focused on Pope Francis, whose insights on the Synod debates, and whose stand on key issues, including same sex unions and Communion for divorced Catholics, has been described by some conservatives as ambiguous. Popes usually issue apostolic exhortations summarizing their insights after a synod.
But if anything, the Pope’s words and actions leading up to end of the Synod were very telling. To begin with, observers believe his choice to beatify Paul VI, the catalyst of Vatican II, at the end of the Synod was a sign that change was coming. Vatican II ushered in a new era for the Catholic Church, not just in terms of liturgy, but in terms of how it dealt with people or groups that were perceived to be outcasts. Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”), the defining Constitution of Vatican II, opened the windows and doors of the Church to those outside it.
The tapestry of the new Blessed, whose arms were outstretched, that was unveiled during the beatification rite, also seemed to signify a “welcoming” of sorts. But the most revealing of all these pronouncements or actions is a line from the beatification homily of Pope Francis himself: “God is not afraid of new things.”
Whether the Holy Father was simply referring to the changes that have been so far instituted in the Catholic Church fifty years after Vatican II or change that is yet to come, still remains to be seen. As Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle said, “the drama continues,” into the 2015 gathering.