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A short comment on the Synod from Germany (November)

A short comment on the Synod from Germany

Marianne Heimbach-Steins, University of Muenster/Germany


Over the last three weeks 270 bishops from all parts of the world Church discussed the issues of marriage and family in Rome. Vivid debates and controversies took place in thirteen language groups and in the plenary sessions, lots of papers were produced, assemblies were held, and prayers were sent to heaven. Now, after the closing ceremonies, we ask as theologians: What has happened through all these efforts, are there signs of change in at least some of the crucial aspects of marriage, partnership and the multifold life of families around the globe? Is there a certain progress in terms of reconciling doctrine and real life – which seems to be one of the most urgent concerns, raised time and again over recent decades, and not only by theological ethicists? What does this synod mean for the church of the 21st century?

In Germany, as in many other countries, Catholics expected the Synod to sketch out a way to allow persons who are remarried after a divorce to remain active and reconciled members of the church with access to the sacraments, at least under specific conditions. Many also expected the church to find words of true recognition for homosexual persons and partnerships. In the time before and during the synod it was often said: If the bishops fail to find helpful words concerning these crucial issues, the synod as such will fail – and more: the Pope will fail. Although this may sound one-sided and exaggerated, it shows how urgently many people wait for the church to prove her readiness to seriously recognize the real life experiences of people who do not fully fit in the limits of a narrow and decontextualized sexual-moral system and to show them the merciful face of Christ instead of only a rigorous set of norms.

Obviously the final document does not meet these wishes directly, on the level of normative expressions. It does not explicitly allow divorced and remarried people to the Eucharist under specific conditions (as the German language group had suggested), and it does not say anything innovative concerning the recognition of homosexual people and their partnerships (though at least it does not repeat the negative formulas so often heard and read in the past). Nevertheless I would argue that the Synod did not fail. It made some progress on a very important level. A way was opened to redefine the place of moral doctrine within the mission of the church and to reshape the process of finding pastoral solutions for real life-challenges. I will shortly sketch my argument a bit more precisely.

A first reading of the final document the synod handed over to Pope Francis reveals a strong effort to leave aside an idealistic and narrow view of marriage and family and to adopt a more realistic approach to the multifold reality of families in the present day societies around the globe. Different social, economic and cultural conditions are taken into account. Not only the family as such is focused upon as a collective subject, but attention is also given to the individuals forming the family and their various conditions of life: women and men, children and youngsters, old people, handicapped and sick people, the poor and the migrants. According to the closing speech the Pope addressed to the assembly (24th October 2015) a key term for the analysis of the situation families experience today is diversity. This sounds quite new in the context of Catholic doctrine.

To take the notion of plurality and diversity seriously means to find pastoral (in the sense of Vatican II) answers that are not uniform but allow plurality and diversity to be respected and acknowledged as covered by a catholic interpretation of family affairs. Therefore the second key-term of the Pope’s speech is inculturation. As an answer to the experience of plurality it at the same time represents a challenge for the ongoing process of finding authentic ways to integrate the variety of personal lives in different social and cultural contexts into the church’s reflection on marriage and family, and into its ecclesial practice.

This is not just a question of how to evaluate a situation by means of a fixed norm or how to impose a norm on a situation. What has to be set up is a complex and dynamic process of communication and intermediation between the person (ethical subject), the situation (context) and the normative orientation of the church’s moral teaching. It means to strengthen the role of personal responsibility and sensitivity, to regain a spiritual depth of the ethical and practical judgement which engages the most intimate capacity of human responsibility. Here is the place of the human conscience – and according to that the ‘localisation’ of pastoral discernment in the forum internum.

All these aspects are clearly expressed in the Synod’s document and this seems to be no less than a sign of re-orientation and re-contextualisation of the moral teaching of the Church. Thus the Synod has taken a very important step towards the recognition of the multifold reality of marriage and family in the light of the gospel. Important steps need to be taken still. But by the process of discernment during the last weeks the Synod at least succeeded in establishing a pastoral rule which opens the doors of the Church for those who in the past had been forced to remain outside. It was by regaining basic elements of the moral tradition of the Church – namely the Christian conscience or the limits of the rule of law and the idea of epikeia – that helped to set free the role of the faithful and the pastors as ethical subjects.

This may be read as a sign of hope coming from the Synod that the Church is about to enter a new stage of becoming a world church in the full sense of the term.