By Daniel Conway
Just as things seemed to be reaching a fever pitch, with liberals championing reform and conservatives digging in their heels, a moderate voice was heard urging calmness and clarity. The occasion was The Third Extraordinary Synod of Bishops which met in Rome to discuss “The Pastoral Challenges Facing the Family in the Light of Evangelization.”
The “hot issues” were widely reported in the media. Divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, homosexual unions were on everyone’s list of discussion topics. Liberal cardinals were urging that the church change its approach to those who do not follow church teaching. Conservative cardinals publicly disagreed. The pope stayed out of the argument until the synod’s final session, listening carefully and urging all to speak freely and openly without fear of reprisals.
Then came the voice of moderation. Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who currently serves as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), was asked by the Vatican to comment. The synod’s “working document,” which appeared to support a dramatically different approach to church teaching on these controversial issues, “is an important moment,” Archbishop Kurtz said. But he stressed that it was just a draft subject to review and revision by more than 200 bishops and lay delegates who are synod participants.
“My focus is going to be on the [final] document that will be the fruit of the whole process and that includes our amendments.” As it turned out, the final document omitted several paragraphs that were considered too controversial. The majority of bishops who participated in the synod were not comfortable with changing the church’s discipline with respect to divorce and remarriage. Nor did they want to appear to equate “welcoming” gay people with approval of same sex unions.
Church history contains many similar moments. From the days of the early church, throughout all the major councils up to and including Vatican II, tensions have flared between those who are seen to be “hard-liners” determined to stick to the letter of the law and “accommodators” who want maximum flexibility in adapting church teaching to contemporary situations. In every case, there is some truth on both sides of the argument.
The challenge is to find the balanced center, the place of wisdom and compassion where the church’s teaching and its pastoral practice meet.
Pope Francis seemed to reflect this search for balance in his remarks at the close of the synod. He described the conservative position as “rigid” and the liberal position as “deceptive mercy.” What’s more, the pope made it clear that fundamental truths about marriage and human sexuality will not be changed. And yet, the pope clearly wants to change the way pastors, including the pope, relate to Catholics and others who do not live in ways that conform to Church teaching. A pastor’s first duty is to nourish the flock, the Holy Father says, and “to go out and find” the lost sheep in order to care for them “with fatherly care and mercy and without false fears.”
On the last day of the synod, Archbishop Kurtz was still seeking the balanced middle way. In an interview published by Catholic News Service, the archbishop acknowledged that the synod’s participants failed to reach consensus on how to meet the pastoral needs of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, cohabitating couples, and those in same-sex unions. But he emphasized the Church’s commitment to be open and welcoming to all.
“As I take my breath at the end of two blessed weeks of work,” the archbishop said, “I see three movements that converge as the gift of this extraordinary synod: 1) the pastoral urgency to restore confidence and give hope to men and women who seek to be faithful witnesses to their sacramental marriages and their families, 2) the urgency to accompany those who struggle in this world, meeting them where they are and walking with them more deeply into the light of Christ, and 3) the continued witness to the beauty of the authentic timeless teaching of Jesus, conveyed through the centuries by the Church and the call of Jesus to true joy and deeper conversion.”
This is the voice of moderation, a voice that speaks of joy and compassion and of the commitment to welcome and “walk with” everyone as Jesus did. In medio stat virtus. (Virtue is in the middle.) In the balanced center, we find the truth of Christ and the true mission of the church.
According to Pope Francis, the goal of the yearlong journey of discernment begun by this extraordinary synod is “to find concrete solutions” and “to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.” May the Holy Spirit guide us along the way!
Daniel Conway is Senior Vice President for Mission, Identity, and Planning at Marian University in Indianapolis, Ind.