The world synod on marriage and the family, scheduled at the Vatican in October 2014, has sparked a lively debate in church circles on issues concerning sexuality, gender, and relationships, with a number of bishops acknowledging that it is time for a frank discussion on these topics to happen.
Perhaps no call for such a dialogue has hit so close to home, so to speak, than the recent statement from the head of the Italian bishops’ conference in which he said:
“My wish for the Italian Church is that it is able to listen without any taboo to the arguments in favour of married priests, the Eucharist for the divorced, and homosexuality.”
Those are the words of Bishop Nunzio Galantino, of the Cassano all’Jonio diocese in southern Italy, quoted by the Italian newspaper, La Nazione, and reported in English by The Tablet. Galantino’s words take on an added significance because he was appointed head of the Italian bishops conference by Pope Francis himself.
Echoing Pope Francis’ sentiment from a September 2014 interview that church leaders had become too “obsessed” with abortion, Bishop Galantino added to his call for dialogue with:
“In the past we have concentrated too much on abortion and euthanasia. It mustn’t be this way because in the middle there’s real life which is constantly changing.”
Galantino was optimistic that the current pope offered the possibility of change in the areas of church teaching regarding sexuality and marriage. The bishop said:
“With Pope Francis the Italian Church has an extraordinary opportunity to reposition itself on spiritual moral and cultural beliefs.”
Not all are as optimistic as this Italian prelate though. Pope Francis’ recent off-hand comments on the topics of economics and on whether a divorced and remarried woman should be able to receive communion have come under scrutiny by some commentators who note the consternation that the pope’s casually dropped provocative statements can cause.
J. Peter Nixon, a blogger at dotCommonweal, reflected on how much weight and authority certain forms of papal communication actually have:
“So it has come to this. We are now debating the doctrinal authority of papal tweets and phone calls.
“As David Gibson reports, the latest controversy in papal communication was a three-word tweet in Latin–Iniquitas radix malorum–that has been translated into English as “inequality is the root of social evil.” This followed only days after the dust up over the pope’s phone call to a divorced and remarried woman where he allegedly encouraged her to receive communion.”
Nixon makes a good point when he says that our modern world focuses too much on papal pronouncements at the expense of the rest of the church:
The question that must be asked–particularly in light of Sunday’s canonizations–is whether this increasingly obsessive focus on the opinions, theology, spirituality and personal witness of the pope is a healthy thing for the Church. The purpose of authority in the Church is to form a community that can bring forth “a great cloud of witnesses,” not to place the burden of that witness on a single individual. The primary role of those authorities is to be coaches, referees and groundskeepers. All of us, however, have the responsibility of playing the “beautiful game” that is following Jesus Christ.
While I agree with him, I also think that Pope Francis needs to be more explicit and clear in his statements. I’ve said before that the pope’s ambiguity can cause problems, and that sooner or later he will need to be more direct about where he stands. In her National Catholic Reporter column, Jamie Manson highlighted Pope Francis’ ambiguity problem in regard to both the case of the Ugandan anti-gay law and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) censure of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). On Uganda, Manson points out:
“He [Pope Francis] took no action when Ugandan Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga publicly lauded the president of Uganda for passing an extreme anti-homosexuality law, a law that clearly violates the Catholic church’s teaching to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.”
Her analysis of the many ways that his statements agree with the CDF about their charges against LCWR is too rich with detail to summarize here, and I recommend that you read her entire column.
During the synod this fall, many opinions are going to be bandied about by church leaders, theologians, pundits, and laity. Some reports have already shown that bishops seem open to the idea of debating church teaching on a number of topics, based on what they have learned from surveying their laity. Whether he tweets, makes a phone call, or gives an interview to the press, Pope Francis is going to have to be clear about what direction he wants to take our church on these important issues. I hope and pray that Bishop Galantino’s optimism about the possibility for change under Pope Francis is well-founded.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Religion News Service: “Conservatives squawk over pope’s tweet on inequality”
Religion News Service: “Church ‘obsessed’ with abortion — again? Pope’s Italian ally issues another wake-up call‘
For Bondings 2.o’s past coverage of synod news, please click on “Synod 2014” under the “Categories” tab in the right hand column of this page.