Pope Francis is emerging as a leader who can take the catholic church to new heights as he tries to include marginalized groups. But an extraordinary synod of bishops shows that change is easier said than done
By Jacob George
“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.”
—Genesis 1, verse 27
For Christians, the family is the basic unit of the Church. The family has strong roots in Biblical references to the creation of man and woman, both made in the image and likeness of God. It is the Church that binds man and woman through the sacramental knot called marriage. After marriage, they live together, love each other, give birth to children and raise them and of course, associate with the Church. This is the quintessential principle of the Catholic Church.
So what is the relevance of issues like divorce, living together and same sex marriage in a conservative community like the Catholic Church? Pope Francis, often seen as a refreshing change to the old guard, dared to speak on these issues by calling an extraordinary synod in the Vatican in October. It was the first time such a synod had been called in nearly three decades. The fortnight-long gathering saw the participation of 182 bishops from all over the world and many sensitive issues that the Church was facing were discussed, a clear indication of the vision of Pope Francis. Though he couldn’t push through a big change in the Roman Catholic Church, nonetheless, contentious topics like divorce, living together, homosexuality and contraception came to be discussed among millions of Catholics.
(Featured image) Pope Francis; (above) The Synod in the Vatican to deliberate on the issues of divorce, remarriage same-sex marriage and live-in relationships
As marriage and family form the cornerstone of the Catholic Church, it cannot even think of accepting same-sex marriage and divorce. Each and every aspect of the life of a Catholic and the running of the local parish are strictly according to the Canon law and it is difficult to bring about any fundamental change in it.
For example, the synod hasn’t decided to recognize same-sex marriage and divorce, says Major Archbishop Cardinal Mar George Alencherry of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Kerala. “The four bishops who represented the Catholic community in the country will, of course, interact with the clergy and the laity on these issues before
the next synod slated for next year,” says the Cardinal.
Pope Francis had also called for a wider acceptance of homosexuals, but it failed to win a two-thirds majority at the synod. A draft report issued halfway through the meeting had called for greater openness towards homosexuals and divorced Catholics who have remarried, but those paragraphs too got rejected by the synod and were stripped from the final text. This has annoyed and disappointed Catholic gay rights groups, who felt the synod was not gracious enough to welcome lesbian and gay people. A paragraph entitled, “Pastoral attention to people of homosexual orientation”, refers to church teaching, saying there can be “not even a remote” comparison between gay unions and heterosexual marriage. “Nevertheless,” it adds, “men and women of homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and sensitivity.” They should not suffer from discrimination, it adds. But the shift in tone is clear. And, in a stark sign of the discomfort provoked among many bishops, even this watered-down passage failed to pass two-thirds majority needed for it to be approved. As instructed by the Pontiff, the voting figures were given out to the press to keep the entire proceedings transparent.
Catholics hold a procession on Good Friday in San Ignacio, Belize, Central America
A marriage being solemnized in a Catholic Church
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It was, indeed, a well-calibrated move by Pope Francis to allow more people to have access to the sacraments. It is a fact that churches in Europe are suffering from a lack of attendance. The Pope’s worry is about modernism that has conquered the European society since the Sixties and that has driven many Christians away from the Church. Ever since his election in last March, he has made it clear that the Catholic Church needs to become more inclusive and understanding of real people’s lives if it is to survive, let alone grow.
With words like divorce and remarriage remaining taboo within the Church, more and more people see it keeping them at bay. Marriage as an institution has already failed in many parts of Europe and Americas despite the imposing weight of the Catholic Church over its members. As the Pope wanted to attract more and more people to the Church, he might have hoped that permitting divorced and remarried persons to have sacraments would widen the base and help the Church achieve the objective. “This will be further explored,” says the report.
Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Catholicos, head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Kerala and president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, views Pope Francis’ initiative as timely and inspiring. He says: “Pope Francis is asking the Church to propose authentic Christian ways to make the family healthier.” The most affected unit in the human race is the family, he says, and the Pope has asked the Church to see the reasons for its fragility (see box).
The Pope has adapted a radically more collegiate style of church governance than has been seen for decades. The entire process is democratic, whereas in the Catholic Church, democracy has no place. In India, every parish, along with its properties (church premises, educational institutions and landed properties), is owned by Catholic bishops. The laity has no say in the running of the Church administration. But the conduct of the synod and the briefing given out to the press show that the new Pontiff is democratic and open to talking about sensitive issues.
Speaking after the vote, Pope Francis told the synod that he would have been “worried and saddened” if there had not been “animated discussions” or if “everyone had been in agreement or silent in a false and acquiescent peace”. Though his agenda failed to garner support from the attending bishops, Pope Francis is emerging as a new leader who can take the Church to new heights.
Pope Francis has made it clear that the Catholic Church needs to become more inclusive and understanding of real people’s lives if it is to survive, let alone grow.
A protest against gay marriages in France, a predominantly Catholic country
Considering the changing social norms in society, the Catholic Church needs someone like this Pope today. The sexual revolution that swept across Europe and Americas in the Sixties and the unprecedented growth of Western countries led to a paradigm shift in the lives of people. There’s been a dramatic shift in traditional values related to sex and sexuality. Sex became more socially acceptable outside the boundaries of marriage. But the Catholic Church failed to hold its folk together within a shell of strict social norms.
The period also witnessed the liberation and independence of women. The discovery of the “pill” gave her more freedom and control over her life. This was followed by legalization of abortion. The pill very soon became the symbol of sexual revolution and the Church became a mute spectator. As out-of-wedlock births, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, divorce and homosexuality show a northward trend, marriage too is losing its charm and failing as an institution. Simultaneously, people are turning away from the Church. And this is the reason for the divide among the bishops that took part in the synod.
“There is a cultural clash between western societies and Afro-Asian ones when it comes to issues like homosexuality and the like.”
—Major Archbishop Cardinal Mar George Alencherry of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Kerala
In India, though, marriage is still a strong institution among Catholics and the Church has been largely able to keep its folk insulated from western influences. There is no scope for discourse on subjects such as divorce, gays or lesbians. “There is a cultural clash between western societies and Afro-Asian ones when it comes to issues like homosexuality and the like,” explains Cardinal Alencherry. But homosexuals deserve more sympathetic and inclusive approach, he says. While in some western countries gay and lesbian marriages are legally permitted, it is not so in India. “How can we support an issue which is not legally permitted in this country,” asks Father Bovas Mathew, media coordinator of the Major Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram.
Though such issues haven’t become a serious issue in churches in India, most of the cases coming up before the “Parish Court” are complaints regarding divorce, reveals a senior priest in-charge of such a court in Ernakulam. The Church has its own laws on marriage, divorce and remarriage. In the Catholic Church, divorce is not granted under normal circumstances. The complainant should present valid reasons like inability to beget children or mental illness. “Laws are very stringent. Divorce is very difficult to get,” says the priest. Even if a couple manages to get a divorce from the civil court, none will be granted permission to marry again in the Church. They will cease to be members of the Church. “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate,” says The Bible (Mark 10: 8-9). This is the fundamental principle of the Church.
No wonder, the synod signalled a deep divide among the bishops. But many—lesbians, gays, divorced and remarried Catholics—are all looking with hope towards Pope Francis. If he manages to bring about changes, the Catholic Church will never be the same again.
“Patience & an open mind solve matters”
Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in Kerala and president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, says that the divide seen in the recently concluded extraordinary Vatican Synod can be resolved with patience and an open mind. The 55-year-old cardinal, the youngest in the Catholic Church, spoke to Jacob George on the synod, the family and the future of his Church. Excerpts
Do you think the Catholic family in India is as per the true concept of the Church?
In India, family has a greater role to play in society. For example, it takes care of the child and its education, as well as the religious education and upbringing of the adult, initiating him into social life. Also, even when he is working, the family is there to support him. The same family assists the children with marriage. Some people misunderstand this with the term “arranged marriage.” In Indian Christian society, it is the family that seeks a suitable partner for its kids. In many parts of the world, families are fragile and broken.
There seems to be a major divide in the synod on some sensitive issues. Is it an East-West divide?
The Church in Europe is facing many fissures, which are quite different from those in India. Everyone has to look at the situation of others with patience and an open mind. If the family is affected, the basic unit of the human race will be affected. We have to take collective steps in a collaborative way to face these challenges.
How is the family system in the West different from that of the East?
There is a very strong family system in the Eastern world because of parents. The mother and father have a greater role to play in children’s lives. In India, we have got an added advantage—our Indian culture. There is a saying that “the family that prays together stays together.” We have a rather positive approach towards family prayer and all the members of the family assemble together and pray. This has sustained the family system. Even if there are issues, concerns or anxieties, we have a common prayer in the family which resolves these issues.
If the Catholic Church decides that those divorced and remarried can receive Communion, how would bishops in India react?
The impression that I got during all this discussion in the synod was that everyone wants God’s mercy to be shown to people who are really in need of it. And everybody is in need of it, especially those who are fragile, weak and kept outside the mainstream. Therefore, we need to patiently pray and reflect upon the solutions. One solution that is applicable in this part of the world may not be applicable in another part. So that should be done by the local bishops’ conferences and general discussions.