A historic message

A historic message

Waiting for the post-synodal letter of the Pope © Ettore Ferrari

After a survey and two synods of bishops on marriage and the family, Pope Francis himself now speaks out on the subject – authoritatively. The expectations of the reformers are high. Questions and answers about the post-synodal letter at a glance:

What is a post-synodal letter?

In a post-synodal letter, the pope formulates final positions on ies addressed by bishops at the synod. So far, the Popes have almost always written such a document after the 14 Ordinary General Assemblies since 1967. Typically, the intercept lasted about a year.

So Francis has made haste. The basis for his text is the so-called Final Relation, in which the synod leadership summarized the points discussed in 94 paragraphs in October. Each section was then voted on individually. Several paragraphs only just received the required two-thirds majority.

It is therefore exciting to see how Pope Francis deals with these paragraphs in his letter. Overall, the bishops gave the pope quite a bit of leeway to formulate his own conclusions.

What binding force does the text have?

A post-synodal letter is an expression of the papal magisterium.

That is, the so-called Exhortation (Latin for "encouragement") has doctrinal, that is, binding character. The faithful can refer to this in front of a priest. A special case this time is that there has already been a Synod of Bishops in the past on the same topic, marriage and family. To this end, John Paul II published. In 1981, the letter "Familiaris consortio," in which he detailed the church's position on marriage and sexual morality, for example. To what extent Francis will set new accents and formulate further developments is one of the unknowns of the upcoming text.

Which points were controversial at the synod?

Biggest point of contention at 2014/15 bishops' meetings was how to deal with remarried divorcees. A significant number of participants, including the German representatives, argued that those affected should be allowed back into communion in individual cases and under certain conditions. Others stressed this would go against Jesus' word of the indissolubility of marriage. The previous doctrine is unchangeable, because the Gospel does not allow any changes. In the final paper, a compromise was agreed upon.

It mentions the possibility of pastoral decisions on a case-by-case basis; however, it does not specifically mention remarried divorcees. Unlike in 2014, the ie of unmarried cohabiting couples and same-sex domestic partnerships no longer played a major role in the second go-round.

What has Francis said so far on contentious ies?

The Pope has followed the discussions of the two synods in silence. Only at their beginning and end he warned the participants among other things against camp formation and trench warfare. So far, he has not explicitly commented on the points of contention. However, he has indicated that he favors pastoral changes in dealing with remarried divorcees, in keeping with his guiding concept of mercy. At the same time, he has repeatedly stressed the indissolubility of Catholic marriages and the value of the traditional family. With his statement about gays and lesbians – "Who am I to judge them??"But it also raised hopes for greater ecclesiastical recognition for homosexual couples who take responsibility for each other. Observers, however, warn against exaggerated expectations on this point in particular.

What challenges does Francis face?

Many observers see Francis' conclusion on the family synods as a litmus test for his claim of change in the church. The pope must make doctrinal statements for a universal church in which opinions differ, sometimes considerably, from one local church to the next, for example between Western European and African churches. At the same time, he must prevent the gap between conservative and progressive currents from widening further.

In his letter "Evangelii gaudium" he made it clear that the pope does not have to decide for all local churches on every detailed ie. At the end of the synod in October 2015, he significantly upgraded the principle of synodality in a sermon. The post-synodal letter is therefore likely to give strong weight to decision-making by the bishops' assemblies.

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Christina Cherry
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