Synod, day 2: Focus on language, approach, and practice, not doctrine, bishops insist

VATICAN CITY – The Extraordinary Synod on the Family moved into a more regular rhythm today, with the debate moving behind closed doors for the most part, and the Vatican briefing reporters on the debate. This represents a change from previous synods, when the “interventions” — the short speeches given by the bishops, which were submitted in writing prior to the synod — would normally get summarized and the author identified. Combined with the exhortation from Pope Francis to speak freely and enthusiastically, and the advice to refrain from social media while in session, it’s clear that the Vatican wants to ensure that they retain some control over the narrative of this event, at least until they can conclude it next year in the ordinary synod and issue their reports.

Still, there were some interesting tidbits from today’s session. This synod also differs from others in that they are closely matching the discussion to the Instrumentum Laboris, the guiding document for this event, in order to keep the discussion focused on one general topic area at a time. Cardinal Vincent Nichols reminded the media of this during today’s briefing, warning us not to get ahead of ourselves on topics.

According to the briefing, the bishops have repeatedly insisted that church doctrine on marriage and family cannot be changed. Cardinal Peter Erdo’s opening statement had the same declaration, and so the consensus has focused instead on how better to teach these doctrines and reach out to everyone in a pastoral manner. The most intriguing part of that discussion, at least as noted in the briefing, was a call to change the language associated with those teachings and find more inclusive and welcoming language instead. The specific terms that some bishops wish to stop using are “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered,” and “contraceptive mentality.”  The latter seems especially interesting, since that refers to the very prescient warnings in Humanae Vitae written by Pope Paul VI — who will be beatified on the final Sunday of this synod. The encyclical itself does not use that language, but the term is often invoked when discussing the degradation of societies where contraceptive uses flourish. One has to wonder exactly what will replace the term, and whether that replacement will eventually become less invitational over time when the doctrine itself remains in place.

The bishops also spoke of the need to use “the law of graduality” when dealing with people struggling to live a Christian life. Cardinal Nichols later noted in the briefing that St. John Paul II invoked the same concept in the 1982 synod, but made a clear distinction: “There is a law of graduality, but not a graduality to the law.” That may end up being the motto of this Extraordinary Synod.

My brief video report is below.