Sixteen years after the US bishops adopted their Dallas charter, a global summit of Catholic bishops meeting in Rome walked up to the brink of endorsing “zero tolerance” on clerical sexual abuse but pulled back at the last minute.

In its concluding document, the October 3-28 Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment expressed a “firm commitment to the adoption of rigorous prevention measures that prevent [abuses] from being repeated.”

However, an earlier draft of that document had the bishops “confirming the policy of ‘zero tolerance’,” a phrase which was eliminated prior to the final vote on October 27.

The omission is especially striking given that Pope Francis himself repeatedly has invoked the idea of “zero tolerance” to express the Church’s anti-abuse stance.

“The Church, irrevocably and at all levels, wishes to apply the principle of ‘zero tolerance’ against the sexual abuse of minors,” he said in October 2017 in a speech to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

According to synod sources, resistance to the phrase “zero tolerance” came from bishops concerned that while it’s popular in media coverage and casual conversation, it’s imprecise because it “means different things to different people.”

Further, some of those bishops argued, it would have been premature for this synod to commit to any specific policies since Pope Francis has called a summit of the presidents of all bishops’ conferences around the world to discuss child protection in Rome Feb. 21-24.

The resistance over “zero tolerance” was part of what was described as a broader tension within the October synod, between bishops whose countries have been scarred by abuses crises seeking stronger and more extensive languages, and bishops from other places, especially the developing world, concerned that too much attention to the abuse scandals would overshadow more pressing concerns for them.

The final document acknowledged a “lack of responsibility and transparency with which many [abuse] cases were handled,” flagged clericalism as a primary cause of the scandals, and expressed gratitude to victims for coming forward, which said, helps “the Church to become aware of what happened and of the necessity of reacting decisively.”

Pope Francis himself wrapped up the synod in a closing speech after the final vote on the document with what many observers took to be an indirect reference to the abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in recent months, saying the Church as “mother” is under attack from the “great accuser” and needs to be defended.

“At this moment, [the devil] is accusing us very strongly,” the pope said. “And this accusation becomes persecution.”

Following almost a month of discussions in the Vatican’s synod hall, meetings which Pope Francis attended virtually every day, the bishops and other participants – including, for the first time, 36 young people – also called for greater roles for women in the Catholic Church.

They urged reflection on “the female presence in ecclesial organs at all levels, also in positions of responsibility, and of female participation in ecclesial decision-making processes respecting the role of the ordained ministry.”

“It is a duty of justice, which finds inspiration in the way in which Jesus has related to the men and women of his time, in the importance of the role of some female figures in the Bible, in the history of salvation and in the life of the Church,” the bishops said.

The final document of an Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment also struck a delicate balance on matters of gender and sexuality, clearly affirming the “difference between masculine and feminine.” Notably, the terms “LGBT” and “gender” do not appear.

Yet the document also encourages pastoral programs of outreach to homosexual persons, saying “in this way, every young person, no one excluded, is helped ever more to integrate the sexual dimension into their personality, growing in the quality of relationships and journeying towards the gift of self.”

In another twist that stirred some controversy within the synod, the final document contains several paragraphs on the idea of “synodality,” roughly meaning a more inclusive and participatory model of Church governance, often expressed through groupings of bishops and other participants at the local, regional, national and continental levels.

“In this synod, we felt that the collegiality which unites the bishops cum Petro et sub Petro (“with Peter and under Peter”) in solicitude for the People of God is called to be articulated and enriched through the practice of synodality at all levels,” the document says.

While it’s a familiar phrase in Pope Francis’s lexicon, it had not been the subject of much reflection within the synod itself. Some participants objected that the language appeared to comer from neither synodal discussions nor a drafting committee elected by the bishops, but rather aides of the pope charged with organizing synod operations.

Although those paragraphs in the final document attracted the largest number of “no” votes, they were nevertheless adopted by comfortable majorities. Several participants said that while the idea may not have been discussed much, it was practiced.

“The synod to me has been practicing the art of co-responsibility and synodality, this buzzword that’s come up toward the end of the synod, which is how we be Church together,” said Jonathan Lewis, an American youth delegate and the assistant secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.

In his homily on Sunday for the synod’s closing Mass, the pontiff’s parting words concerned the importance of translating doctrine into a concrete commitment to others.

“We cannot choose between doctrine and activism,” Francis said. “We are called to carry out God’s work in God’s own way: in closeness, by cleaving to him, in communion with one another, alongside our brothers and sisters.”

“Closeness,” the pope said, “is the secret to communicating the heart of the faith, and not a secondary aspect.”

The next summit of prelates from around the world under Pope Francis will come in 2019, in a special Synod of Bishops devoted to the Pan-Amazonian region.

Cardinals and bishops attend the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 28. (CNS photo/Claudio Peri, pool via Reuters)


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