Aberrations, Confusion, Synodal Machinations
When asked for his thoughts on this October’s highly controversial Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said, “I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.” His off-the-cuff response during a question-and-answer session following a lecture sponsored by the journal First Things does not translate, as many press pundits have suggested, into a full-on condemnation of the synod or the synod fathers. He didn’t actually go so far as to say that the synod itself was a cacophony of confusion. Nonetheless, Archbishop Chaput was disturbed — disturbed enough to remind everyone present that “confusion is of the devil,” a theological aphorism unpopular in the contemporary culture.
This “image” of confusion was substantially formed by the ill-considered — and, yes, confusing — language in the synod’s interim relatio (released Oct. 13), a working document offering proposals that would push the Church to be “more welcoming” to gay Catholics, cohabiting couples, and the divorced and remarried. Vatican reporter John Thavis called the relatio a “pastoral earthquake” because many of its proposals were unprecedented, and many Catholics found them confusing at best. But to suggest that the confusion was entirely a byproduct of media coverage — and for the record, Archbishop Chaput did not do this — is to misunderstand the substance of the synod. The interim report, offered up by the Vatican Press Office halfway through the two-week- long synod, afforded the public a glimpse into the inner workings of the Vatican’s task force, manned by prelates handpicked by Pope Francis and widely regarded as his ideological counterparts. It shone a light on a house divided between reformers who seem bent on transforming the Church into a replica of the Anglican Communion, and Catholic leaders who want to clarify and strengthen the Church’s positions on marriage and the family in the face of the trend to ratify same-sex marriage, cohabitation, and permissive divorce.
Some have suggested that the widely publicized release of the interim relatio — an action contrary to standard operating procedure — was a calculated maneuver by media-savvy reformers seeking to garner support for the implementation of their agenda by giving the impression that a consensus on the debated topics had already been reached. Whether or not this is true, not all synod participants were happy with the release of this working document. “The message has gone out: This is what the Synod is saying. This is what the Catholic Church is saying,” South Africa’s Wilfrid Cardinal Napier said at a Vatican press conference the day after the release of the relatio. “And it’s not what we’re saying at all. No matter how we try correcting that…there’s no way of retrieving it.” He explained that some controversial statements made by certain individuals were included in the report as if those statements reflected the majority view of the bishops in attendance.
The release of the relatio was more revealing than confusing. Anyone who followed the preparations for the synod will know that Pope Francis enlisted the help of Walter Cardinal Kasper and Óscar Andrés Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, both of whom are followers of the late reformer Carlo Cardinal Martini, to push through several controversial proposals for serious discussion. First and foremost, Cardinal Kasper, a combative supporter since the early 1990s of dropping the Communion ban for the divorced and remarried, was given a high-profile opportunity to present his pet proposal to a consistory of cardinals in February. Pope Francis lavished praise on Kasper’s presentation, lending credence to the German cardinal’s repeated claim in the ensuing months that he has “coordinated” with Francis and was speaking for the pontiff. (Pope Francis, by the way, never made a move to correct this conception.)
Although the synod was ostensibly on the subject of marriage and the family, the focus seemed to be more on aberrations of marriage and the family: “welcoming” coupled homosexuals and “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation” because they have, according to the interim report, “gifts and qualities” to offer the Church, and finding a way to permit divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion, despite living in what the Church has always regarded as the sin of systemic adultery. Many have wondered why the focus remained so narrow. Phil Lawler of Catholic World News, for example, questioned “the bishops’ apparent unwillingness to address fundamental questions about the meaning of marriage; the censorship that produced a badly skewed public understanding of the Synod’s work; the fixation on issues of interest to the affluent secularized nations, where faith is on the wane; and the massive failure of marriage-preparation programs” (Oct. 23).
The many synod fathers who recoiled from the language and proposals of the interim report spent the second week engaged in a concerted effort to make the synod discussions more transparent. By a strong majority, very different, less confusing language was adopted in the final document (released Oct. 18). In his remarks at the First Things lecture, Archbishop Chaput said the language of the final relatio was an improvement, but he was still concerned that it did not go far enough in clearing up the confusion and clearly restating Church teachings on marriage and homosexuality.
The fact remains that the interim relatio garnered a much greater amount of fanfare than did the final relatio, which is at risk of appearing like nothing but an unfortunate footnote to an impressive movement for change. The situation is reminiscent of the debate over artificial contraception in the 1960s. Bl. Pope Paul VI had set up a special commission to study the issue, the work of which was to remain confidential. But in 1966 some members of the commission revealed to the media that a majority of those sitting on the commission would recommend allowing the use of contraception. The expectation of change among the public was so great that when Pope Paul issued Humanae Vitae, his encyclical reiterating the Church’s traditional teaching, the die had been cast and the practice of contraception soon became widespread among Catholics, with the tacit, and at times explicit, approval of local pastors. Dissent had become institutionalized. Might we be seeing a replay of this sorry phenomenon?
Although the synod fathers largely succeeded in their effort to reassert traditional Catholic teachings regarding marriage and the family, Pope Francis insisted that debate about the Church’s approach to gays and lesbians, and to divorced-and-remarried Catholics, should continue. Francis also made it clear at the end of the meeting that he wants the Church to be open to “new things,” and he ordered that the final report include the “defeated” proposals. Two of those three defeated proposals dealt with homosexual Catholics, and one addressed divorced-and-remarried Catholics.
What does this mean? It means that just about every issue covered by the synod has been left on the table for further discussion at the September 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, expected to be hosted by Archbishop Chaput, which will help set the agenda for the Synod on the Family’s second session in October 2015. In any case, Pope Francis will be the one who ultimately makes decisions on these controversial issues. At the end of the synod, the Pope reminded the cardinals and bishops in attendance of his “supreme, full, immediate, and universal” power, quoting relevant canons of the Code of Canon Law.
Thus it remains to be seen in what direction Pope Francis wishes to steer the Barque of Peter. As Vatican expert Sandro Magister has pointed out, we already know what Francis thinks on, say, Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics: “As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he authorized the curas villeros, the priests sent to the peripheries, to give communion to all, although four-fifths of the couples were not even married. And as Pope, by telephone or letter he is not afraid of encouraging some of the faithful who have remarried to receive communion without worrying about it, right away, even without those ‘penitential paths under the guidance of the diocesan bishop’ projected by some at the Synod, and without issuing any denials when the news of his actions comes out” (L’Espresso, Oct. 24). Consequently, Magister sees something greater at stake here: the indissolubility of marriage. After examining the pre-synodal and synodal machinations, he concludes that “the hypothesis of second marriages now has full citizenship at the summit of the Church,” and that new paradigms of divorce and homosexuality are now at home at the Church’s highest levels.
The outspoken George Cardinal Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, isn’t willing to concede so easily. Unlike most of the other prelates who were present, Cardinal Pell came out with some straight talk at the conclusion of the synod. In an interview with Catholic News Service (Oct. 17), he made clear his stance on the proposals presented by Cardinal Kasper and Pope Francis’s other chosen ones: “We’re not giving in to the secular agenda. We’re not collapsing in a heap. We’ve got no intention of following those radical elements in all the Christian churches including some of the Catholic Churches in one or two countries and going out of business.”
Cardinal Pell also acknowledged that this will not be an easy fight to win. He said a few radical voices at the synod were responsible for the proposals enunciated in the interim report. But, he warned, “It’s only at the tip of the iceberg. It’s a stalking horse. They want wider changes: recognition of civil unions, recognition of homosexual unions.”
As Magister asserted, at the heart of this debate is not so much the “welcoming” nature of the Church but the nature of marriage itself, the indissolubility of marriage. Despite the fact that most conservative Catholic pundits repeatedly claim that the Pope doesn’t want to effect any authoritative change, Cardinal Pell and others close to the situation understand well that some figures at the highest echelons of the Church want the Church’s teachings to change, and they’re following their own path to achieve this.
The foregoing New Oxford Note "Aberrations, Confusion, Synodal Machinations," was originally published in the New Oxford Review (December 2014), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.