What Really Happened at Synod 2015
BY GEORGE WEIGEL
When the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops opened with a concelebrated Mass at the Altar of the Confession in St. Peter’s Basilica on October 4, it was already clear that there would be three synods: the real synod, the mainstream media synod, and the blogosphere synod. The first and third would be daily affairs; the second would be more sporadic. Both participants and observers wondered what effect the second and third would have on the first.
As things turned out, the short answer to that initial puzzlement was “not much,” except by way of providing occasional amusement and aggravation. As always, the mainstream media kept looking for confirmation of its Rorschach-blot reading of Pope Francis as the long-awaited papal reformer who would adjust Catholic doctrine and practice to the zeitgeist, especially in terms of the sexual revolution. The blogosphere, dependent on the mainstream media for what it foolishly regarded as accurate information, was divided between those who enthusiastically shared these hopes for a Franciscan revolution of a liberal Protestant sort, and those who were scared to death that the enthusiasts were right about the pope from the end of the earth. So the media synod and the blogosphere synod followed their own prepackaged scripts, and were not very interesting as a result.
The actual synod, however, was another matter.
Real issues were debated, with real consequences at stake. Some of this was visible atop the froth of the mainstream media and blogosphere commentary. How would the Catholic Church settle the argument, launched by Cardinal Walter Kasper in February 2014, about its long-standing and doctrinally informed discipline of not admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion? And beneath that debate, other and deeper issues loomed. Perhaps the most fundamental involved the claims of revelation on the pastoral life of the Church. Did the Catholic Church still affirm the Second Vatican Council’s teaching in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,Dei Verbum, on the reality and binding force of divine revelation? How was revelation to be related to the signs of the times, which the Church was enjoined to read by Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes? And how did all of that bear on the relationship between mercy and truth, between pastoral accompaniment and pastoral challenge, between one’s condition of life and one’s ability to receive the grace of the sacraments?
The fact that, for the first time in two thousand years, the Catholic Church is “catholic” (universal, global) in an existential sense put other important questions in play. How should the experience of the young churches of Africa, where the Christian idea of marriage and family is received as a liberating force, be weighed against the experience of dying churches in which divorce is as widespread as Sunday Mass attendance is not, churches whose leaders claimed before the synod that Catholicism’s teaching on divorce drives people away from God?
Then there were the issues posed by that ancient malady known as odium theologicum. Some synod fathers came to Synod 2015, as they had come to its preparatory predecessor, Synod 2014, determined to re-adjudicate Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the morally appropriate means of regulating fertility (Humanae Vitae) and John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the reform of Catholic moral theology (Veritatis Splendor). Those who wished to bury those two encyclicals were, in the main, identical with those pressing the Kasper proposal for admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion. Those who found the Kasper proposal woefully deficient on many grounds were, in the main, those who judged that Humanae Vitae had been prophetic in its analysis of what a “contraceptive mentality” would do to Western culture and society; who thought that Veritatis Splendor had rescued Catholic moral theology from the quicksand of postmodern subjectivism; and who believed that the “signs of the times” (pace Gaudium et Spes) should be read throughthe lens of divine revelation (pace Dei Verbum), rather than taken as the principal hermeneutic tool for understanding revelation today.
The contest over the Catholic Church’s response to the sexual revolution, which involves basic questions of the Church’s self-understanding and the Church’s pastoral approach to mission, will continue long past the most recent Synod on the Family. Nonetheless, the arguments abroad in Rome during the meeting, and the way the great majority of them were resolved in the final report, reinforced the doctrinal and theological foundations on which that contest must be fought, claims to the contrary from those who lost most of what they were seeking in Rome notwithstanding. To put all of that into a clearer focus than was available in October through the smog of the mainstream media and blogosphere, attention must be paid to what actually happened.
Long before the synod fathers began assembling in Rome, it was clear that many of them were deeply concerned about the working document (theInstrumentum Laboris, hereafter IL) they had been given. In the months after it was made available last summer, the IL was severely criticized for numerous deficiencies. The first had to do with structure: Why did an ecclesial document begin with sociology—and not very good sociology—rather than the Word of God? Shouldn’t the latter be the first thing reflected upon, so that the kaleidoscopic crisis of marriage and the family today would come into a sharper and appropriately Christian focus?
Many synod fathers also found the language of the IL dull and uninspired, as if the Church, confronted with the cultural tsunami of the sexual revolution, had run out of intellectual gas and pastoral nerve and was mildly embarrassed by its teaching—especially the teaching of Veritatis Splendor and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, neither of which was prominently featured (to put it gently) in the IL. There were also thought to be dangerous ambiguities in its discussion of pastoral practice; on that front, more than a few episcopal eyebrows were raised by the fact that the synod general secretariat had ignored its own ground rules by inserting into the working document for Synod 2015 material that was not in the final report of Synod 2014.
In the forty-eight hours before the synod began its work, however, these concerns were superseded by grave concerns over synod process. With two days to go, it was unclear whether there would be any votes on anything at the meeting—which would have been an unprecedented change in procedure, for votes on propositions had always been the way the synod fathers made their judgments known to the Church and the world in the past. Moreover, the fathers were informed that their interventions in the synod’s general assembly would be the synod’s property and would not be made public. (The rationale offered by the general secretary was that this would foster more open debate.)
Beyond that, it seemed that the reports from the synod’s thirteen language-based discussion groups, where the serious discussions would unfold, were not going to be made public, either. And beyond even that, many believed that the drafting commission announced by Synod General Secretary Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri to prepare the final report (the publication of which was also in doubt) was badly skewed and did not reflect the balance of opinion among the synod fathers.
This was simply unacceptable to a large number of bishops, who were not eager to spend three weeks in a virtual lockdown from which nothing would emerge: a lockdown that treated them as appendages to the synod general secretariat and enmeshed them in a secretive process that would have caused the deepest suspicions in the Church and the world about what was afoot. These concerns found expression in a private letter given to Pope Francis at the end of the synod’s first working day (Monday, October 5), which was signed by thirteen cardinals, including three prefects of major dicasteries of the Roman Curia and ten residential archbishops from four continents.
Because the letter was a private one to the Vicar of Christ, its signatories did not believe that its contents should be made public, even after an early draft of the letter was leaked. But it can be stated as a matter of fact that the letter was entirely respectful of the pope’s person and prerogatives; that it expressed the cardinals’ concern that the pope’s call for an open and frank conversation was going to be impeded by the proposed synod process; that it requested a normal voting procedure so that the fathers could make their judgments known; that it sought greater openness in making available to the Church and the world the participants’ reflections in both the general assembly and the language-based discussion groups; and that it looked forward to a final report prepared so as to reflect the entire synod.
Two days later, most of the letter’s requests had been honored. The general secretary made it clear that the synod fathers could, if they wished, make their general assembly interventions available to the press and to their dioceses. The reports of the language-based discussion groups would be made public. There would be votes on the draft final report, paragraph by paragraph. The disposition of the report remained the prerogative of the pope, as was entirely proper, but it was assumed that the report would be made public. (Veterans of the Vatican naturally assumed that it would be leaked within twenty-four hours of its completion, in any event.)
If the cardinals’ letter transformed the process, the introduction to theInstrumentum Laboris on the first working day by the synod’s HungarianRelator (Rapporteur-General), Cardinal Péter Erdő, was the substantive game-changer. It was anticipated that Cardinal Erdő would give three introductions, one to each of the IL’s three parts, at the beginning of each week’s work. Erdő chose instead to offer an introduction to the entire working document on the first day of the synod. In doing so, he set a solid foundation for the synod’s deliberations that effectively corrected the gross inadequacies of the IL (which by this point had been conceded by virtually everyone except the German-speaking participants and the general secretariat, which had authored it).
Cardinal Erdő began by putting the synod on a firm ecclesial footing, describing marriage and family life as vocations: institutions given by God as part of the “divine pedagogy” in which we learn the dignity of human life and human love, and the true meaning of our being made male and female. The Hungarian cardinal then looked at marriage and the family through the prism of revelation and doctrine, noting that, in the Creator’s design, the unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage were “inscribed” as truths built into us. Christ’s work of redemption, he continued, had restored within marriage and the family “the image of the Most Holy Trinity, from which springs every true love.”
Cardinal Erdő also located the Christian family in the context of John Paul II’s New Evangelization and Pope Francis’s call for a “Church permanently in mission,” reminding the synod fathers that “the missionary dimension of the family is rooted in the sacrament of Baptism, through which all are commissioned to be missionary disciples,” and from which the Christian family is constituted as a “domestic Church.” That was why the family, as St. John Paul had taught in the 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, “is the way of the Church”: a point Blessed Paul VI had underscored in the encyclicalHumanae Vitae, when he noted the many ways in which modern technology detached marriage from family by separating “procreation from conjugal love.” Moreover, as Benedict XVI had written in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, “the experience of love in marriage and the family” is vital to the life of society because the family is the place where one learns the meaning of the common good through experience.
The rapporteur-general underscored that the “teaching of Christ on matrimony”—monogamy and the indissolubility of marriage—was a “true gospel and a font of joy” in which the human person realizes his or her “vocation to personal relationships” of freedom, mutual self-gift, and full acceptance of the other. The teaching on indissolubility, the cardinal noted, comes from the Gospels and St. Paul, and has always distinguished the Christian view of marriage from others’.
Thus, in the first half hour of his talk, Erdő set the discussions of Synod 2015 on a solid foundation built from the Scriptures and the magisterium of the three preceding pontificates, thereby tacitly rejecting the false premise that the fathers could start from scratch in considering marriage and the family in the twenty-first century. The signs of the times, he concurrently made clear, should be read through the lens of divine revelation.
But the Hungarian prelate wasn’t done yet.
Cardinal Erdő reminded the synod fathers that mercy and revealed truth cannot be opposed, for “merciful love, as it attracts and unites, also transforms and lifts up. It is an invitation to conversion.” In this light, “a merciful pastoral accompaniment of the divorced and civilly remarried” cannot “leave in doubt” the “truth of the indissolubility of marriage taught by Jesus Christ himself.” “The mercy of God,” he continued, “offers sinners pardon” but always “calls to conversion.”
Erdő then criticized one of the arguments being offered in favor of the Kasper proposal to admit the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion at the end of a “penitential path,” but without an annulment of the first marriage. As Erdő put it, “it is not the shipwreck of the first marriage but the living-together in the second relationship that impedes access to the Eucharist.” The cardinal then pointed out a possible way forward, citing the teaching of John Paul II inFamiliaris Consortio(84): When those who in conscience believe that, for the sake of their children or the common life they have built in a second marriage, they must remain in that marriage, there is access to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist when the couple practices continence, “living their relationship as one of mutual help and friendship.” Such a requirement on the part of the Church does not, Erdő said, reduce marriage to a mere exercise in sexual expression. Rather, it recognizes the reality of the situation in light of the truth about marriage taught by Christ. There is, in other words, a true path to the sacraments for the divorced and civilly remarried and there always had been: the path of continence.
As to the question of “gradualism” in an individual’s or couple’s growth in the moral life, a concept often used as a side entry into the Kasper proposal, Cardinal Erdő said that, while we all grow in the life of grace, “between true and false, between good and evil, there is in fact no such ‘graduality.’” And although there may be “some positive aspects” to be found in irregular relationships, “this does not imply” that these relationships “can be presented as good.”
Cardinal Erdő then turned to an issue many thought would be the next step beyond the Kasper proposal: a tacit ecclesial blessing on homosexual unions. While urging respect and sensitive pastoral care for people who experience same-sex attraction, he stated flatly that “there is no foundation” in truth for making any “analogy, however remote, between homosexual unions and God’s design for marriage and the family.” The cardinal also urged the pastors of the Church to resist campaigns to affirm these new designs for building families, and stated bluntly that the pressures put on poor countries by international institutions that condition financial aid on the former’s acceptance of same-sex marriage were “unacceptable.”
The rapporteur-general’s conclusion urged the synod fathers to continue their attentive listening to the Word of God so that the Church’s response “to the needs of our contemporaries” may be one that “offers them liberating truth” in the witness of greater mercy. For his labors, the Hungarian prelate received a warm ovation, but Cardinal Kasper, who reportedly looked somewhat stunned, was not among those applauding.
Cardinal Erdő’s decision to treat the entire subject matter of the synod at the outset—which it is hard to imagine him doing without consulting the pope—effectively buried the Instrumentum Laborisas Synod 2015’s guiding document. The general assembly and small-group discussions would continue to work from the tripartite structure of the IL, but Erdő’s introductory intervention had the happy effect of liberating the synod participants. Rather than slavishly following the deeply flawed IL, they could now probe far more deeply into the Christian tradition—and into the contemporary situation of marriage and the family, which includes good news as well as bad—in order to develop and reform the Church’s pastoral response to a profound cultural and human crisis. Moreover, the Hungarian cardinal’s talk took any possible endorsement of civil unions among same-sex couples off the table while putting paid to the Kasper proposal in its initial form. And while Kasper’s allies would not throw in the towel, at the end of the synod’s first day it was much more likely that Synod 2015 would not repeat the experience of Synod 2014 and be hijacked by the preoccupations of the German-speaking fathers.
Real Debates on Deeper Issues
While the Kasper proposal in its initial form was effectively derailed by Cardinal Erdő’s introductory intervention, its proponents were nothing if not tenacious. Thus the proposal reappeared in new forms, each of which provoked important debates on deeper issues in the general assembly and in the language-based discussion groups. In each of these guises, proponents continued to claim that the whole matter of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried was not about a “change in doctrine” (which the pope had insisted was untouchable) but a “change in discipline” or a “change in pastoral practice.”
Read more: eppc.org