by Edward Pentin
Thank you all for coming here to hear me speak about the controversial Synods on the Family.
I think it was Bismarck who said laws are like sausages, one should never see either being made. Well I think we can add another to that list: Vatican synods during the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Before I start, I should probably preface my remarks by saying that I am a convert from the Anglican church. I chose to become a Catholic, or rather God chose me on account of my sins, and I have a great love for the Church.
But over the past three years, and especially during the Synods on the Family, the Church seemed to be being attacked from the inside in a way I’d not witnessed during my 13 years reporting on the Vatican. What I found particularly remarkable was that centuries of the Church magisterium and tradition, particularly Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching on marriage and the family, were being cast aside or ignored.
Those doing the casting aside would, just 5 years ago, probably have been described as dissenters in the Catholic newspaper I write for. Now they were in charge of the synod process.
This seemed potentially calamitous and at the very least, unnerving for the Church. It also reminded me of what has happened to the Anglican communion and led to its demise. Yes, doctrine develops, but the extent of the change, albeit done subtly, seemed unprecedented.
It’s primarily for these reasons that I wrote the book on the first synod on the family in 2014 called “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?”.
In this talk, I want to take you through not just some of the controversies of the two synods so you can get a clearer picture of what went on, but also look at how the synod turned out: a brief look at the Pope’s summary document on the synods, Amoris Laetitia, and lastly offer some conclusions.
With little fanfare, in October 2013 Pope Francis announced that he was going to hold two Synods on the Family. He wanted to have an open and free debate about how the Church could rise to the pastoral challenges facing marriage and the family today.
Given the crisis in the family, primarily in the West, and the challenge of linking truth and mercy to the pastoral care of those damaged in countless ways by this crisis, the Pope wished this synod to be different from synods of the past. He wanted to have all these issues threshed out by bishops and experts over two years in a spirit of parrhesia: frankness and boldness.
No one really argued with that. It seemed for many, and still does seem, a fair and noble task.
But as a side note, it’s good to remember one of the synod’s initial stated aims. That was to provide a solution to certain individuals and episcopates, particularly Germany’s, who wished to “go it alone” in determining their own pastoral practice on these matters, separate from the universal Church. This involved Holy Communion for remarried divorcees, but not only that. Also acceptance of those living in same-sex relationships.
It was important, the Vatican said back in 2013, that the Synod on the Family helps the Church “move forward in full communion with the ecclesial community.” As we will see later, the opposite seems to have occurred, and now there is a serious risk of fragmentation and, some think, even overt schism.
As you may know, the first synod, called an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, was marred by allegations of manipulation, lies, and dirty tricks. Being exploratory in nature, and touching on highly contentious issues that the Church has been grappling with for at least 50 years, some tension was to be expected.
But the synod also provoked criticism in some circles for “muddying the waters” of doctrine, causing general confusion, and making it appear — in the words of the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago — that key elements of the Church’s teaching were “up for grabs”.
To this day, the unsightly machinations of the first synod have tended to be ignored. So I’d just like to briefly refresh your memories of what went on during the first synod. Excuse me for a bit while I go through the sausage making process.
The first indicator that something wasn’t right came when the interim report was published after the first week of the synod. It was widely criticized for its imprecision and ambiguity in terms of its statements on the Church’s moral teaching, especially when it came to cohabitation and same-sex relationships.
Cardinal George Pell said it was as though there was an “idealized vision of every imperfect situation.” The head of the Polish bishops said the interim report “created an impression that the teaching of the Church has been merciless so far, as if the teaching of mercy were beginning only now.” Others said its imprecise language was unheard of in a Church document of that kind.
But what was more serious was that the document was sent to the press before the synod fathers had read it, showing that certain figures wanted to give the media the impression the Church was opening doors to such situations when she actually wasn’t. Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, said the document portrayed the Church as making a “stunning” and “revolutionary” step towards accepting homosexual activity as morally legitimate. Once such media perceptions are “out there”, he observed, “there’s no way of retrieving them.”
As it happens, the document caused such an outcry that, perhaps for this reason, any overt opening to same-sex unions was dropped by the end of the synod process. The Pope also issued a strong rejection of same-sex “marriage” in Amoris Laetitia, his summary document on the synod. But other serious problems remained, including the fact that the teachings of John Paul II were hardly mentioned.
I also put in my book further evidence of manipulation and strong-arm tactics during the first synod: for example, the synod’s general relator, Cardinal Peter Erdo, was forced to write documents not in accordance with his wishes; Synod officials tried to sideline Cardinal Napier on the committee for drafting the final document; Holy See officials also often tried to spin the synod proceedings in a liberal direction and left out orthodox statements. Much of the Catholic media was also complicit in the spin, avoiding any negative criticism of the process.
Then there was the so-called “Book Heist” — interference by the Synod secretariat of the delivery of the book “Remaining in the Truth of Christ”, whose authors included 5 cardinals and upheld the Church’s teaching on marriage. The book’s delivery was delayed to prevent the synod fathers from reading it. The book’s editor was later threatened with dismissal from his senior academic post at the Vatican until the Pope intervened.
There was also what became known as the “Kasper episode” when, alas, I had to show that Cardinal Kasper had not spoken the truth when he denied saying disparaging remarks about the Africans. That unfortunate episode added to the already tense atmosphere at the synod, a lot of it to do with the Kasper proposal for the divorced and remarried and a general spirit of inclusiveness that at the same time cast out doctrine and tradition.
By the time the first synod had ended, those trying to uphold tradition and orthodoxy felt steamrollered. Many believed the process had been rigged to achieve a certain result, which was to make the Church more “modern”, and aligned to secular mores and culture.
It’s well known that doctrine can be developed but not fundamentally changed. And yet it can seem to radically change if pastoral practice is significantly altered. Changing pastoral practice was the overriding goal of the synod. But the hidden agenda, some believe, was to destroy the Church’s moral teaching, carried out through a mix of innovative practices, one of which was to favor soft, non-condemnatory language.
It’s perhaps helpful here contrast this with what Pius XII said in his 1939 encyclical Summi pontificatus (note that hardly any preconciliar references were made during whole synod process and in AL): “We feel We owe no greater debt to Our office and to Our time than to testify to the truth with Apostolic firmness: ‘to give testimony to the truth.’ This duty necessarily entails the exposition and confutation of errors and human faults; for these must be made known before it is possible to tend and to heal them. ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’ (Jn 8:32).
Another alleged tactic was to use the divorce and remarriage issue as a Trojan horse. If such couples, whom the Church believes are living in adultery, are going to be allowed to receive Holy Communion, then all kinds of people living in mortal sin, such as same-sex or cohabiting couples, can do likewise. It was therefore also seen as an attack on the Eucharist as well as some of the other sacraments. More importantly, it was viewed as giving the green light to individuals living in mortal sin to receive Holy Communion, placing their immortal soul in grave danger.
Now for those pushing for change, there was no manipulation or rigging. Some heavy-handedness, they argued, was needed to push a progressive agenda and overcome resistance. That visible agenda was to make the Church appear less authoritarian, less merciless, and less seemingly out of touch — and instead better able to deal pastorally with the complexities and suffering in people’s lives. If people won’t come to the Church, so the argument goes, the Church would go to them.
Pope Francis’ field hospital analogy is often helpful here to understand the approach: the spiritual wounds are so extensive and urgent today that all resistance must be put to one side so the doctor can treat the patient with God’s mercy as soon as possible.
But some felt that came at a price. The extraordinary synod’s final report appeared in many instances to reject the immutable natural moral law in favor of a teaching that is no longer unchangeable but instead moves with the times.
I should add here that many of the synod fathers greatly appreciated the synods. They were grateful to have their pastoral perspectives broadened by meeting other priests, bishops and laypeople from across the world.
But even so, the rigging continued. To give just three examples between the two synods: the committee of theologians and consulters for the second synod were almost all progressives, or so-called “innovators”. We called it “stacking of the deck”. As in the first synod, orthodox thinkers and those advocating the teachings of John Paul II were mostly left out.
Then in May last year, a secretive meeting of liberal theologians was held in the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to try to influence the 2015 Ordinary synod. And in the run-up to that synod, Pope Francis chose 45 Church leaders as synod fathers, 15% more than the set limit, and almost all of them were what one might call innovators.
When it came to the 2015 synod — the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that took place over 3 weeks last October — the synod proceeded in a less acrimonious manner but not without incident, manipulation or recrimination — and from the Pope no less. Thirteen cardinals sent a private and confidential letter to Pope Francis on the eve of the meeting calling on him to uphold Church doctrine and appealing for a fairer process. The Pope with some daring judged it — unfairly in the eyes of those genuinely concerned — to be conspiratorial thinking. To this day, no one knows how the private letter was made public.
The manipulation at the second synod was less overt, though still there. The new methodology was unclear, there was more emphasis on working groups which many welcomed, but it was also seen as a means of dividing up and thereby weakening groups opposed to the reformist agenda. And as in the Extraordinary Synod, the language relators generally fed the media a liberal perspective of the meeting.
The final report was criticized for its ambiguity and its omissions: for instance a crucial paragraph Pope John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, explicitly banning remarried divorcees receiving Holy Communion unless living as brother and sister was left out. Its objectively grave omission, said some, allowed Cardinal Kasper and others to say it opened a door to Communion. Cardinal Pell and others, meanwhile, said it wasn’t an issue because it wasn’t explicitly mentioned
Both the two synods culminated in the Pope’s much anticipated reflection on the two synods, Amoris Laetitia, the Joy of Love. The document has drawn mixed reviews, some highly critical. Responses have largely divided into three groups: those who see the document in continuity with previous papal teaching on marriage and the family — and that it should be read as such; those who see the document as containing some dangerously erroneous, contradictory and vague passages which, for some, invalidate the whole document; and those who see it as opening the door to revolutionary changes in pastoral practice (and therefore eventually doctrine).
Bishop Athanasius Schneider, although largely critical of the document, has said it contains “great spiritual and pastoral riches for life in marriage and the Christian family of our time.” Many other orthodox-thinking bishops and theologians have praised it, especially Chapters 4 and 5 on marital love and how children make that love fruitful. Those chapters are “the heart” of Francis’ teaching, one theologian told me, and provide “something of an Ignatian retreat on love, beginning with St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13” and highlighting biblical wisdom for the family.
But there are some grave concerns about how the document presents the Church’s moral teachings. Moral theologians I’ve spoken with are concerned that the wording in various paragraphs clearly points to a more subjectivist approach, guided by conscience rather than one based on the objective moral law. They say it could pave the way to situation ethics — essentially a relativist mindset in the Church where morals are interpreted depending on the person in question.
The document didn’t offer precise pastoral guidelines, especially relating to Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, but also elsewhere. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, for example, was precise in laying out the Church’s moral teachings but there’s no reference to the encyclical in the document. “Intrinsic evil” and “mortal sin” scarcely get a mention in Amoris Laetitia. The ambiguous passages have led some, such as Cardinal Raymond Burke, to call on the faithful to read the document in light of the constant teaching of the faith, and disregard those passages as not being part of the magisterium.
But such ambiguity could lead to serious problems in the future, moral theologian say. Certainly, it seems that the ambiguity has opened doors to greater abuse, and very possibly intentionally by some of those advising the Holy Father.
Already, the Pope’s words are being used and this ambiguity exploited. Cardinal Kasper and others maintain that the document very clearly opens the door to communion for remarried divorcees.
German theologians who participated in the controversial secretive meeting in Rome last May seem to be very pleased with AL and the outcome of the synodal process. Professor Eberhard Schockenhoff, a key adviser to Germany’s bishops who coined the controversial term “theology of love,” (notice the similarity with “Joy of Love” and how the word “love” can apply to all kinds of relationships) sees in the papal document a “confirmation of the Freiburg approach” whereby civilly remarried divorcees may already receive the Sacraments after a time of discernment with the help of a priest. 
The Freiburg diocese, he added, “has every reason to feel confirmed in the path it has already chosen so far, and thus to continue walking on it with confidence. It would be even better if other dioceses would now likewise follow [this example].”
Schockenhoff praised the Pope for the “case-by-case” application and for “not any more describing each deviation as grave sin.” By so doing, he continued, “the foundation for any general exclusion of the remarried divorcees from Communion is thereby taken away.”
The German bishops, the majority of whom support the Kasper proposal, have called the document “a real gift” for married couples and the family and that they were “very happy about it,” they said in a statement. Furthermore, three bishops in Germany including Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the country’s bishops conference, have said Amoris Laetitia permits divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to access the sacraments on a case-by-case basis. Filipino bishops have issued a statement saying they have made a “collective discernment” that “mercy cannot wait” and therefore all should be invited to come to the Lord’s table immediately, although it’s not clear it’s if they’re referring to Communion.
Few bishops or cardinals are speaking up about the dangers that moral theologians and others see in the document. Perhaps it is telling that the exhortation, although pastoral, frequently touches on doctrine, and yet the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, refuses to talk about it with the media.
The same goes for Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Liturgy and a torch bearer for orthodox Catholics along with Cardinal Burke. Cardinal Müller also wasn’t called to present the document but Cardinal Christoph Schönborn was instead. This is because Cardinal Schönborn was fully behind the document, and allegedly tailored (some Thomists would say manipulated) Thomist references to suit the text.
Despite the problems with the document, the predominant reaction among many orthodox theologians and prelates has been: “There’s nothing to see here, the Pope has not explicitly declared any changes, and so has not contradicted the magisterium.” The aim is to play it down, yet preserve respect for the Petrine Office, by saying nothing has changed, although the Pope himself later contradicted this by saying there are “new concrete possibilities” in the document. Others commend the exhortation for being a finely tuned text that cannot be precise because of the complexity of the issues involved, and that it is a pastoral document primarily about discernment and accompaniment.
But this is naïve, others say, who believe the ambiguity is intended to make the document open to interpretation. One Dominican theologian told me that naïve optimists will tell readers to accept Amoris Laetitia as a whole and not to worry about a few unsavory parts. But he said that is like “recommending a drink composed of 90% water and 10% poison. The document’s pastoral sensitivity and numerous insights cannot overshadow its moral confusion.”
He further feels that Amoris Laetitia and the Synods on the Family will be the Catholic Church’s 1930 Lambeth Conference. Back then, Anglicans declared certain sins acceptable in narrowly-defined situations, and has declined ever since. Amoris Laetitia subtly does likewise, he says.
Bishop Schneider has said it is “insufficient” to say that AL should be interpreted according to the traditional doctrine and practice of the Church: “If an ecclesiastical document – which, in our case, is neither definitive nor infallible – is found to contain elements likely to give rise to interpretations and applications that could have dangerous spiritual consequences, all members of the Church, and especially the bishops, as the fraternal collaborators of the Supreme Pontiff in effective collegiality, have a duty to report this and respectfully request an authentic interpretation.”
Others have described the text as “very Gramscian” referring to the 20th century Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci who advocated spreading Communism through cultural infiltration. By defying traditional orthopraxy, one theologian in Rome told me, orthodoxy is attacked, because every principled change of practice necessarily entails a change in principles. In other words, it’s a subtle way of changing the doctrine of the Church without explicitly doing so. One cardinal during the synod even admitted: “The Pope isn’t Gramscian but certainly some of those around him are.”
Cardinal Kasper appeared to go further and say the Pope has this Gramscian approach. In aninterview last week he said: Pope Francis “changes many things – but not only structurally. He aims especially at the mentality. Only if that [mentality] changes, will structural reforms bear fruit. But that takes time. Francis is working on it.”
For this reason, some of the more forceful critics say those who wish to play down the document should be compared to the appeasers before the Second World War. There are dangerous errors and ambiguities in the document that need to be confronted and clarified for the wellbeing of souls, and they want this done as soon as possible to avoid further exploitation. Bishop Schneider says: Amoris Laetitia contains imprecise language, but asks what doctor would treat a patient without being clear about the medicine, and how much more important it is to be precise when it comes to saving souls.
Failure to obtain that clarification, they fear, could lead to a catastrophic collapse in the Church’s moral standing, not to mention the loss of souls in the process. One Church philosopher told me he foresees a rapid collapse like that of the former East Germany. And if the Pope’s vision of decentralization proceeds, it could be further hastened, ushering in a kind of anarchical theology and absurd situation whereby what might be considered mortal sin in Poland is allowed by clergy in Germany.
This all may be hyperbole, of course, but what it does appear to show is that the Church is in a precarious, and some think perilous, state.
So what do I draw as a journalist covering all of this?
I think there’s no doubt the synods were run in such a way to achieve preconceived results and the ambiguity we are left with. To some extent heavy handedness has been the case in previous synods before, but always the motive then was to preserve the deposit of faith and uphold the magisterium of the Church.
What makes the Synod on the Family so different, it seems to me, is that it was led in what many would consider to be a heterodox direction, or at the very least, one that considerably contradicted past pastoral praxis. And it was done with a blatant disregard for those wishing simply to uphold the Church’s teaching and tradition. I’m also afraid to say that much, if not all, of the responsibility for this rests on the Holy Father’s shoulders.
To take the divorce and remarriage issue as one example. Pope Francis asked Cardinal Kasper to give the keynote speech, after which the Holy Father never directly criticized the Kasper proposal. Instead he let it be debated over the two years, leading to much unease in the Church.
But what is also interesting, and something many have forgotten, is that the issue failed to reach the required two-thirds majority at the end of the first synod. In theory, it should have therefore been rejected but the Pope asked that it be left in to be debated at the second synod. Now we see that the issue has not only gained considerable coverage in Amoris Laetitia, but, as I mentioned earlier, Pope Francis has told reporters that there are “new concrete possibilities” in this area. It’s led some to ask where is the synodality in such practice?
There isn’t time here to go into just how the Church got to this point. But I’ll just point to two clear factors which I think are crucial: the decline of the Jesuits over the past 50 years, and the thinking of the late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini. I think the influence of both on the Pope’s vision shouldn’t be underestimated.
As for the Pope’s own motives, it’s impossible to say anything definitive. But I think Robert Royal of the Faith and Reason Institute recently gave the most truthful and charitable take on the Holy Father.
He said on EWTN’s The World Over that the Holy Father is a very charismatic man. He very much feels what other people need from him and emphasizes that love isn’t just about following the rules. The rules are there precisely to serve love.
But he added, and I quote: “Everybody’s virtues can also be vices and there is a point at which the Holy Father runs the risk of trying to be so comforting to people that he actually loses some of the holiness that people are called to.”
So to conclude, Amoris Laetitia is the thorny fruit (or what some even describe as a poisonous fruit on account of its ambiguity and potential divergent interpretations) of a fraught and difficult synod process at odds with Church teaching. For others, it’s a worthy and beautiful document needed to deal with the crisis in marriage and the family in the world today.
Whatever the overall assessments, it’s been helpful in revealing who the Pope is and where he wants to lead the Church. One well placed source told me the synods offer the best clues on how Pope Francis views the Church and how he wants to change her in a practical sense. Certainly he’s been true to his word about the importance of making a mess.
But is the change he wants revolution or reform? Is it leading to a Protestantization or Anglicanization of the Church, seemingly timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Luther and the Reformation next year, selling out the Church magisterium in order to drag the Church into the 21st century? Or is it rightly leading the Church to better deal with today’s problems and potentially bringing many to the Church?
Time will tell, assuming this pontificate continues for more than a year or two. It will be interesting, though, to see just how much of the hierarchy will resist the change, or instead stand by and watch the Church possibly be altered beyond recognition in the months and years ahead. It seems possible at this point that the Pope is going to have to publish an authentic interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.
But whatever lies ahead, we can take solace in the fact that the Lord promised He will always be with his Church. She has suffered similar trials before but always Christ and the Truth remain victorious, even if the Church and the Light of Christ can seem eclipsed by ideologies, worldliness and fallible human beings.
Hanus Fellowship, Bratislava, Slovakia
April 26, 2016.