Get the inside scoop on what occurred and why during the Synod on the Family!
For the benefit of our readers, we have republished here an article of Italian journalist, Sandro Magister, published at chiesa.espressonline.it on October 17 under the title: "The True Story of This Synod: Directors, Performers, Assistants." We are grateful to Mr. Magister for his insightful observations about the Synod on the Family.
The True Story of This Synod. Director, Performers, Assistants
New paradigms of divorce and homosexuality are now at home in the highest levels of the Church. Nothing has been decided, but Pope Francis is patient. An American historian confutes the ideas of La Civilta Cattolica.
“The spirit of the Council is blowing again,” Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle has said, a rising star of the worldwide episcopate as well as being a historian of Vatican II. And it is true. At the synod that is about to conclude there are many elements in common with what happened at that great event.
The most visible similarity is the distance between the real synod and the virtual synod driven by the media.
But there is an even more substantial resemblance. Both at Vatican Council II and at this synod the changes of paradigm are the product of careful coordination. A protagonist of Vatican II like Fr. Giuseppe Dossetti—the consummate strategist of the four cardinal moderators who were at the controls of the conciliar machine—asserted this with pride. He said that he had “transformed the fate of the Council” thanks to his capacity to pilot the assembly, which he had learned in his previous political experience as the leader of the foremost Italian party.
The same thing has happened at this synod. Both the openness to communion for the civilly divorced and remarried—and therefore the admission of remarriage on the part of the Church—and the startling change of paradigm on the issue of homosexuality that found its way into the “Relatio post disceptationem” would not have been possible without a series of skillfully calculated steps on the part of those who had and have control of the procedures.
In order to understand this, it is enough to review the stages that led to this result, even if the provisory finale of the synod—as will be seen—has not met the expectations of its directors.
The star of the first act is Pope Francis himself. On July 28, 2013, at the press conference held on board the plane taking him back to Rome after his voyage in Brazil, he issued two signals that had a powerful and lasting impact on public opinion.
The first on the treatment of homosexuals:
If a person is gay and is seeking the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
The second on the admission of remarriage:
Also—a parenthesis—the Orthodox have a different practice. They follow the theology of what they call oikonomia, and they give a second chance [of marriage], they allow it. But I believe that this problem—and here I close the parenthesis—must be studied within the context of the pastoral care of marriage.”
There followed in October of 2013 the convening of a synod on the family, the first in a series of two synods on the same issue in the span of a year, with decisions postponed until after the second. As secretary general of this sort of permanent and prolonged synod the pope appointed a new cardinal with no experience in this regard, but very close to him, Lorenzo Baldisseri. Beside whom he placed, as special secretary, the bishop and theologian Bruno Forte, already a leading proponent of the theological and pastoral approach that had its guiding light in the Jesuit cardinal Carlo Maria Martini and its major adversaries first in John Paul II and then in Benedict XVI: an approach explicitly open to a change of Church teaching in the area of sexuality.
The proclamation of the synod was associated with the issuing of a questionnaire throughout the whole world with specific questions on the most controversial questions, including communion for the divorced and homosexual unions.
Thanks in part to this questionnaire—which would be followed by the intentional publication of the answers on the part of some German-speaking episcopates—public opinion would be given the idea that these were questions to be considered “open” not only in theory but also in practice.
Proof of this breaking ahead of the pack came, for example, from the archdiocese of Freiburg in Germany, headed by president of the German episcopal conference Robert Zollitsch, who in a document from one of his pastoral offices encouraged access to communion for the divorced and remarried on the simple basis of “a decision of conscience.”
From Rome, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard L. Muller, reacted by republishing on October 23, 2013 in L'Osservatore Romano a note he had already issued four months earlier in Germany reconfirming and explaining the ban on communion.
But his call to have the archdiocese of Freiburg withdraw that document came to nothing. On the contrary, both German cardinal Reinhard Marx, and in more blunt terms Honduran cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga criticized Muller for his “presumption” of cutting off discussion on this matter. Both Marx and Maradiaga are part of the council of eight cardinals called by Pope Francis to assist him in the governance of the universal Church. The pope did not speak out in support of Muller.
On February 20 and 21, 2014, the cardinals met in Rome in consistory. Pope Francis asked them to discuss the family and delegated the introductory talk to Cardinal Walter Kasper, already in the early 1990’s a combative supporter of dropping the ban on communion for the remarried, but defeated at the time by John Paul II and by Joseph Ratzinger.
At the consistory, held behind closed doors, Kasper revived all of his ideas. Many cardinals opposed him, but Francis approved him with the highest praise. Afterward, Kasper would say that he had “coordinated” with the pope on his proposals.
Moreover, Kasper gave the pope the privilege of breaking the secrecy on the things he had said at the consistory, unlike all the other cardinals. When his talk came out by surprise on March 1 in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, it was already being prepared for the presses by the publisher Queriniana. The coverage of the publication was immense.
In early spring, to balance the impact of Kasper’s proposals, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith planned the publication in L'Osservatore Romano of an opposing presentation by a prominent cardinal. But the pope vetoed the publication of this text.
Kasper’s ideas were nevertheless the object of severe and substantiated criticism on the part of a good number of cardinals, who spoke out repeatedly through various media outlets. On the eve of the synod, five of these cardinals republished their previous statements in a book, accompanied by essays by other scholars and by a leading official of the curia, a Jesuit archbishop expert in the marriage practices of the Eastern Churches. Kasper, with widespread consensus in the media, deplored the publication of the book as an affront aimed at the pope.
On October 5 the synod opened. Unlike in the past, the statements in the assembly were not made public. Cardinal Muller protested against this censorship. But in vain. One more proof, he says, that “I am not one of the directors.”
The operational center of the synod is made up of the general and special secretaries, Baldisseri and Forte. But alongside of them the pope has placed, selected by him personally, those who will attend to the drafting of the message and the final Relatio, all of them belonging to the pro-change “party,” led by his trusted ghostwriter Victor Manuel Fernandez, archbishop and rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires.
The fact that this is the true cockpit of the synod became overwhelmingly evident on Monday, October 13, when in front of two hundred journalists from all over the world the cardinal delegate who figures as the formal author of the Relatio post disceptationem, Hungarian cardinal Peter Erdo, asked about the paragraphs regarding homosexuality, refused to answer and gave the floor to Forte, saying: “The one who drafted the passage, he should know what to say.”
To the request for clarification on whether the paragraphs on homosexuality can be interpreted as a radical change in the Church’s teaching on the matter, Cardinal Erdo again responded, “Certainly,” displaying his disagreement here as well.
In effect, these paragraphs reflect not an orientation expressed in the assembly by a substantial number of fathers—as one would expect to read in a Relatio—but things said by no more than three out of almost two hundred, in particular by the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, director of La Civilta Cattolica, appointed a member of the synod by Pope Francis himself.
On Tuesday, October 14, at a press conference, South African cardinal Wilfrid Napier denounced in biting words the effect of the prevarication carried out by Forte by inserting those explosive paragraphs into the Relatio. These, he says, have put the Church in an “irredeemable” position, with no way out. Because by now “the message has gone out: This is what the synod is saying, this is what the Catholic Church is saying. No matter how we try correcting that, whatever we say hereafter is going to be as if we're doing some damage control.”
In reality, in the ten linguistic circles in which the synod fathers carried out the discussion, the Relatio was heading for a massacre. Starting with its language, “overblown, rambling, too wordy and therefore boring,” as the official relator of the French-speaking “Gallicus B” group mercilessly blasted it, although this group contained two champions of its language—and of its likewise vague and equivocal contents—in cardinals Christoph Schonborn and Godfried Danneels.
When the assembly resumed its work on Thursday, October 16, secretary general Baldisseri, with the pope beside him, made the announcement that the reports of the ten groups would not be made public. A protest exploded. Australian cardinal George Pell, with the physique and temperament of a rugby player, was the most intransigent in demanding the publication of the texts. Baldisseri gave up. That same day, Pope Francis saw himself forced to expand the group charged with writing the final relation, adding Melbourne archbishop Denis J. Hart and above all the combative South African cardinal Napier.
Who, however, had seen correctly. Because no matter what may be the outcome of this synod, intentionally devoid of any conclusion, the effect desired by its directors has to a large extent been reached.
On homosexuality as on divorce and remarriage, in fact, the new talk of reform inserted into the global media circuit is worth much more than the favor actually gained among the synod fathers by the proposals of Kasper or Spadaro.
The match could go on for a long time. But Pope Francis is patient. In Evangelii Gaudium he has written that “time is greater than space.”