A Vatican Mulligan?

The upcoming “Humanum” conference in Rome, sponsored by the CDF, will seek to offer clarification on issues debated at the recent Synod

In golf, a “do-over” is a called a “mulligan”. At the Vatican, might it be called a “post-synodal conference”?

October’s Synod on the Family proved disappointing to many. Fraught with controversy and confusion, some believe church leadership missed an opportunity to propose clear and effective doctrine. Reportedly, bishops raised their voices. One pounded his fist on his desk in disgust.

But a year out from next fall’s summit, some Vatican leaders are already trying to retake important ground, seeking to offer clarification on hotly debated issues. On Monday, November 3, Catholic News Service (CNS) reported that “Pope Francis will open an interreligious conference dedicated to traditional marriage.” The conference will be held November 17-19 at the Vatican’s Pope Paul VI Hall, just one “month after … a Synod of Bishops on the family stirred by controversy over divorce, same-sex unions and other nonmarital relationships” was held in that same location.

Unlike the Synod before it, the “Humanum” conference—“An International Interreligious Colloquium on The Complementarity of Man and Woman”—will be live streamed across the Internet. Already, three promotional online videos are available for viewing.

The Pope will preside over the conference’s first morning session and he will deliver a twenty-five minute address in which he is expected to “revisit the controversies raised by [October’s Synod] from the perspective of how men and women relate to one another,” according to Crux’s Inés San Martín. Those calling for an end to the Pope’s silence during the Synod are sure to welcome confirmation of his conference participation.

The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) will sponsor the half-week-long event. And, the Pontifical Councils for the Family, Interreligious Dialogue, and Promoting Christian Unity will co-sponsor it. The dicasteries’ leadership will attend and chair sessions of the conference.

During the morning session of November 17, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will introduce Pope Francis. Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch will chair that afternoon’s session. Koch replaced Cardinal Walter Kasper when Pope Benedict XVI named him the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in July 2010. Dr. Janne Haaland MatlÁry, former Secretary of State of the Kingdom of Norway, will deliver a presentation entitled “The Family: Still the Basic Unit of Society.” And, French Bishop Jean Lafitte, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family and a professor at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, will offer the afternoon session’s concluding presentation on “The Sacramentality of Human Love According to Saint John Paul II.”

On Tuesday, November 18, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, will chair the morning session. The President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, will chair the afternoon’s session.

Spanish Jesuit Archbishop Luis Ladaria, Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will chair the afternoon session on Wednesday, November 19. A theological conservative, Ladaria is a ranking member of the Vatican’s task force for dialogue with the Society of St. Pius X. That morning, conference participants will attend Pope Francis’ Wednesday General Audience.

At the conference’s conclusion, American Capuchin Archbishop Charles Chaput will deliver an intervention on the Eighth World Meeting of Families to be held in Philadelphia in September 2015. An hour-long “Declaration on Marriage” will be read at the close of the conference.

The content of that declaration is unknown. But, if the past is prologue, then one can make an educated guess about what it will contain. Here’s a tip: above all, look for clarity from Müller, Koch, Tauran, and Paglia. They participated in October’s Synod; they’re the principle sponsors of this conference.

In October 2014, Cardinal Müller authored The Hope of the Family (Ignatius Press). On November 3, 2014, he addressed the Catholic University of America’s School of Theology and Religious Studies on the theme of “Donum Veritatis: The Contribution of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Theological Enterprise.” His lecture, delivered at the invitation of CUA President and religious liberty scholar John Garvey, came in advance of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s receipt of CUA’s 2014 Johannes Quasten Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Leadership in Religious Studies.

According to the Catholic News Agency, Cardinal Müller surveyed pastoral challenges of the family in his book and asserted, “As a shepherd, I say to myself: … We must tell people the truth! We should open their eyes, telling them they have been … tricked through a false anthropology which can only lead to disaster.” At CUA, he rounded out the point, adding, “One cannot give the freedom of truth unless one has given oneself to the truth … this is the point of the service to Christian truth rendered by the Magisterium.”

During last month’s Synod, he became a vocal critic of the Relatio post Disceptationem when he discerned that it had failed to render the service of a shepherd. According to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, during one of the circuli minores (or, small group) sessions of the second phase of the synodal process, he described some of the statements of that text as “Undignified, shameful, [and] completely wrong”.

Cardinal Raymond Burke echoed that negative assessment. “The document lacks a solid foundation in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium,” he told CWR on October 14. “In a matter on which the Church has a very rich and clear teaching, it gives the impression of inventing a totally new, what one Synod Father called ‘revolutionary,’ teaching on marriage and the family. It invokes repeatedly and in a confused manner principles which are not defined, for example, the law of graduality.”

Both Cardinal Müller and Cardinal Burke, albeit each after his own fashion, made stringent appeals for greater clarity about teachings of the Church, with the latter saying he thought a statement of clarification from Pope Francis was “long overdue.” Many felt that clarity was especially lacking when the mid-term Relatio sought to accommodate (i.e., welcome, accogliere) those outside the traditional family structure.

Enter, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.

In New Orleans, Louisiana in June of 2014, Archbishop Paglia addressed the Spring General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He observed that “people today are convinced that they can ‘be family’ in all sorts of different ways,” lamenting that “Any type of ‘living together’ can be called a family as long as there is ‘love’” and cautioning that, “With that approach, the family is not rejected, it is simply grouped among various other ways of living, with forms of relationship that might seem compatible with the family as the Church understands it but that in reality demolish the family piece by piece.”

Under the direction of these conference sponsors, participants representing some fourteen world religions will work together to “examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman, in order to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life for the flourishing of human society.” Testimonies and other interventions from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, and other religious scholars, will facilitate this work. According to the event’s website, conference attendants “will draw from the wisdom of their religious tradition and cultural experience as they attest to the power and vitality of the complementary union of man and woman.”

Confirmed conference participants include notables like British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth; American Sr. Prudence Allen, a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy and a recent addition to the CDF’s International Theological Commission; British Anglican bishop N.T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham (2003-2010) and a renowned biblical scholar; American Dr. Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; American pastor Rick Warren, the Senior Pastor of Saddleback Church; and, a married couple from Benin in Africa, Cyrille Seke and Yevette Padonou, founders and directors of La Puisance d’Amour. Other registered attendants will hail from Egypt, Argentina, Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, Scotland, Tunisia, India, Taiwan, Japan, and Morocco, among other countries.

Several of the conference’s confirmed participants are well-known for their clear and outspoken positions on moral questions.

To take two examples, CNS’ Francis Rocca explains that “Rev. Warren was one of 48 Christian ministers and scholars who signed an open letter to Pope Francis and the synod fathers in September, urging the assembly to defend traditional marriage … by supporting efforts to ‘restore legal provisions that protect marriage as a conjugal union of one man and one woman.’”

For his part, Dr. Moore “wrote a blog post in response to the synod’s controversial midterm report … suggesting that ‘we should not drive sinners away, but that we should receive them and nurture them toward Christ.’” Dr. Moore also “said that the ‘church is not itself … to be made up of unrepentant people.’”

In a separate blog post dated November 3, Moore justified his openness to participate in this month’s conference. Although he has been “charitably … critical of Pope Francis on more than one occasion,” Moore claimed that he “can hardly criticize from across the Tiber and then refuse to talk … about these matters.” Thus, he is “willing to go anywhere … to bear witness to what we as evangelical Protestants believe about marriage and the gospel, especially in times in which marriage is culturally imperiled.” Moore hopes that the gathering will “stand in solidarity on the common grace, creational mandate of marriage and family as necessary for human flourishing and social good.”

With Vatican churchmen working alongside non-Catholic leaders like these, conference planners anticipate that the event will constitute “a catalyst for creative language and projects, as well as for global solidarity,” thus contributing to the Church’s on-going “work
of strengthening the nuptial relationship, both for the good of the spouses themselves and for the good of all who depend upon them.”

These and other outcomes of the conference are likely to be compared with last month’s Synod. Rocca claims that, “Given its timing and subject matter, the conference is likely to invite comparisons with the Oct. 5-19 synod on the family.” Of course, Vatican conferences are very different in many ways from sessions of the Synod of Bishops, not least in it being a conference including bishops—not a synod of bishops. So, while comparisons are inevitable, they are ultimately unhelpful. Nonetheless, if many interpreted last month’s Synod as a little council; then, perhaps this month’s conference will not be unlike a little synod.

To be sure, Pope Francis has called two Synods. The first completed its official business with the beatification of Pope Paul VI on Sunday, October 19. And, the second – set to discuss the ‘Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Modern World’ – will take place October 4-25, 2015. On Sunday, October 19, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan reminded ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that #Synod14 was only the “antipasto” to next fall’s Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly. More than once, Francis has asked his flock to patiently walk the full length of the synodal path.

While the real work will take shape a year from now, the groundwork is already well underway. Many hope that all that effort procures greater clarity about complicated pastoral questions. Although much of the work will be conducted far from Rome in the local and particular churches, there is an expectation that events like this month’s Vatican conference will effect much needed momentum toward that desired goal.

About John Paul Shimek 0 Articles
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.