Spinning the Synod

Here are five misleading claims and skewed statements about the upcoming Synod of Bishops

Here’s a word that hasn’t been used much in recent discussions about the approaching Battle of the Cardin—er, the Synod of Bishops, taking place October 5-19 in Rome: evangelization. Which is curious, since the official title, or theme, for the extraordinary general assembly is “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”. To the contrary, it is safe to say that most people—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—think the Synod is going to be primarily about divorced Catholics, remarried Catholics, and the reception of Holy Communion by Catholics who currently live in “canonically irregular situations” (that is, are divorced and remarried).

Almost from the day the Synod was announced there has been a steady, even unrelenting, emphasis by a large number of commentators on the matter of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion. It didn’t take long for “mercy” to be equated with somehow relaxing (whatever that means) or even changing the Church’s teaching on the matter. Pope Francis, interviewed on July 28, 2013, while returning from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, was asked: “Holy Father, during this visit too, you have frequently spoken of mercy. With regard to the reception of the sacraments by the divorced and remarried, is there the possibility of a change in the Church’s discipline? That these sacraments might be an opportunity to bring these people closer, rather than a barrier dividing them from the other faithful?” The Holy Father, in responding, did not address the apparent assumption that mercy automatically corresponds with a change in Church teaching, but spoke of forgiveness, the motherhood of the Church, and the Orthodox practice of oikonomia—“they give a second chance, they allow it.” He also mentioned that his predecessor in Argentina, Cardinal Quarracino, “used to say that as far as he was concerned, half of all marriages are null.”

Then, in February of this year, Cardinal Walter Kasper gave an address to the extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals (February 20-21, 2014), that was soon published in English with additional material as The Gospel of the Family (Paulist, 2014). Kasper, in short, put forth arguments in favor of allowing remarried Catholics to receive Communion, something the German prelate has been pushing for since at least the early 1990s. His approach, on the more popular level, has been been to invoke “mercy” at every turn. For example, his September 15th essay, “The Message of Mercy”, published in America, refers to “mercy” and “merciful” nearly fifty times. And who, really, can be opposed to mercy? Well, according to Kasper, those who adhere to a “closed system” of doctrine and thus prefer “severity” over mercy. And the cardinal has not been shy about indicating that his position supposedly enjoys the full support of Francis, telling The Tablet this week that while he is not “the Pope’s theologian” (“that would be too arrogant”, he says), he has been told by Francis: “You are a man who discerns the spirit.”

There is much more to all of this (some of it mentioned below), but suffice to say that many in the secular media and progressive Catholic media have been presenting the Synod as a confrontation between reformist, merciful cardinals who enjoy the good graces of Francis and reactionary, even angry, cardinals who are obsessed with doctrine and power, caring little about the situation of ordinary Catholics. In addition, there are other simplistic and skewed contrasts being presented: between a Church ready to be relevant and adaptable to modern realities vs. a Church stuck in a rigorist, black-and-white past; a Church that is “pastoral” vs. a Church that is interested only in power and control; a Church that listens to the laity vs. a Church only concerned with what bishops think and say.

In the weeks to come, the spinning of the Synod—why it has been convened, what it seeks to accomplish, what it may or may not do—will be in full force. Here are five spins that are rotating at high speed and will likely be twirling about for some time to come, regardless of how inaccurate or misleading they are.

1. Francis polled ordinary Catholics worldwide in order to gauge, by democratic fashion, what changes need to be made at the Synod: When the Vatican sent out questionnaires to bishops around the world requesting data and information, some interpreted it—or presented it—as a poll from the pope, meant to guide his doctrinal decisions. In fact, various countries handled the gathering of information differently, and some did use parish-level surveys. But the questions and answers were not about dogma or doctrine, but about attitudes, perceptions, concerns, and “pastoral realities”. As the National Catholic Register explained last November, “the Vatican’s survey is being handled at the diocesan level, and the aim is to collect raw data, not opinions on Church doctrine or discipline, in advance of the 2014 synod. The data will help inform the bishops as they develop pastoral solutions for the challenges faced by modern families.” 

Still, the generally poor understanding of the nature of Church doctrine and authority, coupled with headlines such as “Vatican surveys worldwide Catholic Church on family issues including gay marriage” and “Vatican polls Catholics on birth control, gay marriage”, gave the impression that Church teaching was up for a democratic poll or vote, and thus destined to change. Of course, that’s what many people want. But it’s not what they likely will get.

2. The Synod will be a total failure unless it changes Church teaching about remarriage and much more: In July, I received an e-mail from Catholic Church Reform Int’l that expressed its disappointment with “the Vatican’s agenda for next fall’s Synod of Bishops in Rome”, noting that it had “provided each of the bishop delegates with a copy of its recommendations, urging the Synod take a more pastoral approach to issues facing the world’s families – among others, remarriage in the Church after divorce, cohabitation before marriage, and contraception.” The group’s Board of Consultors includes dissenting and leftie luminaries such as Joan Chittister and Hans Küng, as well as others from radical groups We Are Church, Future Church, and Catholics For Renewal. The group, which wishes to do away with Humanae Vitae, makes a dubious appeal to the Second Vatican “Council’s progressive 16 documents,” apparently unaware that Gaudium et spes states, “sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law” (par 51). Of course, texts and facts aren’t usually of much interest to such groups.

Reporting from a more mainstream position, veteran Vatican reporter John Allen, Jr., recently wrote on the Crux site, with apparent frustration, that Synods are of little consequence in the long run because everything is rubber-stamped beforehand, saying that “the impression of high drama was always a little fake, because everyone knew that no synod was ever going to alter Catholic teaching or practice unless the pope wanted it to, and in that case he didn’t really need a synod to do it.” But now, Allen argues, that has changed, since “Francis has signaled that he’s open to relaxing the ban [on remarried Catholics receiving Communion], but wants to hear from the world’s bishops first. As a result, there’s genuine uncertainty about what might happen.” He then adds: “The tug-of-war over divorced and remarried Catholics won’t be the only issue; others range from contraception and gay marriage to cohabitation and the church’s practice of granting annulments, as well as how to support couples in difficulty and how to express a positive vision of married life.”

The main spin here is that change—even change in Church doctrine—is imperative. Otherwise the Synod is just more of the same. Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, summed it up in rather snide fashion earlier this month, writing in the National Catholic Reporter:

We will have to wait and see whether the auditors will represent to the bishops the views of lay Catholics, but it is hard to argue that they are representative of Catholics at large. Certainly any who think natural family planning is the church’s great gift to the laity will not. And those who are church employees could fear losing their jobs if they spoke the truth. At the 1980 synod on the family, the lay participants were remarkable for how totally out of touch they were with the views of average Catholics. I fear this is a rerun.

This reminds me of how football coaches will sometimes lament that their team lacks an “identity” and is too focused on either wanting to be like another team or ignoring what the coaches are saying. In fact, Catholics in the West have, by and large, lost their true identity and are now, in many cases, either lashing out at what they perceive to be meaningless beliefs and merciless rules, or they are longing to be more like they other team—in this case, the secularised, post-modern world. Or both. The Synod will indeed be a failure if it gives in to either perspective; it must seek to address the lack of authentic identity and ways in which it can be recovered, embraced, nurtured, encouraged, defended, and lived.

3. The Synod is a clash between mercy and tradition. According to Allen, the “Synod is a key test of whether the new tone being set by a maverick pope may reposition Catholicism vis-a-vis some of the most divisive issues of the early 21st century.” Allen, like many other Catholic commentators, lapses easily into the politicised language of Left vs. Right, saying that when it comes to Communion for remarried Catholics, “for the left, it’s an issue of mercy,” while for “the right, it’s about fidelity to tradition, with the political benefit of not showing weakness at a time when they believe traditional marriage is under secular assault.” (It’s worth asking, as an aside: is there really a question about whether or not marriage is under secular assault? Really?)

There are a number of problems with this division, not least that it simply takes up what Cardinal Kasper has asserted without much in the way of argument, including the ironical fact that one of the greatest voices of mercy in recent decades was also a vigorous defender of the Church’s teaching about the indissoluble nature of sacramental marriage: Saint John Paul II. The late pontiff wrote some of the greatest papal works on mercy, notably Dives in misericordia, his 1980 encyclical on God and mercy (which includes a statement on the necessity of “respect for marriage in its indissoluble unity”) and he established Divine Mercy Sunday. In his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris consortio, John Paul II reflected on the difficult situations faced by many who are divorced and remarried, calling “upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life. … Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.” He then stated:

However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

And those, really, are the three essential issues: the objective nature of the sacrament of marriage, the objective nature of what a second marriage is or is not (regardless of the good will or emotions of those involved), and the confusion that would be caused if the Church allowed remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist.

4. The bishops need to allow the sensus fidei to run its course, accepting the wisdom of the laity. The Tablet, in its recent piece on Cardinal Kasper, reported:

“I do not know. I am not a prophet! I hope that bishops will listen to the voice of people who live as divorced and remarried – the sensus fidei. They should listen and then next year they should decide what is possible and what is not possible,” he said, adding that his “impression” is that the Pope also wants an “opening”.

In his address to the cardinals in February, he cited Cardinal Newman’s essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Faith”, which argued it was the faithful, not bishops, who preserved the faith during the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. This emphasised a teaching that each Catholic has a sense of faith by virtue of their Baptism. This sense of faith, the cardinal argues, must be taken seriously.

Kasper plays fast and easy with at least three facts here. First, although he often asserts that he is “not abandoning the indissolubility of marriage” (“….we cannot do that! But a Christian can fail”), he never makes clear how one can speak of and recognise a second marriage as a real marriage while the first, sacramental marriage exists. (This point is taken up in great detail in the forthcoming book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, from Ignatius Press.) 

Secondly, the sensus fidei is not limited to, say, 21st-century German Catholics, but involves all of the faithful throughout all time. 

Closely related is the third point: the sensus fidei encompasses all of the Catholic faithful, not just laity: “The whole body of the faithful… cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful,’ they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 92). Kasper’s appeal is brilliantly populist, but quite woeful both historically and theologically.

5. Those upholding Church teaching are “targeting” Pope Francis. This final point is made necessary because Cardinal Kasper advanced the claim this past week that those cardinals who uphold the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church about the sacrament of marriage are somehow, in making their views public, targeting or attacking Pope Francis. The ridiculous nature of such an accusation or suggestion should be obvious, as it was Kasper who published his speech and who has been on a media blitz in support of his position. Apparently, however, it is not obvious. The sorry nature of these and other comments were addressed in pithy form by Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, founder and editor of ignatius Press, in a CNA piece published earlier today.

While e-mailing with colleagues this week about some of these matters, the following quote from G.K. Chesterton was passed along. It was fitting when written many decades ago; it fits even better today:

We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong. In these current fashions it is not really a question of the religion allowing us liberty; but (at the best) of the liberty of allowing us a religion. These people merely take the modern mood, with much in it that is amiable and much that is anarchical and much that is merely dull and obvious, and then require any creed to be cut down to fit that mood. But the mood would exist even without the creed. They say they want a religion to be practical, when they would be practical without any religion. They say they want a religion acceptable to science, when they would accept the science even if they did not accept the religion. They say they want a religion like this because they are like this already. They say they want it, when they mean that they could do without it.

Coming full circle, it should be noted that those most in need of evangelization—as Paul VI and John Paul II often noted—are Catholics. We must always be evangelized, for as Paul VI stated forty years ago, “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself. She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love, and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love.” There is much about Catholic teaching that is hard—very hard. But the change that is required of all of us is true conversion, the transformation of hearts and minds, while acknowledging in humility the saving goodness and timeless truth of what Jesus Christ has passed on to us through and within the Church.


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About Carl E. Olson 1108 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.