Four Popes, The Synod, and The Future

An interview with Italian theologian and journalist, Andrea Gagliarducci, about Francis, Benedict XVI, St. John Paul II, and Paul VI

Andrea Gagliarducci is one of Rome’s leading “Vaticanistas.” His blog “Monday Vatican” and countless columns and articles for the Catholic News Agency, the National Catholic Register, Inside the Vatican, and the Italian journals Il Tempo and La Sicilia appear on Catholic “Must Read” lists around the globe. But, more than a chronicler of Church affairs, Gagliarducci is an astute philosopher and theologian with multiple books to his credit.

In the wake of the much-anticipated Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops last month, I had the chance to talk with Gagliarducci about the linguistic turn in the Church’s engagement with the post-modern world, the still relevant figures of St. John Paul the Great and Blessed Paul VI, and the post-synodal path forward for Catholic media.

Andrea Gagliarducci (

John Paul Shimek: Perhaps we can begin by turning our attention to the Synod of Bishops’ Relatio post Disceptationem, which was released half-way through the synod and which generated a significant amount of media interest. As a matter of fact, it seems there is still more talk about that document than the official Relatio Synodi, released at the synod’s conclusion. While several of the paragraphs received media attention, I’d like to focus on just three of them: Paragraphs 50-52, concerning homosexual persons (le persone omosessuali).

During one of the press conferences at the Holy See Press Office, it became clear that Archbishop Bruno Forte “authored” these paragraphs. Let us speak first about the man himself. You have a great depth of knowledge and understanding about the Italian bishops. But American readers might not be familiar with Archbishop Forte.

Andrea Gagliarducci: Bruno Forte is, first of all, a long-standing Italian theologian. He studied in Germany and he went much in depth in German philosophy…. He had studied Heidegger and Jaspers, and got to know very in depth the “linguistic turn” of philosophy during the 20th century. … I would say that his theology starts from the notions of the philosophy of language and then it evolves in a theology of Sacred Scripture. His “models” are Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini—deemed to be a progressive, but in the end very conservative when he came to interpret and study the Sacred Scriptures, in my view—and Karl Rahner.

He grabbed the attention of John Paul II when he worked on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past”—the basis of the liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica in which St. John Paul II asked God’s forgiveness for sins committed in the Church’s name—and his star started rising. Archbishop Forte preached the Lenten Spiritual Exercises to the Roman Curia in 2004 and John Paul II wanted him to be a bishop. Then, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ordained him bishop.

My personal interpretation is that Archbishop Forte’s theology was something different from what Benedict XVI really wanted for the Church. Benedict XVI founded his pontificate on the notion of truth and in combating the dictatorship of relativism. Archbishop Forte’s theology starts from the historical and linguistic interpretation and takes a lot from the 20th-century philosophy of language; but, in the end all of this discussion on language risks putting the human being out of sight, and truth—in the midst of linguistic discussion—may be forgotten. Benedict XVI was very aware of this risk and directed the Church elsewhere, pivoting toward the truth. Archbishop Forte well described his theological view in the book-length interview with Marco Roncalli Una teologia per la vita: Fedele al cielo e alla terra [“A Theology for Life: Faithful to Heaven and Earth”]. He said he’s “a progressive, with an open mind. But very faithful to the fundamental values.”

Shimek: Amid all of his episcopal obligations, Archbishop Forte has managed to pull off an impressive theological career. What elements of his thinking are integral to this particular issue of his authorship of the controverted paragraphs of the Relatio post Disceptationem? Also, how should we understand his authorship? Should we suppose that he based his paragraphs on his own thinking or what other Synod Fathers communicated to him? Did he “compile” (compilare) or “compose” (comporre) these paragraphs?

Gagliarducci: From what I learned, Archbishop Bruno Forte was not the only one who drafted the Relatio post Disceptationem. His theological blueprint seems evident in the paragraphs on homosexuals, since those paragraphs are well-written and refined. They do not go beyond the way the Catholic Church has always dealt with homosexuals. But, on the other hand, the paragraphs are also part of a rhetoric which does not deal with sin or any other thing related to sin. I would say that there are a lot of theological skills combined with linguistic skills, which made quite difficult a harsh criticism of those paragraphs. … This effort was carried out with the Pope’s consent, since I wouldn’t think that Cardinal Peter Erdo would ever read a text which distanced so much from what he collected if the Pope himself wouldn’t ask him to. I would say [Archbishop Forte] personally compiled the paragraphs on homosexuality and he oversaw the rest of the text, giving his contribution. I am sure Cardinal Peter Erdo also tried to balance some references. The theological issue is deeper, in my view.

With Pope Francis, we had a turn in the philosophical basis. Benedict XVI went beyond the philosophy of language. He based his theology on truth and on the link between faith and reason. Pope Francis is willing to reach out to people and he considers that just a few people may understand the profound roots of Catholicism, but that they would feel more comfortable with a language respectful of everybody, leaving the truth in the background as something that, in the beginning, must be given for granted and put aside in order to “attract” the most people possible. Benedict XVI wanted to attract people with truth. Pope Francis wants to attract people by going where they are, which means that—more than a well-rooted theology—you need a philosophy which helps you to understand the “other.” This is another of the key issues in Archbishop Forte’s theology. Pope Francis wants to get into the world of the others, he wants to understand the other, to go toward him. It is a mostly sociological view: you make a snapshot of reality, and you accept—and try to understand—reality the way it is. And only after we understand the reality the way it is, we can dialogue with it, but without the [desire to make] any sort of proselytism.

Shimek: Paragraphs 50-52 of the Relatio post Disceptationem became paragraphs 55-56 of the Relatio Synodi. These latter paragraphs did not receive two-thirds of the votes of the Synod Fathers. What happens to them at this point? Will the topic of persons with a homosexual orientation find a place in next October’s Fourteenth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops?

Gagliarducci: The paragraphs 50-52 had switched because most of the bishops wanted to do away with the merely sociologically-based approach and they inserted in the beginning clear references to the Sacred Scriptures and the Popes’ teaching, which were lacking in the Relatio post Disceptationem. The thing is that the topic of homosexual couples received a majority of consensus, albeit not a supermajority consensus, as required by the synod. Usually, when a paragraph does not gain the two-thirds of the synodal consensus, the paragraph is taken away from the final document, but Pope Francis did not want to do that and wanted the votes to be known. This makes me think that the issue will be discussed again…. I think there is a minority who wants to push this issue within the context of the synod, and the Church must be very careful about that, finding the right words and reaffirming the truth of the faith.

Shimek: You have written a short but insightful book about the “Pope of the Family,” as Pope Francis calls Papa Wojtyla. The book, published by the Vatican’s own printing house, was entitled in Italian Giovanni Paolo II: Storia di un Annuncio (“John Paul II: History of a Proclamation [or, Announcement]”). Your particular focus is on the pope’s untiring desire and will to proclaim the Gospel in the world. He never ceased to proclaim the Gospel of the Family. In fact, he himself convened a Synod on the Family back in the 1980s. Tell us: is his message still relevant today? And, do you think his spirit could be sensed at this synod of 2014? If we can speak figuratively, do you think there was an unoccupied seat reserved for St. John Paul the Great in the center of the forum?

Gagliarducci: St. John Paul II’s message is very relevant today, and I would say quite unexplored, as is that of his successor, Benedict XVI. The reason lies in the “break” I see in the interpretation of John Paul II’s papacy. John Paul II was strongly criticized during the first half of his pontificate, his initiatives were considered “too Polish,” and—despite his charisma—secular media could not stand his strong stances, which were based on the truth of the Gospel. “We like the singer, not the song,” an American newspaper headlined during one of John Paul II’s visits to the US.

Coming from behind the Iron Curtain, in a constant struggle with practical materialism, John Paul II knew that the foundation of the teaching of the Church had to be defended, since only this way the Church could carry on its international agenda, which is the common good. There is a line from theology to diplomacy to daily life which cannot be interrupted and John Paul II was very aware of it.

There was no seat for John Paul II in the center of the forum when he spoke of family and human rights during his pontificate, while there had been a seat for him at the end of his pontificate when the cultural commitment seemed to lack and it was easy to describe the Church as the reality of the “Pope boys.”

Shimek: I think this is deeply significant. Please elaborate.

Gagliarducci: In the very last years of his pontificate, media highlighted the popular consensus the Pope was gaining and did not focus anymore on the contents the Church was delivering. It was just like if the Church was out of the cultural discussion, though the Pope was always under the spotlight together with his “fans.” In Italy, they called them “the Pope boys.” So, the “folk’s side” (I would say) was more highlighted than the Church’s content, and it was the moment when John Paul II had a seat in the center of the forum. It is easy to describe the Church as a group of people in love with one character while secular media try to downplay the Church when it speaks out loud on values, as St. John Paul II always did whenever he had occasion to do it.

Benedict XVI put the Church again at the center of the forum, and now the Church—not just John Paul II—seems to be out of the forum again. John Paul II’s teachings on family, and moreover the way he advocated for them, are still important and relevant. But, the fact that he was not so much quoted during the Synod of Bishops, marks the notion of a breach for a new linguistic commitment, which is less harsh and much closer to the world. There was not an unoccupied seat. There was probably no seat set at all. Just imagine the complaints about this by the Polish Archbishop Gadecki.

Shimek: The Extraordinary Synod concluded with the beatification of Pope Paul VI, the author of Humanae Vitae. That landmark encyclical letter on an important aspect of marital ethics sent shockwaves through the Catholic community. Its reverberations could still be felt at this recent Extraordinary Synod. But, more than this encyclical, Pope Paul VI gave us the permanent institution of the world Synod of Bishops itself, establishing it in the wake of the Second Vatican Council on September 15, 1965. Nevertheless, much more than a theologian and an administrator of ecclesial affairs, “this courageous Christian, this tireless apostle…[this] great helmsman of the [Second Vatican] Council” gave us a tremendous example of zeal for evangelization. He promulgated his beautiful post-synodal apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi on evangelization in the modern world, giving us a new perspective on the Church’s essential mission to evangelize.

As the Synod Fathers headed home to their local and particular churches, I was reminded of a remark of the blessed pope. He said: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

It is true that this Extraordinary Synod did not produce an official teaching text. Many Catholic commentators complained that the controversial questions of the hour remained unanswered; we do not have a resolution to the hotly debated issue of the admission of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to sacramental communion. Nonetheless, we did witness the Synod Fathers speaking with parrhesia, listening humbly to one another, learning with openness from the lay couples and experts who addressed them, and standing in simple receptivity before the truth of Christ. We witnessed these great men, many openly disputing with one another, come together in prayer around the Eucharist. As someone who was there, who attended the press conferences, who talked with these cardinals and bishops, what did you see about their witness? And, as a journalist who knows how to pose questions to the human person, do you think this witness of the Synod Fathers will help the contemporary world become more receptive to the teaching of the Church when it is pronounced in the official post-synodal declaration sometime next year?

Gagliarducci: Paul VI is a master for all of us. After Humanae Vitae, he did not want to release other encyclicals, probably because he wanted to avoid further polemics which could put the [Church] at risk in difficult years. At the same time he fostered collegiality, promoting the Synod of Bishops. His lesson is quite current nowadays. You are right, bishops disputed and then had Eucharist together, and this is the beauty of the Church.

On the other hand, going to a higher level, the theological basis of the discussion had been disappointing to many bishops. I think the contemporary world needs more. Even the publication of the votes for each paragraph gave the idea of a democratic consensus on hot topics, and not an idea of communion. But—you know—democracy is always a fight, which creates a majority and an opposition, while communion is a common point. I think the synod has been lived more as policy than as communion. It was not a referendum on the hot issues and the synod is not intended to lead to decisions. So, we will see.

I think, on the other hand, that Catholic media must deeply commit to presenting the right image of the Church without remaining silent on divisions, but fostering the beauty of the Gospel. What was missing, in my view, was a different kind of narration. We must work a lot on it.

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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.