by Deacon Nick Donnelly 

How do we make sense of what has happened at the Synod of Bishops that has just completed its deliberations in Rome? The very fact that I have to ask this question indicates that something has gone wrong. The confusion and counter claims as to what has been ‘agreed’ show that Pope Francis’ dual synods have not brought greater clarity, unity and peace to the Church. Instead, doctrines that have been certain for two thousand years – indissolubility, the immorality of adultery, mortal sin, and the sanctity of Holy Communion – have after two years of debate become contested questions among the bishops.

Although no official English translation has yet been issued, informal versions of the Synod’s Final Report show it to be so ambiguous over the issue of communion for the divorced and civilly “re-married” that faithful bishops and dissenting bishops are both claiming that the document supports their opposing positions. Here we have two contradictory assessments of the Synod’s Final Report, the first from a leading faithful cardinal and the other from a leading dissenting cardinal:
“There is nothing there endorsing Communion for the divorced and remarried. There is nothing there endorsing a penitential process. There is nothing there that is saying homosexual activity is justified.” (Cardinal Pell)

“I’m satisfied; the door has been opened to the possibility of the divorced and remarried being granted Communion. There has been somewhat of an opening, but the consequences were not discussed…There has to be some conditions in order to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the meantime, an appraisal has to be made [to see] that everything possible has been done to save the first marriage; then that there has to be a path of repentance by the couple. And then a path of reflection and accompaniment [will] be necessary as divorce is a disaster and leaves traumatic experiences in it tracks. Time is needed to overcome the wounds of a separation.” (Cardinal Kasper)

Cardinal Pell and Cardinal Kasper can’t both be right

Cardinal Burke, the former top canon lawyer of the Church, says that the Final Report’s section on the divorced and ‘re-married’ is an “immediate concern because of its lack of clarity in a fundamental matter of the Faith: the indissolubility of the marriage bond which both reason and faith teach all men.”

Newspaper and online media headlines reflected the competing claims about the significance of the ambiguous section on the divorced and re-married. The New York Times ran the headline, ‘Amid Splits, Catholic Bishops Crack Open Door on Divorce’, while the Spectator declared, ‘The Vatican Synod on the Family is over and the Conservatives ‘won’. RTÉ, Ireland’s national media group, even posted the headline, “Divorced people to be allowed [to] receive Holy Communion on 'case by case' basis”.

The fact that there remains uncertainty and confusion over such a doctrine of the Faith raises the troubling question, ’Have Pope Francis' dual Synods failed in their primary purpose of defending the Faith?”

Synods Must Defend and Strengthen the Faith

Canon Law states that the role of the Synod of Bishops is to assist the pope “in the defence and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline.” (Can. 342). It’s important to note that the weight that canon law gives to the safeguarding of the faith, morals and discipline by using the words ‘defence’, ‘preservation’ and ‘strengthening’. This reflects the emphasis of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, that clearly states that bishops as “witnesses to divine and Catholic truth” must protect the faithful by “vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock.” (Lumen Gentium, 25). The Catechism of the Catholic Church is even more emphatic about the duty of bishops to defend the Faith and protect the faithful from error:

“The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfil this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.” ( CCC, 890).

Six years after the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope St John Paul II was so concerned by the spread of dissent and error among the clergy that he issued the motu proprio Ad Tuendam Fidei to reinforce canon law with “new norms which expressly impose the obligation of upholding truths proposed in a definitive way by the Magisterium of the Church, and which also establish related canonical sanctions.”

Every bishop who attended the 2015 was strictly bound by the following canons:

“Canon 750 – § 1. Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, which in fact is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred Magisterium. All are therefore bound to avoid any contrary doctrines.

§ 2. Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely, those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

These magisterial definitions of the role of bishops as defenders of the Faith provide us with the objective criteria through which we can begin to make sense of the Synod.