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. 

Did the Synod avoid any doctrines contrary to the Faith?

Cardinal Pell has indicated that Cardinal Müller’s assessment of the Synod’s Final Report, in his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is that “there is no doctrinal error in anything that has been published”. During an interview with Catholic News Service Cardinal Pell insisted:
“It would have been helpful if there was more clarity. I thought that at the time. But there’s nothing in the paragraphs as they stand that is heretical, or false doctrine or advocating false practice. The text is fully in conformity with the basic Church teachings and practice”.

Furthermore, Cardinal Pell disputes the criticism that the paragraphs on the divorced and ‘remarried’ are ambiguous, but instead calls them ‘insufficient’.

However, the same reassurances cannot be given about the so called ‘Synod of the Media’ that is in many ways more influential than the Synod proper. In 2013 Pope Benedict XVI talked about the true Second Vatican Council and the false ‘Council of the Media’:

“There was the Council of the Fathers – the real Council – but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council apart, and the world perceived the Council through the latter, through the media. Thus, the Council that reached the people with immediate effect was that of the media, not that of the Fathers”.

Incomprehensibly, the faithful Synod Fathers did not adequately heed Pope Benedict’s warnings about the Council of the Media, and for the most part conceded media airtime and bandwidth to the dissenters. Over the past three weeks the Synod of the Media has immediately exposed the people to certain Synod Fathers who have made statements containing heresy or false doctrine or advocated false practice.

Archbishop Cupich and the Synod of the Media

For example, Archbishop Cupich of Chicago gave an interview that at the very least did not uphold the clear teaching of the Church on conscience and the immorality of active homosexual behaviour and adultery. When asked about reception of communion by those who have not repented of sin and firmly committed to amend their lives Archbishop Cupich told the world’s press:

“If people come to a decision in good conscience then our job is to help them move forward and to respect that. The conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I’ve always done that.”

Archbishop Cupich’s bald statement that “conscience is inviolable” is such a travesty of the Church’s doctrine on conscience as to border on false teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church unambiguously states that a person is morally responsible for acting according to an erroneous, ignorant conscience, and is “culpable for the evil he commits”:

“Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.” (CCC 1792).

Archbishop Cupich said nothing of this, but instead fed into the Synod of the Media that receiving Holy Communion was up to the consciences of the divorced and ‘re-married’ and active homosexuals. In this instance, and at other moments, the true Synod failed to challenge and correct the false teaching and false practice being broadcast to the world by a Synod Father. Archbishop Cupich returns to Chicago uncensored for promoting doctrines contrary to the Faith of the Church. In this regard, the Synod manifestly failed in its duty to defend, preserve and strengthen the faith.

Did the Synod preserve God's people from deviations and defections?

Pope St John Paul II enunciated the magisterial teaching of the Church on the pastoral care of couples who are divorced and ‘remarried’ in the Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, written in response to the synod on the family held in 1980. It is the definitive teaching of the Church on this matter.

The section of the Synod’s Final Report on the divorced and ‘re-married’ includes a substantial quote from Pope St John Paul’s Familiaris Consortio but tellingly omits the crucial part that spells out why the divorced and ‘re-married’ cannot receive Holy Communion. Pope John Paul II sets out the perennial reasons for this prohibition:

“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.” (paragraph 84).

The Synod’s Final Report is silent on this definitive and settled doctrine that is at the heart of the current conflict between faithful Catholics and dissenters. Into this silence prominent priests are saying that the Synod Final Report allows divorced and ‘re-married’ to receive Holy Communion. Fr James Martin SJ, the editor at large at America magazine, has added his voice to the Synod of the Media in order to present false teaching and false practice. He posted on his facebook page:

“The final document has been released and among its recommendations, for divorced and remarried Catholics it encourages the use of the ‘internal forum’ , a practice where a Catholic consults with a priest, discerns and reflects on his or her situation and then, using his or her conscience as a guide, decides whether to receive communion”.

This hijacking of the Synod Final Report to present false teaching and false practice exposes the grave mistake of choosing to be silent over Pope St John Paul’s clear prohibition of divorced and re-married receiving Holy Communion. Why the Synod did chose silence over clear teaching? Some have suggested that the omission of the crucial section of Familiaris Consortio was in order to achieve consensus between the opposing groups at the Synod.

St Maximus the Confessor, martyred by fellow Catholics for upholding doctrine, challenged the use of such diplomatic silence in the Church in order to arrange peace between the faithful and the heretical. During his trial St Maximus said:
“Silence according to the divine Scripture is denial as well. For God said through David, ‘There is no speech, nor are there words whose sounds are not heard’.(Ps 19:3). Therefore unless the words concerning God can be spoken and heard then neither do they exist, according to Scripture”. (The Trial of Maximus).

The universal Church needed to hear the Synod explicitly re-iterate Pope St John Paul’s words prohibiting communion to those committing adultery. Choosing silence for the sake of ‘peace’, means instead the disquiet of false teaching and false practice are spreading far and wide, and all in the name of the Synod. There is no sense in a Synod which puts countless souls in peril.





Cardinal Burke Synod







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