The Reverend Nicholas L. Gregoris, S.T.D.

 

Having lived in Rome for nearly a decade as a seminarian and a student priest, I had numerous opportunities to participate in momentous occasions from the promulgation of papal decrees, to canonizations, to a papal funeral, to the vast array of activities associated with the Great Jubilee of 2000.  This month I returned to take advantage of the unique opportunity to cover the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, providing theological expertise to various journalists.  What follows arises from interaction I had with secular and Catholic reporters, inquiries coming from the curious and confused through telephone and email, and observations from clergy and laity with whom I rubbed elbows during the first two weeks of October.

 

This must be one of the most extraordinary Synods in the true sense of the word.  What are your reflections on the mood around the Synod at the beginning and through to the conclusion?  It is usual for the Pontiff to make interventions during the Synods but this time there has been silence, mystifying many, especially because of the confusion around Church teaching. What do you make of this?

 

Pope Francis made a conscious decision to remain silent during the Synod proceedings because he believed that this attitude was the most conducive for assuring "collegiality" and "synodality."


He did not want to make the Synod Fathers feel as though they were being watched by a hawk. He wanted them to feel free to make their interventions and to discuss all matters with parrhesia (a Greek word meaning "to speak candidly" or "to speak with boldness). While he prayed Midday prayer (9:00 a.m.) with the Synod Fathers every day (except Wednesdays on account of his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square), he only addressed the bishops at the end of the Synod. At the conclusion of his remarks, he received a nearly five-minute standing ovation in the Synod Hall. 

 

In the past, it was customary for Popes to make more frequent interventions at Synods; to offer a synthesis of the work that was being accomplished on a daily basis – and even to weigh in on matters of importance, when deemed necessary. So it is clear that silence on the Pope's part is not a sine qua non for synodality to be achieved although he may have believed otherwise. Pope Francis’ taciturn approach struck certain Fathers as helpful and others as extremely harmful to the Synod's success.

 

Some characterized the Pope's attitude of silence as typically “jesuitical” –  one of mental reservation and careful observation.  Others considered his silence a deliberate lack of leadership, especially when faced with the reality of bishops who revealed significant differences in their theological and pastoral views and some of whom expressed a deep-seated longing for greater magisterial clarity from the Supreme Pontiff.  One such Synodal Father was Cardinal Raymond Burke, soon to be the former head of the Apostolic Signatura.   Yet others proffered a rather cynical caricature of Pope Francis' Synodal posture, depicting him almost cartoonishly as an emperor dressed in white, willfully presiding over the blood sport of the gladiatorial games waged by the porporati convened for the Synod just to see which side would win the battle royal.   

 

I am assuming that Pope Francis will not change his modus operandi for the Ordinary Synod of the Bishops next October since he believes in the necessity of open and frank discussions among the bishops. He is not concerned so much about their disagreements because he feels strongly that the Holy Spirit is working through them "cum Petro et sub Petro" (with and under Peter). The Relatio Synodi (the final document) is further evidence of the Pope's willingness to report disagreement among the Synod Fathers, inasmuch as that document contains paragraphs that did not receive a two-thirds majority approval and likewise relates the percentage of votes received.

 

There have been many claims that the Secretariat of the Synod set out to manipulate the meetings.  What is your view on this?


I have no way of knowing if Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri was manipulating anything at the Synod. I was made to believe, however, that the Relatio Post Disceptationem (the interim report, which garnered such publicity) bore the clear imprint of Archbishop Bruno Forte, who has a formidable reputation as a brilliant but “progressive” theologian.

 

There was, however, a telling moment toward the end of the second week of the Synod when Cardinal George Pell stood up and spoke forcefully against the Relatio Synodi as it was being put together.  His strong reaction startled the Pope, as did the support for his position from what must have been a large number of the cardinals and bishops; all this was interpreted as a sign of protest against both Baldisseri's leadership and, more to the point, the whole manner in which the Synod had unfolded until that point.

 

Eventually, the Pope nodded to Baldisseri as if to say that Cardinal Pell's animated intervention needed to be taken seriously, resulting in the public defusion of the comments from the circuli minores (the small language discussion groups).   Afterwards, many expressed gratefulness for the Australian prelate's courage and conviction in demanding transparency (also highlighted by the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller) and in defending traditional Catholic doctrine on marriage and the family amidst the chaos and confusion of the Synod's proceedings. 

 

Much has been spoken about the Judge-See-Act method of the Harvard Business School but can such programmes work in a religious setting and is it an effective way to discern pastoral challenges?

The Judge-See-Act method employed at Harvard Business School is said to be modelled on St. Ignatius' method of reflective discernment! It has been suggested that the methodology of the Extraordinary Synod willed by Pope Francis thus drew direct inspiration from St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. 

 

The behaviour of Cardinal Walter Kasper has been extraordinary, but he consistently claims that he speaks for the Pope, that he is explaining the desire of the Pope for the Synod.  Is there any evidence to support these extraordinary claims?


There are plausible reasons to suggest that Cardinal Kasper was functioning as the secret spokesman for the Pope because long before the Synod commenced the Pope had shown him particular favour.  At the Pope’s very first Angelus address, he spoke favourably about the Cardinal’s then-new book on mercy.  Furthermore, the Pope chose Cardinal Kasper to deliver a significant discourse to the last Consistory, in which he related some of the key notions found in his book on marriage, causing quite a stir as they touched on the delicate theme of Holy Communion for divorced and remarried couples. 

 

 Unfortunately, this pre-synodal debate cast a dubious cloud over the Synod's opening that did not dissipate so easily since his comments struck a cord, positive or negative, with both Synod participants and Synod followers. The Synod Fathers were far from unanimous on the issue. I would venture to say that the majority of the Synod Fathers did not share Cardinal Kasper's views on the matter.  If, in fact, the Pope agrees with Cardinal Kasper, he has never said so publically.  Kasper has conjectured, however, that the Pope is open to the possibility of allowing Communion for the divorced and remarried due having members in his own family who are divorced and remarried and ineligible to receive Holy Communion. 

 

I suspect that the Holy Father wanted to take the Synod Fathers' temperature on this and many other topics.  If the Synod Fathers had reached a certain agreement on favouring Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, then I believe  he would have given serious thought to changing the Church's discipline in this regard.  However, when the final document of the Synod was put together, it was clear that the majority of the Synod Fathers did not adopt an unequivocal stance on the issue.  But even if they had, they would have been hard-pressed to change the present discipline without changing the Church's actual doctrine as well.  Here it is worth recalling the principle, "lex orandi, lex credendi" (the law of praying is the law of believing).  The logic of this principle can be applied analogously to the topic at hand.  In other words, how could the Pope and the bishops allow for Communion for the divorced and remarried without in effect changing Our Lord's own clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage as stated plainly in the Gospels? 

 

During the Synod, questions about language arose.  Some Synod Fathers believed that one could change theological language without necessarily changing the Church's teaching, while many others disagreed.  Was it now time to stop using widely diffused theological expressions like "state of grace," "living in sin," "contraceptive mentality," and even "natural law"?

 

With good reason, there was much push-back here because the sensus fidei and sensus fidelium tell us instinctively that such theological language does in fact adequately and precisely express the Church's long-held beliefs and that other vague expressions would only serve to obfuscate matters and serve as a subterfuge for a theological coup d'état.  Words do indeed have meaning; we need only remember how the first councils in the history of the Church agonized over finding just the right word to convey the proper teaching – and how heretics resisted such efforts, arguing that their word was just as good.

 

In formulating the Credo of the People of God (1968), Blessed Paul VI suggested that if theologians could find a theological expression other than transubstantiation which would just as accurately express the Church's doctrine of the Lord's Real Presence in the Eucharistic Mystery that the Church would welcome such an expression as an authentic development of doctrine (à la Blessed John Henry Newman).  Alas, many decades have passed and no such alternate expression or term has been forthcoming.  In the final analysis, sometimes "new" is not always "better," and sometimes we need to realize the wisdom of the American proverb:  "If ain't broke, don't fix it."

 

Certainly, the principle of “gradualism," much touted at the Synod, if properly applied, will allow divorced and remarried Catholics to draw closer to the bosom of Holy Mother Church, but this does not mean that the Church's discipline will change.  However, the reception of Holy Communion is not an absolute right; it is a grace, a gift freely given to those who are properly disposed to receive it, lest those improperly disposed receive the Holy Eucharist and in so doing sin against the Mystery of the Lord's Body and Blood, about which Saint Paul issues such a stern warning in his First Letter to the Corinthians (11:27).

 

The President of the Polish Episcopal Conference, the Archbishop of Posnan, has suggested that the interim document was a betrayal of the magisterium of Pope St John Paul II. Given that John Paul the Pope who wrote most about the challenges facing the modern family, this would seem an extraordinary and damaging departure?

 

With good reason did the Polish Episcopal Conference express grave concern about the Relatio Post Disceptationem.  They and other bishops argued that the Relatio did not accurately reflect what they had actually said and done during the Synod's first week of meetings. In the end, however, I think their fears were allayed because the Church's teachings on traditional marriage and the family were upheld.  The Relatio Post Disceptationem was woefully inadequate, and so the Synod Fathers made sure that the Relatio Synodi reflected a more theologically mature line of thought. That said, it should be pointed out that neither document carries any magisterial weight and surely should not be considered on a par with Saint John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio, which followed the 1980 Synod on the Family and is a document often cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

 

The same Polish Archbishop also said that the same document made it sound as if this was the Synod to invent mercy – that before, there was no mercy in the Church, no pastoral approach to difficult situations. If an accurate assessment, then this would be truly offensive to the holy pontiffs and clerics of history, would it not?


The Relatio Post Disceptationem, and for that matter the entire Synodal process, was focussed primarily on finding pastoral solutions to pastoral problems without compromising doctrine.  The bishops in communion with the Pope set out to teach the truth in charity. The question of mercy cannot be properly understood outside the context of sin.  Why would one speak of mercy, if no sin were involved?  Mercy and justice must kiss and embrace not just some of the time, but all of the time.  This is only fully possible for God who is infinitely good, perfectly merciful and perfectly just.   Hence, for the Pope and the Synod Fathers, this is a real challenge and remains such for all of the Church's shepherds and for each one of us.  Striking the right balance between mercy and justice is quite difficult among sinful men.  Sinful men, sinful bishops and sinful priests will always "miss the mark" in this regard, but this cannot mean that we cease trying. 

 

Saint John the XXIII, who convoked the Second Vatican Council in 1962 and who presided over its first session, is commonly known as "The Good Pope," but that does not mean that his predecessors and successors were somehow bad!  Likewise, we should not forget that one of Pope John Paul II's first encyclicals was entitled Dives in Misericordia, dealing with the Father rich in mercy who welcomed back and forgave the Prodigal Son.   The Great Jubilee of A.D. 2000 was called by John Paul II in order to throw open the doors of mercy to all Catholics as they prepared to celebrate the two thousandth anniversary of the Incarnation of the Son of God.  Furthermore, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI referred to the Sacrament of Confession as the Sacrament of Mercy, par excellence. They not only spoke about confession but made their own confessions regularly, perhaps even on a weekly basis.  On certain occasions, Pope Francis has with his characteristic spontaneity chosen to hear the confessions of ordinary parishioners in local parish churches.  The Church is not and never has been a stranger to mercy, but she is not willing to sacrifice justice or truth at the altar of mercy.

 

It is good to note that when a Pope dies or resigns, all dicasterial heads lose their office – except the Cardinal who heads the Sacred Penitentiary (the department of the Holy See concerned with the Sacrament of Penance, the lifting of excommunications, and indulgences).   Why?  Because the Church believes that access to mercy should always available to all Catholics as the supreme law of the Church remains the salvation of souls ("suprema lex, salus animarum").

 

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, in a Vatican press conference, summed up admirably how Jesus' own example illustrates a perfect balance between justice and mercy when He pardoned the woman caught in adultery and yet insisted that she go and sin no more.  There is no such thing as "cheap grace" in Christianity!

 

Regarding Cardinal Kasper’s now-confirmed comments about the Church in Africa and his call for “unity in diversity,” is this not at the very least condescending and infers that his “progressive” German approach is better than the “backward” approach of the Africans.  How can we reconcile this position with the Christian message?


Apparently, Cardinal Kasper did not pay attention to the fact that he was giving an "on the record" interview when he made his remarks.   Nevertheless, any time a prelate speaks to the press, he must be very prudent and accurate.  It has also been argued by some of the Cardinal’s defenders that his remarks were misconstrued, but there is no plausible evidence to support this claim.

 

Regardless, Cardinal Kasper's remarks lacked sensitivity to the pastoral challenges of the Church in Africa.  Surely, the Cardinal is aware that the Church is first and foremost "Catholic," that is to say, "universal."  Pope Francis, like his venerable predecessors, underscored the need to recognize the unity of the Church as rooted in her diversity, and vice versa.   The Church is not an institution of "either/or."  Precisely because she is Catholic, she is a Church of "both/and." Therefore, just as there is absolutely no inherent contradiction between faith and reason or between justice and mercy, so too there is no contradiction in terms between unity and diversity.   If, as St. Paul teaches us, when one member of the mystical body of Christ (the Church) suffers, the entire body suffers, then the sufferings of the Church in Africa are likewise the sufferings of the Church in Germany, in Europe, indeed those of the universal Church.

 

What was most disturbing to most was not only the Cardinal’s denial of having said such offensive things (and even of having given the interview at all), but the condescending attitude toward fellow believers who, unlike the majority of Catholics in Germany, are living the Gospel to an impressive and even heroic degree.  Likewise disturbing was his assertion that the Church outside Africa does not take seriously African input – which is patently false in my experience.

 

Across the social media, it appears as if civil war has broken out in the Church with many traditional Catholics suggesting they will leave the Church.  From what you have experienced in Rome, what would your advice be?

 

After the release of the Relatio Post Disceptationem, it was strongly rumoured that if the Relatio were truly indicative of the Catholic Church changing her teaching so as to recognize homosexual unions and to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion that she would have run the risk of creating a schism.   After the Relatio Synodi and the Holy Father's concluding discourse to the Synod Fathers – when it became clear that no major changes were on the horizon – the rumours of possible schisms dissipated.  The Relatio Synodi reassured faithful Catholics that the Pope and the bishops had not strayed from the Sacred Scriptures, Apostolic Tradition and the Magisterium.  On the other hand, this good news immediately became a source of immense frustration for secularists and moral relativists, especially in the mass media, who had had illusionary hopes that the Church would undergo a Copernican revolution.  We are reminded here of the wisdom of the Venerable Servant of God, Fulton J. Sheen:  "He who marries the spirit of the present age ends up a widow in the next."

 

I have spoken to many priests who are saying that their parishioners are telling them that the Pope has changed the rules at this Synod, that he desires Communion for all and that same sex civil partnerships can now be recognised as valid loving relationships.

 

Of course, the Synod Fathers in communion with the Bishop of Rome did not express a desire that the Catholic Church bless or approve in any fashion homosexual relationships nor did they give their approval for Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried.   Rather, following the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they reaffirmed the Church's respect for the dignity of homosexual persons and the Church's fervent desire to accompany divorced and remarried Catholics along a pilgrimage of ever-deepening faith, hope and charity – one likewise characterized by mercy and penitence.

 

Finally, any predictions on what the truly final document of next year might say?  Will it give clarity or be a compromise document resulting in continued confusion? 

 

I envision the Ordinary Synod bringing greater clarity and not creating the confusion initially spawned by the Extraordinary Synod. In the end, the Church's perennial teaching on the nature of marriage as only possible between one man and one woman joined in an indissoluble bond while open to procreation will be vindicated.   Surely the Synod Fathers (and a much larger and even more representative group next year) "cum Petro et sub Petro" will do their utmost to safeguard Catholic doctrine and morality; to preach the truth in charity; to identify and enact the best possible solutions for a vast array of complex pastoral challenges they face in various parts of the world – problems like same-sex unions and polygamy – arising from varying cultural circumstances, varying socio-economic conditions, and a growing secularism and moral relativism in our contemporary society.  I only trust that more attention to will be given to intact marriages, offering such couples salutary spiritual assistance and holding them up as examples for the whole Church.  

 

  

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