From the synod (4): two insights into the Pope’s position

[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome]

At the press conference Francis at synodyesterday and today two synod fathers whose thinking and outlook are very close to those of Pope Francis came out to brief journalists, giving a valuable glimpse not just of his own approach to the issues being discussed, but how he sees the synod process itself.

If Francis were a theologian, he would sound a lot like Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, rector of the Catholic University in Buenos Aires and longtime Bergoglio collaborator. He headed Cardinal Bergoglio’s team redacting the touchstone Latin-American bishops’  (CELAM) document of Aparecida in 2007, and was chief drafter of Francis’s great teaching document of November 2013, Evangelii Gaudium

If Francis were a canon lawyer, on the other hand, he would sound a lot like Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, the canon lawyer at the heart of Francis’s reforms whom he recently tapped to head a new technical commission to study speeding up and simplifying the annulment procedure.

Of course, the synod could go in any direction, but it’s a fairly safe bet that where these two men point, the Church of Pope Francis is at least likely to consider following.

Archbishop Fernández yesterday

Archbishop Fernández yesterday

Fernández: torch, not lighthouse

Fernández embodies the pastoral focus of this reformed synod, a focus which hasn’t been so evident in Rome since the Second Vatican Council.

The synod fathers have suggested, he said yesterday, that the light of Gospel truth be seen less as a spotlight or lighthouse — which remain fixed — as a torch which is carried and moves among the people, and especially among the poor, the suffering, and the sinners.

Among them, the pastors learn as well as teach. The greatest lessons about marriage and family, he said, are learned from people who live the Gospel in the love and mercy they show to each other yet who may never have read a single church document.

Equally, he said, while “no one wants to weaken indissolubility, we want spouses to be faithful until death” he said it was necessary to “take risks to come alongside people.” There was suffering in particular situations, he said, which needs to be addressed.

Fernández went on to suggest that the distinction some have made between the doctrinal and the pastoral didn’t wash. “When we say it’s a pastoral synod that doesn’t mean we can’t deepen doctrine”, he said, “otherwise it would suggest that the pastoral is some kind of second-tier theology, that doesn’t involve thinking.”

They were there, he said, to develop the doctrine of the family: “if we simply teach what we’ve always said, the Church doesn’t grow”. He gave the example of slavery, which was for a long time doctrinally acceptable for the Church, yet pastoral ministry to slaves brought a different insight. Such growth in doctrine however “requires time and reflection,” he said.

A new ‘method’ 

Archbishop Durocher

Paul-André Durocher, Archbishop of Gatineau in Canada

Quebecois archbishop Paul-André Durocher, who accompanied Cardinal Coccopalmerio at the press conference today, made journalists sit up when he told them that there was a new theological method evident in the synod.

In the Church usually there is a deductive method, but in the synod we are trying a new inductive method. We’re learning to use the Harvard case study method in reflecting on peoples’ lives. This will take time for us to learn to do.

To the rediscovery of gradualism — one of the surprises of this synod — and the call for a new language of love and mercy rather than condemnation and precision, can be added this “inductive” method.

It’s an approach that says there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, for example, of the divorced and remarried, and that what the Church needs is greater flexibility in applying solutions tailored to particular cases.

Father Lombardi, Vatican spokesman

Father Lombardi, Vatican spokesman

Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, explained that there were basically two “lines” emerging at the synod: the pastoral approach, which doesn’t question indissolubility but seeks to learn from the actual situations lived by people, and discern how to deal best with them in their different situations; and another which argues that coherence of doctrine, clarity of approach and faithfulness to Jesus’s Word as the most important considerations.

(Although he’s not as hardline as, say, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who objects to both the Kasper solution and any attempt to widen access to annulments, one of the latter is the Australian cardinal, George Pell. As he put it at the Rome launch of Crux last night at the North-American College, “Some may wish Jesus might have been a little softer on divorce, but he wasn’t. And I’m sticking with him.”)

It’s no secret that there is this difference, said Fr Lombardi, who at the same time made clear that it wasn’t possible to say which approach had more support. Archbishop Durocher said it was impossible to know, because synod fathers only had the chance to address one topic in their prepared speeches, and most chose not to address the question of the divorced and remarried.

Pastoral focus dominates, but Kasper solution ‘unlikely’

Judging by the summaries of the interventions journalists are given, whatever the views of the synod on the specific issue of the divorced and remarried, the pastoral approach appears to be dominant. If nothing else, the synod is giving a wonderful example of how much pastors care for their flocks.

Cardinal Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts

It would be inaccurate, however, to associate the pastoral approach with Kasper’s specific proposal to admit the divorced and remarried back to Communion via a recognition of second and third unions, as happens in the Orthodox Church.

Cardinal Coccopalmerio, like Archbishop Fernaández, is squarely within the pastoral approach, but believes the Orthodox model would be incompatible with the traditional Catholic understanding of marriage. While saying it should be studied as a possibility, he said it was “very unlikely” that the Church would move in that direction, and it would be “difficult to imagine”.

He said he personally backed a solution based on what he called “the papal hermeneutic of upholding truth but attentive to particular needs of a person who find themselves in an urgent situation of difficulty and urgency.”

Coccopalmerio likened the approach to Jesus temporarily suspending the laws of the Sabbath in order to heal a person or rescue them from danger. He didn’t disrespect the Sabbath, but recognized the need sometimes to suspend it for the sake of a greater good or to avoid a serious harm.

In essence, he said there could never be a general rule admitting the divorced and remarried to Communion, but bishops could have the power to suspend it in certain cases.

He said he also favored reforming the annulment system to allow for an “administrative” rather than a “judicial” route. An administrative annulment would be administered by a bishop, rather than a tribunal. The bishop would have the power to declare a marriage null having carefully examined the case, and satisfied himself that it was null even though the hard legal evidence of that were absent.

Fr Tom Rosica

Fr Tom Rosica

Managing tensions

Tensions have clearly broken out in the past two days between the two lines identified by Father Lombardi. Father Tom Rosica, summarizing the speeches, said the discussion had been “animated’ and the synod fathers had “laid their cards on the table”.

But while media reports emphasize the clashes, participants say that while disagreements can be frank, the atmosphere inside the synod hall remains positive and cheerful.

synod day 2bArchbishop Fernández yesterday suggested that honest disagreement was all part of the process envisaged by Francis. Asked about the process behind the Aparecida document he told us:

Cardinal Bergoglio did not want to start from an initial text but for everyone to speak in complete freedom in the commissions, so that little by little you would forge a consensus. He used to say that if there wasn’t time to redact a document, that was too bad, but that’s the way we have to work. And so in those groups and commissions there was a very free discussion and texts would emerge from each of these commissions . Later there was very little time to put together the Aparecida [concluding] document, which is why it’s a bit of a mish-mash from the point of view of style. But the greatness of that document lies in the fact that it was the fruit of a genuine debate, of real discussions where consensus emerged little by little. If you ask me what light this sheds for understanding the Pope’s behavior today [in the synod], I’d say it’s quite possible that the Pope wouldn’t be too worried if this synod doesn’t produce anything extraordinary or if it isn’t greeted with great applause. Because he has always believed that time is greater than space, that the important things come about slowly, and that the important thing is to initiate processes rather than force decisions. And that these, at the right time, will produce good fruit.


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