In his first interview to a Latin-American newspaper — the one he used to subscribe to, Argentina’s La Nación — Pope Francis has given his view of October’s synod, defending it as a protected space in which brother bishops could seek answers to difficult pastoral questions. He also responded to criticisms of the process and outlined his vision of what the synod is seeking to achieve.
Francis rejected the idea of the synod as divided between those open to discussion and those opposed to it, but agreed that “there were some more on one side or more on the other”. He said the synod wasn’t a parliamentary debate, but “an enclosed, protected space which allowed the Holy Spirit to work”. He said two qualities above all were needed: “courage to speak up, and the humility to listen. And that happened very well.” There were differences, he said, but “on the level of searching for the truth”. True, he went on, there were some who were very obstinate, “but that doesn’t worry me. It’s question of praying for the Spirit to convert them.”
He went on:
What I felt happened [at the synod] was a fraternal search for how to confront pastoral problems in the family. The family is nowadays so badly beaten up; young people don’t get married. What’s going on? When they eventually come to get married, they’re already living together, and we think that giving them three talks is enough to prepare them for marriage. But it’s not, because the overwhelming majority have no idea what it means to commit for life. Benedict twice said it in his final year: we have to bear in mind what faith the person had when they got married in assessing marriage annulments. If it was a general faith, did they properly understand what marriage was, sufficiently to entrust it to another? This is something we must study in depth and work out how better to help people.
Francis said that a few days earlier a cohabiting couple had told him they were going to get married. He described their obsession with decisions about the church, the guest list, and where to hold the reception, but neither had spoken about what the decision meant in their lives. “For a large number of people,” the Pope said, “getting married is a social matter. The religious part never takes off. So, how can the Church help in this? If they are not prepared for marriage, do we just close our doors? This is a serious problem.”
Asked about opposition to the synod, Francis said it was a process in which one synod father’s opinion was just an opinion, and the draft of the synod report was just that — a draft. He said no one spoke of gay marriage, but rather how a family dealt with a gay son or daughter, which was an issue that came up often in the confessional. “We have to see how we can help that father or that mother to walk with that son or daughter — that’s what we discussed in the synod.”
What people believed from some reports and what actually happened were two different things, Francis went on. “What was the important part of the synod? The post-synodal report, the post-synodal message, and the Pope’s speech. This is what definitively emerged from the synod, although these in turn become relative and provisional as they become the lineamenta [discussion document] for the next synod.”
The Pope also defended the synod’s communications methodology, noting that the synod fathers had complete freedom to say whatever they wanted to the media. But unlike previous synods, the participants’ speeches were not given to the journalists; instead, the Press Office gave summaries to journalists of the content of the speeches, but not who said them. This was for two reasons, Francis said. First, because at previous synods what journalists were given was not necessarily what was actually said by the participants; secondly, to protect the person speaking.
And this for me is the most important thing. Because if this were a parliament, [the synod father] would be accountable to whom they were representing, namely, the local Church. But this isn’t a parliament; so this man has complete liberty to express what is going on inside him, without anyone knowing that it was he who said it.
This, he said, was “to protect this work, and so the Holy Spirit can move ahead.”
Francis said he was “not afraid” of following what he called “the path of synodality”, which he described as “the path that God is asking of us”. What is more, he said, the Pope’s presence was its guarantee.
At no point was the Church’s doctrine on marriage ever touched, the Pope added.
In the case of the divorced and remarried we asked: what can we do for them, what door can we open to them? It was a pastoral concern. So should they be given Communion? That’s not a solution; that alone is not a solution. The solution is integration. They are not excommunicated, it’s true. But they cannot be godparents at a baptism, they can’t be readers at Mass, they can’t be eucharistic ministers, they can’t be catechists — there are about seven things they can’t do; I have the list somewhere. Come on! If I carry on like this it would soon look as if they were excommunicated in practice. So let’s open the doors a bit more.
Asking why the divorced and remarried cannot be godparents, Francis said that a couple who said, “I made a mistake, I messed up on this, but I believe that the Lord loves me, I want to follow God, I was not defeated by sin, I want to move on” gave a powerful testimony. Was there “anything more Christian than that?” the Pope asked.
Asked about Cardinal Walter Kasper’s speech to the consistory of cardinals in February, Pope Francis said the speech was in five parts, four of which were concerned with the purpose of marriage and the fifth with the question of what to do with the divorced and remarried.
He advanced a hypothesis; he did not make any concrete proposal of his own. What happened? Some theologians were alarmed by these hypotheses and buried their heads in the sand. What Kasper did was to say: “Let’s look at these hypotheses”, that is, he opened up the field. And some got alarmed and said: never Communion, only of the spiritual sort. Tell me: Do we not have to be in a state of God’s grace to receive spiritual communion? That’s why the spiritual communion passage got the fewest votes in the synod’s concluding report, because neither side agreed with it. Those who were in favour, because it offered very little, voted against it, as did those who are against it because they want the other.
In another part of the interview, Pope Francis said he was surprised by criticism that the synod, and his pontificate generally, had created confusion. “Generally, it’s because [the critics] don’t read things. “I’m continually issuing declarations and saying homilies, and that’s teaching. What is there is what I think, not what the media say I think. Go there and you’ll find it and it’s very clear. Evangelii Gaudium is very clear.”
The enthusiastic reception of his speech following the synod showed that “the problem was not the Pope, but the different pastoral positions” of the synod fathers.
[Translations my own. Austen Ivereigh’s biography of Pope Francis, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, is published in the UK by Allen & Unwin.]