|Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah,
one of the leading opponents of Cardinal Kasper’s proposals
The Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which began on October 5, ended yesterday. The Synod was, to put it mildly, a bumpy ride. A group of bishops, lead by the German Cardinal Walter Kasper, vocally pushed for some revolutionary changes to the Church’s teachings on marriage, divorce, and homosexuality. These “doctrinal backflips” (to use Australian Cardinal Pell’s phrase) were quickly, and rightly, opposed by the other bishops.
When those seeking to change the Church’s teachings failed in open debate, they shifted to different tactics. When the African bishops stood up for the Church’s teachings, Kasper pushed for their views to be discarded, suggesting that they “should not tell us too much what we have to do.”
The other approach was to simply play to the press, instead. In the relatio post disceptationem (which are essentially the “minutes” of the Synod, summarizing the discussion up to that point), they included misleading and inaccurate language that suggested that the bishops wanted the Church to change her position on these issues. This relatio was then released to the press before the bishops had a chance to read it. This, quite predictably, turned into a media firestorm about all the doctrinal changes just around the corner! Turns out, the bishops didn’t actually hold to these positions, and they quickly denounced the relatio.
The pope, meanwhile, stayed silent throughout. Cardinal Kasper used this silence to claim the pope’s tacit support, and without the pope speaking up to contradict this assessment, many Catholics (on both sides) assumed that Pope Francis was in Kasper’s revolutionary camp. This led to heterodox rejoicing and orthodox despair.
Of course, there was always an alternative explanation: that the pope wasn’t speaking because he was listening. During the Synod, in response to a commenter who claimed the pope’s silence signified his approval of a heretical agenda, I suggested:
It seems to me that Pope Francis is surveying the available options, trying to figure out what in the world we can do for the messy pastoral situations that we find ourselves in with millions of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. His role even during the Synod itself, has been primarily one of quietly listening to the bishops speaking. If he were trying to push some sort of heretical agenda, I would expect him to take a more dominant role (at least behind closed doors at the Synod itself).
After all, the purpose of synods is to give the bishops a chance to assist the Holy Father in an advisory capacity:
Can. 342 The synod of Bishops is a group of Bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops. These Bishops, by their counsel, assist the Roman Pontiff in the defence and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the mission of the Church in the world.Can. 343 The function of the synod of Bishops is to discuss the matters proposed to it and set forth recommendations. It is not its function to settle matters or to draw up decrees, unless the Roman Pontiff has given it deliberative power in certain cases; in this event, it rests with the Roman Pontiff to ratify the decisions of the synod.
In other words, Pope Francis sat quietly while he let the Synod do its job: the bishops offered their counsel (both good and ill) for the problems facing the Church.
But this still left the question open: what did the pope think of all this? At the close of the Synod, Pope Francis finally ended his silence, quickly dispelling all that premature jubilation and despair. The pope, it turns out, is Catholic.
After the perfunctory thank yous, Francis described how the Synod had been a journey, full of consolations, but “also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations.” He then listed five particular “temptations” to be avoided:
Félix Joseph Barrias, The Temptation of Christ by the Devil (1860)
– One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
– The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
– The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
– The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
– The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…
Dear brothers and sisters, the temptations must not frighten or disconcert us, or even discourage us, because no disciple is greater than his master; so if Jesus Himself was tempted – and even called Beelzebul (cf. Mt 12:24) – His disciples should not expect better treatment.
In other words, we must reject two extremes. One approach would be to simply recite the Catechism answer in a merciless and detached way, that risks reducing the faith to something merely academic, truth without charity. The other extreme is to reject the truth in favor of what people want to hear on these “hard teachings” (cf. John 6:60), which Pope Francis calls “a deceptive mercy” (ahem). It tries to have charity without truth, but ends up with neither.
This second extreme is the Kasper camp, and Francis is presenting his positions as temptations that the Church must avoid. That’s not quite the papal support Kasper was claiming. But Francis doesn’t just tell us what to reject. He also reminds us what to affirm, including “the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48).”
Having clarified his views on the hot-button issues facing the Synod, Francis then outlines his vision of the Church and of the papacy. In my view, his description of the Church is one of the highlights of his papacy to date:
And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy.
This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.
The is the Church, our Mother! And when the Church, in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err: it is the beauty and the strength of the sensus fidei, of that supernatural sense of the faith which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that, together, we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our life. And this should never be seen as a source of confusion and discord.
It’s with that vision of the Church that we can see why we should reject the two extremes earlier: the view that sort of pushes the broken sinner out the way, and the view that condones and confirms the broken sinner in his sinning. Both of those positions are betrayals of the Church’s true call.
When Christ encounters the adulterous woman, He saves her from being stoned, and tells her (John 8:11), “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” The perennial temptation is to cut off half of that radical message: either to condemn the woman, or to stay silent, instead of loving her and calling her to sin no more.
And what’s the Holy Father’s own role in all this?
Lorenzo Lotto, Christ and the Adulteress (1528)
So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: [rather] to go out and find them.
His duty is to remind everyone that authority in the Church is a service, as Pope Benedict XVI clearly explained, with words I cite verbatim: “The Church is called and commits herself to exercise this kind of authority which is service and exercises it not in her own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ… through the Pastors of the Church, in fact: it is he who guides, protects and corrects them, because he loves them deeply. But the Lord Jesus, the supreme Shepherd of our souls, has willed that the Apostolic College, today the Bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter… to participate in his mission of taking care of God’s People, of educating them in the faith and of guiding, inspiring and sustaining the Christian community, [….]
So, the Church is Christ’s – she is His bride – and all the bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter, have the task and the duty of guarding her and serving her, not as masters but as servants. The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” (Can. 749) and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (cf. Cann. 331-334).
I can’t resist adding a post-script, of sorts. This morning, at the beatification of Blessed Paul VI, Pope Francis passed right in front of me, and I got the chance to shout out Tu es Petrus (you are Peter, the words Jesus spoke to Simon Peter in Matthew 16:18 in establishing the Church). It’s a phrase used often in the history of the Church, both to remind us of the Apostolic succession running from St. Peter to Pope Francis through the end of time, and to remind the pope of his calling and mission: