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...from and about Synod 2015

An Interview with Cardinal Pell

Cardinal George Pell (b. 1941) was educated at the Pontifical Urban University and Oxford University, where he earned the doctorate in history after being ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Balarat. After extensive pastoral work in his native Australia, he was named auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, and later Archbishop of Melbourne, before being appointed Archbishop of Sydney in 2001. Created cardinal by Pope St. John Paul II in 2003, he was called to Rome by Pope Francis in 2014 to serve as the first Prefect of the new Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See, in which post he has overseen the reform of Vatican finance.

His answers to questions posed by LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD follow.

Your Eminence, you’ve been attending synods for decades. How does Synod-2015 differ from its predecessors?

It differs in several ways, and some of them are both quite innovative and quite good.

I vividly remember the 1990 Synod on the priesthood and priestly formation (which eventually gave the Church Pastores Dabo Vobis), where there was much talk in the press about celibacy, not least because many of the press covering that synod were laicized priests. One Synod father said to me, “If the next Synod is on agricultural science, most of the discussion, at least as reported, will have been on clerical celibacy.”

This Synod is what you might call a bit more spicy. It’s unlike the 2008 Synod on the Word of God, where there was widespread agreement from the beginning and a ringing affirmation of the teaching of Dei Verbum [Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] on the centrality of Scripture in Catholic life.

There’s a good atmosphere this time, although there are still significant differences on whether the Church is authorized to admit the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion. The indissolubility of marriage has been massively endorsed. And when it comes down to it, I don’t think too many Synod fathers are going to want to be on the other side from Jesus on indissolubility or on the other side from St. Paul on the conditions for worthily receiving Holy Communion.

You’ve expressed concern that the Holy Father’s views are being misrepresented by some who actually have no idea what his views are. Would you amplify that a bit?

The Western press in general presents Pope Francis through a particular prism that tends to filter out important elements of his message. The Holy Father talks frequently about spiritual struggle, as a devoted follower of St. Ignatius Loyola would do. He has spoken more about Satan than any pope in living memory. He has clearly condemned abortion on many occasions, and he has said that the “door is closed” to the ordination of women to the priesthood. But because it’s difficult for a lot of the media to reconcile all of this with the image they’ve created of the Pope as a non-judgmental social reformer, these essential parts of his message tend to disappear.

The Pope wants to put Christ and friendship with him at the center of the Church. The Pope is calling the Church to be a Church that offers the world conversion, and the gift of faith, so that the world can know God’s mercy. He’s very keen on open discussion, the aim of which is to help us discern what the Holy Spirit is doing in the Church today. These are all central themes in the pontificate.

But to say that any of this amounts to a desire on the Pope’s part to change the doctrine on the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and civilly remarried is many steps too far.

Who among the Synod fathers seem to you to be driving the discussion, and why?

Cardinal Peter Erdő’s opening relatio was an outstanding exposition of the authentic Catholic tradition on chastity, marriage, and the family. It was both sensitive and merciful in addressing the confusions of the age; he usefully distinguished between short-term mercy and long-term mercy, the latter being what actually heals wounded souls. And he made it entirely clear that the Church’s practice of not admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion is not a penalty for the failures of the first marriage, but the Church’s recognition of the consequences of the second marriage.

The interventions by Archbishop Charles Chaput and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo have been very fine. Cardinal Carlo Caffarra was, as always, impressively clear. Cardinal Robert Sarah’s intervention, in which he spoke of the two beasts of the apocalypse, was striking. And I confess I found Cardinal Kasper a bit disappointing. The announcement that the entire Polish episcopate was strongly committed to the defense of the Church’s tradition on sexuality, marriage, and family moved the discussion beyond the world of theory and theology. The position of the African bishops and of the bishops from the formerly communist countries in Europe should be reassuring to the Catholic world.

Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin, the relator of the German-language discussion group, made a substantial contribution to the general discussion with his reports, but these failed to engage systematically with the hard teachings of Christ on the most contentious issues.

What do you anticipate from Synod-2015’s third and final week?

We want brief and clear teaching on the nature of marriage, Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and the location of teaching authority in the Church, so that any confusion that may have arisen on these points is dissipated, and it’s made clear to the world that Christ’s teaching, and the Church’s teaching, on marriage and sexuality are intact. At the same time, we are seeking new ways to reach out with that teaching in a world in which a lot of people are suffering, and in which marriage and the family are under attack and in some places dissolving. A list of best-practice, pastoral examples from around the world of helps to family living would be useful.

I welcome the public commitment of Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri [the Synod’s general secretary] to a paragraph-by-paragraph vote on the draft Synod final document, which will help us achieve that clarity, just as I welcome the drafting committee’s assurance that they will take full account of the Synod fathers’ views in preparing that draft.

...being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers

Doubts About Devolution – V

Summing Up the Case Against “Local-Option Catholicism”

Over the past week, Synod-2015 has discussed the proposal that authority over certain pastoral practices, including the possibility of admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion, be devolved to national or regional conferences of bishops. That discussion will undoubtedly continue next week as the Synod’s circuli minores conclude their work and submit their proposals to the commission drafting the Synod’s final report.

The case for devolution is both theological and practical. The theological argument is that Vatican II’s teaching on episcopal collegiality, and its affirmation of national bishops conferences, at least implied that these bodies have some sort of teaching authority, a case allegedly bolstered by the claim that the universal Church is formed from the local churches. The practical argument is that the wide variety of cultural and social circumstances throughout the world Church demands a devolution of authority over pastoral practice in order to facilitate the distinctive pastoral “accompaniment” appropriate to local circumstances.

The case against devolution, which I’ve explored at some length here in the past several issues of LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD, can be summarized in the following bullet-points:

  • The clear teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ on the indissolubility of marriage, and the clear teaching of St. Paul on the conditions for worthy reception of Holy Communion, are the solid, permanent foundation on which the contemporary Magisterium of the Church—in one encyclical, two apostolic exhortations, and several authoritative statements by dicasteries of the Roman Curia—has taught that doctrine and pastoral practice are intrinsically and inextricably linked in this question of admitting the divorced and civilly-remarried to Holy Communion. Thus this cannot be treated as a merely “disciplinary” matter that might be susceptible to some form of local-option diversity. It simply isn’t.

  •  It defies theo-logic (and would in fact radically deconstruct the Church’s sacramental theology and theology of grace) to suggest, as local-option proponents seem to do, that what is sacrilege in one part of the world Church (Poland, for example) is a font of grace in another part of the world Church (Germany, for example).

  •  The Catholic Church is not a federation of local churches. Rather, local churches are distinctive expressions of the abiding presence of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, the one source of the Church’s mission.

  •  The teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the collegiality of bishops did not anticipate or imply the claim that national or regional conferences of bishops exercise some form of teaching authority “in between” that of the Pope and local bishops—a point further underscored by the 1998 apostolic letter, Apostolos Suos.

  •  The modern history of “national Catholicism”— Febronianism in the German-speaking world, Gallicanism in France, and similar theories of how local churches are effectively independent of the Holy See—is not a happy precedent on which to draw in support of Local-Option Catholicism. The experience of feuding patriarchates in the Church of the first millennium, and the deleterious impact of that sad history on Church life, is another unhappy precedent.

  • The radical contingency of national borders makes such borders a very weak delineator of the sphere of teaching competence of a body of bishops.

  • Thanks to the communications and transportation revolutions, the Catholic Church of the twenty-first century has, for the first time in two millennia, a real opportunity to live its universality or catholicity existentially, not just theoretically; the mutual exchange of gifts among local churches that is possible today will be impeded, however, by diversity on those matters of pastoral practice that have a thick and undetachable doctrinal content.

  •  Pastoral practice inevitably shapes belief. A failure of pastoral nerve and a deficit in evangelical fervor have led to slack practice and the deconstruction of the faith in large parts of western Europe. Yet these are precisely the parts of the world Church urging local-option Catholicism. By what right? On the basis of what success?

  • At the end of the Synod’s second week, this local-option proposal seemed to be the fallback position of those who had once championed the “Kasper Proposal” on the admission of the divorced and civilly-remarried to Holy Communion, but who now realize that the Kasper Proposal is only favored by a distinct minority within Synod-2015. A lot of what the Church and the world learn from Synod-2015 will be determined by the resolution of this debate over the possibility of Local-Option Catholicism. Clarity would seem to be essential here; whether it is achieved is one of the great tests remaining for Synod-2015.

—George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Center

What Would Aquinas Say?

The second report from Synod-2015’s German-language discussion group, issued this past Wednesday, begins, entirely appropriately, with God, in whom justice and mercy are one. Then the trouble begins. For when this indubitable truth about God is then applied to the questions before the Synod, subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) oddities, which the less-charitable might call intellectual subterfuges, quickly creep into the presentation.

Thus the report argues that, because justice and mercy are one in God, the Church’s pastoral practice should not use “a one-sided, deductive hermeneutic, which subsumes concrete situations under a general principle.” But what does this opaque phrase mean? Is it being suggested that general principles cannot be applied mechanically to particular cases. If so, who could disagree? In this context, however, it’s not difficult to see that another claim is being made: that some concrete situations can’t “fit” under the general principle.

And the implication? That in the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried, or of those experiencing same-sex attraction, the Church’s teaching stands over against, and perhaps even in tension with, the concrete good of this individual. Or as the report has it, “Pastoral care is required that is directed at the person, and that includes the normativity of the Church’s teaching and the personhood of the human being in equal measure” [emphasis added]. But doesn’t this reduce Christ’s teaching about what is truly good for us to “one important factor” in pastoral care, the “other factor” being the concrete situation of this particular person, which, it’s not-so-subtly suggested, classic Catholic moral teaching doesn’t adequately address? Everyone understands that dialectic plays a considerable role in German thought; but might this not be a dialectic-too-far?

The German-speaking group’s report then quotes St. Thomas Aquinas on the virtue of prudence, as if the “Common Doctor” would agree with the approach just sketched. But if the German circulus would read a little further in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, they’d discover this: “Prudence includes knowledge both of universals, and of the singular matters of action to which prudence applies the universal principles” [emphasis added] (1). St. Thomas’s point is that prudence is precisely the virtue that rightly guides the individual to put the universal principle into action in his life. In fact, some might argue that the “law of graduality” being advocated by various Synod fathers veers dangerously close to what Aquinas called the vices of counterfeit prudence: “craftiness,” which prescribes morally illicit means to obtain a desired end, and “inattentiveness,” where one does not listen to (or even rejects) the Divine Law out of a love for creaturely goods, which could include a desire for human honor, or an excessive respect for persons (2).

Thomas Aquinas also teaches us that some actions are always and everywhere wrong, because they’re incompatible with the life of sanctifying grace. Thus he cites adultery as an example of an act that has “an intrinsic moral deformity, and can never be rightly done” (3). Which is to say, adultery is always and objectively a mortal sin (4). And one who is guilty of mortal sin aggravates his guilt if he receives the Eucharist without first repenting (5). For an unrepentant grave sinner, Aquinas says, receiving the Eucharist is spiritual poison, not spiritual medicine. (6) Like all truly Catholic theologians, Aquinas understands that the sacraments do not work magically: if a person will not repent of grave sin, not even the sacrament of Penance can confer sanctifying grace, because there is an obstacle to grace in person’s will (7).

Thus from St. Thomas’s perspective, some of the proposals being bruited at Synod-2015 run the grave risk of spiritually sterilizing the reception the sacraments and further damaging the spiritual life of those the Church eagerly wants to help, because the implementation of these proposals would reinforce wounded souls in ways of life that impede the possibility of sacramental grace working within them. The embrace of the mercy and truth of God requires both those offering pastoral care, and those receiving it, to take serious account of the general norms of the Gospel in each particular case. Holding truth and mercy together is what enables the Church to mediate the gift of salvation to the world.

So: the German-language group’s report is quite right that, in facing the many serious issues at Synod-2015, we should pay more attention to St. Thomas Aquinas: but let’s make it Aquinas in full.

The German report’s statement about gradualness in the pastoral accompaniment of persons “from informal relationships to unmarried cohabiting couples to couples married by the state up to ecclesially valid, sacramental marriage” also deserves a word here. Cohabitation and dissoluble civil marriage may bear some surface-level resemblance to true marriage. But the sexual union of those couples has a very different character than the marital act between spouses who have made a permanent commitment to each other and created an indissoluble bond. Like the reception of Holy Communion in a state of grave sin, there is a something dishonest, something false, built into sex outside of true marriage. The act itself means “I give myself to you totally and permanently;” but for couples who are not validly married, that total and irrevocable gift is precisely what they’ve not yet made, regardless of what their relationship seems to be. While the Church certainly affirms the desire of unmarried couples for a full union of love, and ardently wants to help those couples make a definitive commitment to each other, the Church should never suggest that there can be some sort of morally good or even morally neutral “quasi-marriage” without the commitment that makes marriage marriage. The unambiguous acknowledgment of moral and spiritual truth is essential to authentic pastoral care that helps sinners, which we all are, to grow step-by-step into authentic, vibrant, joyful life in Christ.


References in the text

(1) Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 47, a. 15.
(2) Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 53, a. 1 & q. 55, a. 3.
(3) Quaestiones Quodlibetales IX, q. 7, a. 2.
(4) Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 154, a. 8.
(5) Summa Theologiae III, q. 80, a. 4.
(6) In I Cor. c. 11, lect. 7.
(7) Summa Theologiae III, q. 86, a. 2.


...for the Synod and the Church to hear

One Apostle, Two Doctors of the Church:

A Text, a Commentary, and a Homily

The Text: 1 Corinthians 11:27-30

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

The Commentary: St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on 1 Cor. 11:27-30

Someone is called “unworthy,” from the fact that he approaches the Eucharist with the intention of sinning mortally. . . . Someone is understood to have a blemish of sin as long as he persists in the intention of sinning, which, however, is taken away through penitence: that is, by contrition, which takes away the will to sin with the intention of confession, . . . and by confession and satisfaction. . . .

But someone might argue that those in mortal sin do not approach this sacrament unworthily, [as follows]: “In this sacrament Christ is received, and He is the spiritual physician, who says of Himself in Matthew (9:12): ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but the sick do.’”

To answer this argument . . . it is necessary to consider how one who receives this sacrament unworthily is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. . . .

Something good, received in the wrong way, causes injury. . . So [St. Paul says,] because one who receives this sacrament unworthily incurs so much guilt, a man must first examine himself, that is, he must carefully examine his conscience, lest there be in it the intention to sin mortally [in the future,] or some past [mortal] sin for which he has not sufficiently repented. And so, secure after a careful examination, let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup, because for those who receive worthily, it is not poison but medicine.

The Homily: St.John Chrysostom, Homilies on Isaiah, 6

If you look at the dignity of the offering, it is far beyond the touch of the seraphim, whereas if you consider the loving kindness of the Lord, he is not ashamed to come down on the offering by his grace towards our lowliness. Pondering this, therefore, mortal that you are, and considering the greatness of the gift, rise up, part company with the earth and ascend to heaven. . . .

This is the reason why I too raise my voice, I beseech, beg and implore that no one draw near to this sacred table with a sullied and corrupt conscience. Such an act, in fact, can never be called “communion,” . . . but “condemnation,” “torment” and “increase of punishment.” So let no sinner approach the table—or, rather, I do not say, “No sinner,” since I would be the first to be excluded from the divine table; instead, let no one continuing in sin approach. . . .

Let us therefore repent, let us weep, let us lament. Frequently when someone loses a daughter, they spend much of their life grieving and lamenting: for our part, do we lose our soul and not lament? Do we forfeit salvation and not bewail it? . . . .

Paul cries out in the words, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, becoming a curse for us.” Shall we, therefore, I ask you, provoke him? How would this not be worse than hell itself, the undying worm, the unquenchable fire? . . . I realize the words are biting—but what am I to do? Were I not to apply harsh remedies, you would not bear the pain.

This letter is part of an ongoing series, the entirety of which can be found here.

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