Contrary to all media speculations that the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops would create a “seismic shift” in Church teaching on human sexuality and marriage, 191 Catholic bishops from all over the world recently ended their two-week discussions at the Vatican without agreeing to any such change. This did not come without a fight, nor has the world heard the last word on it. But for now orthodoxy has prevailed.
Pope Francis convened the Synod on the first week of October to take a fresh look into the Church’s evangelizing mission concerning the family. The family is “the vital building –block of society and the ecclesial community.” The Synod has two stages: the Extraordinary General Assembly of Bishops in 2014, which would “define the ‘statusquestionis’ and collect the bishops’ experiences and proposals in proclaiming and living the Gospel of the family in a credible manner;” and the Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops in 2015, which would “seek working guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family.”
At the outset, a document entitled Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization spelled out the task of the Synod. This was read by the Relator General, Cardinal Peter Erdo, Archbishop of Esztergom, Budapest, before the assembly began its debates. It saw the family as “the last welcoming human reality in a world determined almost exclusively by finance and technology,” and hoped that “a new culture of the family can be the starting point of a renewed human civilization.”
The Pope encouraged everyone “to speak clearly;” “no one must say, ‘this can’t be said’,” he said. And some bishops responded by saying the most unorthodox things about homosexuals and marriage. Most notable among them was German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and author of a book on Mercy, which, according to Pope Francis, has helped him a lot.
Kasper has proposed that the Church revisit her teaching, which denies holy communion to Catholics living in an “invalid” marital union. In interviews with America magazine and the Catholic News Service in the US, La Nacion in Argentina, Salt and Light TV in Canada, and British journalist Edward Pentin, Kasper pressed on this proposal. Despite his unorthodox views, he was reported to claim the support of the Pope. His position drew sharp reactions from other bishops, including members of the Curia (the equivalent of the President’s Cabinet).
Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, who came to be known as the “standard-bearer of orthodoxy” at the Synod, was reported to have called Kasper’s views “scandalous and shameful.” And Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama engaged Kasper frontally. “We get international organizations, countries and groups which would like to entice us to deviate from our cultural practices, traditions and even our religious beliefs. And this is because of their belief that their views should be our view, their opinions and their concept of life should be ours too,” the Archbishop said.
Kasper responded by saying, “The Africans should not tell us too much what we have to do. Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asia and Muslims countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo.”
When opinion within the Synod ratcheted sharply against him, Kasper tried to deny ever having made his statement about Africa. Whereupon British journalist Pentin played a tape recording of his interview, prompting the cardinal to issue an apology. The truth, however, is that Kasper had long advocated changes in Church teaching on marriage.
In 1993, as a bishop in Germany, he issued a pastoral letter advocating communion for the divorced and the civilly remarried. However, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), as prefect of the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith, rejected the pastoral letter in no uncertain terms.
This did not affect the theologian’s rise within the Church though. In 1999, Saint Pope John Paul II named Kasper secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity; then cardinal and prefect of the same dicastery one year later. Upon the death of St. John Paul II, he lost his position by law together with all the other members of the Curia; but Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict XVI reconfirmed him in the same position later.
The real shock at the Synod came when the interim report (the relatio post disceptationem) appeared, with the following paragraphs:
“45. Divorced people who have not remarried should be invited to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life. The local community and pastors ought to accompany these people with solicitude, particularly when children are involved or when in serious financial difficulty.”
“50. Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing […] them […] a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?…
“52. Without denying the moral problems associated with homosexual unions, there are instances where mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice is a valuable support in the life of these persons. Furthermore the Church pays special attention to […] children who live with same-sex couples and stresses that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.”
The inclusion of these paragraphs was a great surprise to a good number of bishops. Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, said the document was “undignified and shameful.” Cardinal-Archbishop Wilfred Napier of Durban, South Africa said, “The message is out, but it is not a true message.” Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council for Cor Unum, said, “The Church has never judged homosexual persons, but homosexual behavior and homosexual unions are grave deviations of sexuality.” Australian Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the economic secretariat, said, “We are not giving in to the secular agenda; we’re not collapsing in a heap.”
But it took some sharp questioning by journalists in a news conference to reveal that the language on homosexuals emanated solely from the secretariat rather than from any of the 191 bishops. The press conference was presided over by Cardinal-Archbishop Peter Erdo, the relator general, who spoke in Italian; Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati Andrello, the archbishop of Santiago, Chile, who spoke in Spanish; Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, who spoke in English; and Archbishop Bruno Forte, of Chieti-Vasto, central Italy, the Synod’s special secretary, who also spoke in Italian. Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., Director of the Vatican Press Office, assisted.
The first explosive question on the homosexuality issue came from American Catholic Michael Voris of Church Militant TV who asked: “Are the Synod fathers proposing that there is something innate in the ‘gifts and qualities’ flowing from the sexual orientation of homosexuality? Is the Synod proposing that there is something innate in the sexual orientation that transcends and uplifts the Catholic Church, the Christian community and if so, what would those particular gifts be?”
Forte, the Synod special secretary, answered, but it did not seem to convince the journalists: “I guess what I want to express is that we must respect the dignity of every person and the fact that to be homosexual does not mean that this dignity must not be recognized and promoted. I think this is the most important point, and also the attitude of the Church to welcome persons who have homosexual orientation is based on the dignity of the person they are.”
No one asked who originally introduced the language on homosexuals into the document. But one hour, six minutes and 15 seconds into the press conference, as one Vatican insider records it, the panel of four archbishops was asked: “Does paragraph 52 (as quoted above) signify a shift in the Church’s attitude toward homosexuals and their acceptance in society?”
Father Lombardi gestured to Cardinal Erdo to answer the question. But the relator general declined. And smiling, he instead gestured toward Forte with an audible aside in Italian, “Quello che ha redatto il brano deve sapere cosa significa”—“He who drafted the passage ought to know what it means.” Ultimately, Forte went back to his point on “the dignity of the human person,” but failed to explain why the secretariat inserted such language. Whatever his answer, the cat was already out of the bag, and could no longer be recalled: it was not majority of the Synod fathers who wanted to change the Church teaching on homosexuals but some flaming liberals within the Church.
The Synod rejected the language on homosexuals by a resounding majority vote, and in the final report replaced it with the language of the Catechism, which is that the Church regards homosexuals with respect and sensitivity, but finds no basis whatsoever in comparing same-sex unions and marriage between man and woman. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and one of the “papabile” during the last conclave, said the Church welcomes homosexuals without approving them. “Like Christ with the adulteress, his response is to welcome her and then he tells her not to sin again.”
Still, despite the rejection of the proposal on homosexuals, Kasper claimed in a subsequent interview with the German newspaper Die Welt that majority are in favor of his ideas. What the “gifted” theologian seems to forget is that his proposal lost not only because the numbers were against it but above all because the proposal contradicts the truth of the Faith. What he advocates is wrong not because the Church says it is wrong; rather the Church is against it because it is wrong.
The Catholic faithful have one year until October next year to manifest renewed support for Catholic doctrine as the Church teaches it, or to shift support in favor of the new orthodoxy being proposed by Kasper and his kind. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has so clearly put it, certain things are either always right or always wrong, and this is what every majority must always respect. As a predominantly Catholic Christian nation, the Philippines can only pray that while the next Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod may not be able to turn stones into bread, to borrow the Pope’s mellifluous language, it will not turn bread into stone.