On the Way to a Troubled Synod

Cardinal Newman once remarked that anyone boarding the Barque of Peter shouldn’t look too closely at the engine room. Sometimes when there are storms brewing in the Vatican – as there are right now over the Synod on the Family (opening Sunday) – I’m reminded of the time prior to the Civil War. South Carolina repeatedly threatened to leave the Union, prompting James L. Petigru to warn: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” It seceded anyway. What it then became is still under dispute.

The Vatican is already an independent state, though more of a monarchy than a republic, with a special relationship to Italy. Whether this is a durable arrangement, only time will tell. The modern state is increasingly, ideologically, aggressively opposed to Catholic teaching and dedicated to eliminating it from the public square. We may see another Babylonian Captivity of a sort before some of us pass on to eternal judgment.

I’m less concerned about outside agitators like the mainstream media misunderstanding or even deliberately sowing discord, however. That’s an old story. The more worrisome development is how figures within the Church are clashing – important cardinals openly attacking one another, something not seen since Vatican II and over questions that all sides agree will only affect the tiny number of divorced and remarried Catholics who still think the Church important enough to want to receive Communion. It’s worth recalling how we got to this state of affairs in less than a year.

In January, in a remarkably condescending public comment, Cardinal Maradiaga (the pope’s hand-picked executive of his Advisory Council of Nine Cardinals) spoke of Cardinal Gerhard Müeller (the pope’s hand-picked head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) as some stiff Teutonic legalist as marriage questions were just peeping over the horizon.

The following month, the pope invited Cardinal Walter Kasper to present a keynote address on pastoral reform of Communion for the divorced and remarried, igniting a controversy still roiling the waters, only days before the Synod on the Family opens. Mueller and four other Cardinals have written essays being published in book form that defends ancient Catholic theory and practice.

After widespread rumors to the contrary, the Vatican press office says the Holy Father is not angry about the book. Which is certainly possible. But Kasper was certainly angry – and publicly charged several of the cardinal/authors with attacking the pope, with whom he claimed to be in perfect accord.

Just in the last week, the pope has appointed a Commission on annulments, etc., which will begin work “as soon as possible,” even though the Synod is supposed to examine that very thing, along with other questions.

        Bishops and cardinals at an earlier synod in Rome

Perhaps even more surprising, we’re hearing from some sources that though Cardinal Bergoglio came into the Vatican with no firm agenda, the hope now is that he may be able to re-ignite the “Spirit of Vatican II,” which he had known as a young priest in Argentina.

Like much else in the past year and a half in the Church, it’s hard to say what any of this means. To take only the last item, there’s nothing wrong with the Spirit of Vatican II – if what we mean is the Holy Spirit, present since Pentecost in preserving the Church in living unity with God in charity. But if, as some hope, that Spirit is some radically progressive current, what can only be called a spirit of division and hubris that thought itself superior to the whole prior history of the Church – a kind of uber-Protestantism that paradoxically insisted it was being more Catholic than the pope – then we are in for some troubled days indeed.

The most puzzling part of this whole development is whether the Holy Father has intended it or whether it’s gathering momentum beyond his efforts to control – something I’ve earlier written about as the “Spirit of Bergoglio.”

Sandro Magister, the steady Vatican observer, claims there are now ten Cardinals who have publicly opposed the “Kasper/Bergoglio position.” The opposition is clear. But can we say the pope backs the highly controversial proposals Kasper put forward, even though the pope praised him for what he termed his “theology done on one’s knees”?

After years of observing the Vatican, I can’t say – and that’s perhaps most worrisome of all. If there’s going to be a development in pastoral practice on such a heated question as divorced and remarried Catholics, we need a clear statement from the pope himself. Perhaps he wishes to let the debate proceed before rendering judgment. But in the meantime, his efforts to reduce confrontation with the culture and proclaim God’s forgiveness to those “on the periphery” seem to have led to open division – within the Church.

For these and several other reasons, I’ve decided to go to Rome for the second half of the Synod, because there are just some things it seems impossible to determine from this side of the Big Pond. Among other Vatican changes, the pope has appointed Chris Patten, a former head of the BBC and Chancellor of Oxford University to head a media advisory team. That’s a step in the right direction, but they’ve announced rather strict limits on what will be publicly released during the Synod – perhaps as a way to convey a disciplined message.

So I’ve decided it’s worth the trouble to do some interviews on my own and to track down information in Rome. I’ll be reporting daily – as we did for the Conclave and the recent canonizations – on what I find. We’ll start with some preliminary reporting from here during the first week of the Synod. Look for that commentary on this page.

And if you didn’t already do so yesterday – the American bishops designated yesterday as a day of prayer for the Synod – you might click here and call on higher powers to guide the bishops who will soon be gathering in Rome.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.