Interview with Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, on his appraisal of the Synod.
It’s Monday afternoon, October 21st. The first of the two Synods on the family finished yesterday, and a few hours ago the Consistory requested by the Pope on Middle Eastern Christians also came to a close. We walk up to the fourth floor of one of the buildings that form a wing off Pius XII Square, just off Saint Peter’s. Waiting to greet us is one of the most expert Cardinals when it comes to the topic of canon law. It is 76-year-old Francesco Coccopalmerio, who since 2007 has headed the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. Ordained by Giovanni Battista Montini (Pope Paul VI) and consecrated bishop by Carlo Maria Martini, this clergyman of central and northern Italian origins was made a cardinal in 2012. He is also a member of the commission created by Pope Francis last August 27th for streamlining the procedure for marriage annulments. A smiling person who always measures his words with care, he was glad to answer all of our questions on some delicate aspects of the just-concluded Synod.
Your Eminence, did this Synod, in the way it was carried out and in its conclusion, correspond with your expectations?
Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio: I’d say essentially yes, even though, personally, I was expecting something more.
Let me say that I felt very much involved in the Pope’s concern for responding to the expectations of many people who are suffering through problems connected to their relationships. This concern was certainly reflected in the work of the Synod, in the way that widespread sensitivity to these problems emerged. Still, I personally expected more from those who showed that they simply wanted to reaffirm the doctrine…
What does this observation mean, exactly?
We have both doctrine and people to consider. Let’s consider a very problematic topic, extremely current: the topic of homosexual couples. If I meet a same-sex couple, I observe right away that their relationship is illicit: that is what the doctrine says, and I reaffirm that with absolute certainty. Nevertheless, if I stop at doctrine, I don’t see the people anymore. But if I observe that two people really do love each other, say they practice charity towards the needy… then I can also say that, while their relation remains illicit, in those two people there emerge positive elements. Instead of closing my eyes to those positive aspects, I want to underline them. It is a matter of being objective and recognizing, objectively, the positive points in a given relationship, that is illicit in itself.
I believe that part of the Synod reasoned in this way…
Yes, a part of the participants had this perspective. Another part, perhaps, was afraid that if we value the positive elements, there would be a risk of weakening the doctrine, in the sense that the illicit nature of the relation might take secondary importance. Such a conclusion is, at the least, problematic.
The “conservative” Synod Fathers played a key role especially in the Synod’s second week, as can be seen through the profound changes that were made in the Relatio post disceptationem, the report that came out halfway through… It is enough to read Number 55 from the Relatio Synodi on “pastoral attention towards people with homosexual orientation,” a number that largely rewrites the three numbers dedicated to this topic from Relatio post disceptationem… Before moving on to the “Remarried-divorced” topic, let’s make one more stop, this time at Number 56, in which it is affirmed that “it is completely unacceptable that the Shepherds of the Church should be subjected to pressure in this area” (editor’s note: that which regards recognition of “homosexual unions”) much as it is unacceptable that international organizations put pressure on poor countries, to introduce laws in this area “as a condition for financial aid.” Well, no fewer than 21 Synod Fathers voted against this point (159 were in favor.) How do you think the “non placet” [disapproval] of those 21 voters can be explained, concerning a text that illustrates undeniable reality?
Yes, it seems strange to me, too. I wouldn’t know how to explain the reasons behind it at the moment: they are hard to pinpoint.
Let’s discuss the topic of marriage annulment. Relatio Synodi states that “a large number of Fathers underlined the need for making annulment procedures more accessible and streamlined, perhaps completely free of charge.” Does this mean that a large majority of the Synod Fathers, to try and solve the problem of “remarried divorcees,” prefer an acceleration and simplification of procedures that recognize a marriage’s non-validity?
Someone said that the “problem” would be eliminated were many apparent marriages declared “null”… In the meantime, let’s remind readers of the difference between a declaration of invalidity and an annulment. If we are talking about a marriage that was celebrated and consummated, the Church doesn’t have the power to annul it. The Church declares a marriage invalid if, from the start, that marriage didn’t exist, due to substantial differences that objectively rendered it that way. To streamline the procedure, the Pope has created an ad hoc Commission, of which I am a member, which has just begun working. The basic question that needs to be answered is whether a marriage is valid or not. Through witnesses, proof that can be documented, even by means of physical evaluations if necessary, we can manage to reconstruct the reality of a given case. Sometimes these procedures are long and taxing, and now there is a desire to streamline them. We must never forget, however, that these procedures, even heavily streamlined, must always manage to establish the reality concerning what took place, and that means that they must establish whether a marriage is null or not. This means that they need to be as accurate as possible. And accuracy is not always synonymous with speed.
Your Eminence, in reading Number 52 of Relatio Synodi, we find that “various Synod Fathers insisted on maintaining the current discipline,” “others desired a non-generalized reception at the Eucharistic table, in certain particular situations and under precise conditions.” In the same Number we read that “the matter must still be examined more in depth.” The Relatio post disceptationem seems to show a variety of points of view on the subject… Most of all: what does “in certain particular situations” mean?
Let’s take this case: A husband is abandoned by his wife. There are also three children, still small. A woman goes to live with this man; she helps him, raises his three kids. Ten years go by, their union is solid. If this woman were to come to me for Communion, say, during her father’s funeral Mass, or the day of one of the children’s Confirmation, what should I do? Deny It to her, since she is in an illicit situation and in letting her go to Communion I would also be committing an illicit act, as I would be indirectly recognizing that that man’s marriage wasn’t indissoluble? Or, while recognizing the non-legitimate nature of that situation, how could I ask that woman – in admitting her to Communion – to abandon the man and his three children? What would become of that man? What would become of those kids? In that case, realistically, it wouldn’t be possible to manage an non-legitimate situation without causing even more suffering and pain. So, would it really be totally impossible to admit her to Communion? In admitting her to Communion, would I be going against the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage? I really don’t think so: in fact, this has to do with a case of exception.
Some of the Synod Fathers, when justifying the need to admit people to Communion in particular cases, cited Jesus…
Yes, when Jesus (Lk 14:5) described a situation that can occur even on the Sabbath: if on that day your son or your ox falls into a well, what should you do? Do you leave them in there, because on the Sabbath day you can’t do any labor? In that case you would be respecting the Sabbath, but you would be letting your son or your ox die! If instead you do all you can to pull your son or your ox out of the well, are you going against the Sabbath law? Of course not, given the seriousness and the urgency of saving the life of your son or your ox.
A question: who decides that a case is particular?
The bishop of the diocese, certainly, in a case such as the hypothetical one I described.
Another question: what will become of the uniformity of treatment, since it is certain that some bishops will be more rigid and others more malleable…
Some disparity may arise. But I feel that, eventually, a fairly generalized practice will take shape.
Number 52 shows that there were 104 in favor and 74 against. How can so large a group of “non placet” be explained?
I wondered about that, too. It is a bit strange. Number 52 does not take any one side; it illustrates a situation with honesty, describing the arguments in favor and against, and it concludes indicating the necessity of more in-depth analysis. The contrary vote, the most massive one of the whole Relatio Synodi, was — maybe — a product of fear that one of the two positions might prevail.
Your Eminence, a year from now the second Synod on the family will be held, with wider participation. Any predictions?
I have always wished I could see the future. Unfortunately I don’t have the ability. I will only say that if we keep on confronting each other with frank debates, even lively ones (as happened in several Circuli minores) but ones characterized by a spirit of listening to others’ reasoning, then we will all come to a good understanding. The Pope is the authority which guarantees orthodoxy. And in any case, I am sure that the Holy Spirit continues to fill the Holy Church, our minds and our hearts, flooding them with light and serenity.