Very soon, perhaps on March 19, Pope Francis is expected to publish a document on the family as his conclusion to the work of the two bishops’ Synods on the Family in 2014 and 2015
As he approaches the third year of his pontificate, Pope Francis faces his greatest decision yet. It is a decision, many believe, which will largely define his papacy. Not surprisingly, the debate leading up to it has grown dramatic and intense — pushing the boundaries of civil and theological discourse in the Church.
We speak, of course, of the Holy Father’s upcoming Apostolic Exhortation on the recent Synod on the Family, conducted in Rome during two sessions (in October of 2014, and again in October of 2015).
The Synod itself shook the Church. Not since Vatican II has there been so much acrimony, accusation and mischief surrounding a single Church gathering. (For an excellent primer on the controversy surrounding the first session — which was far more unsettled than the second — see The Rigging of the Vatican Synod: An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family by Edward Pentin, a book endorsed by Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, a top Synod official and appointee of Pope Francis).
Part of this turmoil is due to the nature of such events, which are bound to witness differing views and clashing personalities — as anyone who studies the history of the Church knows. But the passions the Synod gave rise to were not due to these factors alone; they were also generated — for better or for worse — by Pope Francis himself.
At the opening of the Synod, in 2014, Pope Francis had encouraged lively and frank debate: “One general and basic condition is this: speaking honestly,” he said. “Let no one say ‘I cannot say this [because] they will think this or this of me’… After the last Consistory in which the family was discussed, a cardinal wrote to me, saying, what a shame that several cardinals did not have the courage to say certain things out of respect for the Pope, perhaps believing that the Pope will think something else. This is not good… because it is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say, without polite deference, without hesitation. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and welcome, with an open heart, what your brothers say.”
All of this sounded fair-minded and conscientious — and it was, to the extent the debate would proceed within the boundaries of orthodoxy. But as the faithful soon found out, many prelates took liberties with the Pope’s invitation, and began proposing, not just new pastoral strategies, but ideas and practices that violated Catholic teaching itself.
Among them was the belief that Catholics who had divorced and remarried without ever having received an annulment, and thus still considered married in the eyes of the Church, could receive Holy Communion — even if they were committing adultery, as the Church would hold. Another idea was that unmarried couples living in sin, whether heterosexual or homosexual, should be “welcomed” without reproach — and even praised for carrying special “gifts.”
To say these ideas contradicted Christianity, and would sanction behavior the Gospel — and the Catholic Catechism — condemn, and might lead souls to hell, would be an understatement.
They would also assault the spiritual works of mercy, among which are to instruct the ignorant and admonish sinners.
Fortunately, as we know from the Synod’s final 2015 report, the indissolubility of marriage and Catholic teaching were upheld by the majority of bishops; no mention was made of Communion for the divorced and remarried, and Catholic teaching on sexual morality was affirmed, not weakened.
Though some theologians and cardinals believe the document could have been even better had it explicitly stated Communion for the divorced and remarried was absolutely forbidden, as St. John Paul II had done in Familiaris Consortio, the final document did state that any pastoral approach toward the divorced and remarried had to be implemented “according to the teaching of the Church,” which, defenders maintained, was the equivalent of reaffirming John Paul’s teaching.
But even if the final document had been pitch-perfect — or much worse, as many had feared — it would not have any binding power on Catholics, for Synods are only advisory and consultative bodies. Authoritative, magisterial teaching must come from the Pope himself, and this is why Francis’ forthcoming Apostolic Exhortation on the Synod — rumored to be expected on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph — is being awaited with such anticipation. What he says therein will be authoritative papal teaching.
Before issuing his own exhortation, one would have thought, or hoped, that the Pope might have provided clear and specific instructions to the Synod regarding what he wanted the bishops to say. But for reasons only Francis knows, he decided to remain largely passive, allowing the bishops to fight the Synod’s searing debates out themselves, leaving many to wonder whether the Pope intends to re-affirm Catholic teaching in his Apostolic Exhortation, or propose something radically different.
Consequently, now is the most important moment of Francis’ papacy: it is the Pope’s moment of truth.
One early clue regarding what the Pope might say, according to papal observers, was provided by Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica (the Jesuit journal in Rome), and someone said to be close to the pontiff.
Last November, shortly after the Synod ended, Fr. Spadaro wrote an article for La Civiltà claiming that the Synod had “laid the foundations” for civilly remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion. After it appeared, a number of prominent Catholic commentators assumed it was previewing what Pope Francis had in mind for his Apostolic Exhortation. But these speculations led to immediate and strong rebuttals by eminent Catholic scholars, who argued that Fr. Spadaro had seriously misrepresented the Synod’s final report, and, more importantly, that Spadaro did not speak for the Pope, however “friendly” their relationship might be as fellow Jesuits.
As the debate continued, Vatican reporter John Allen outlined the four options Francis has, as he writes his Apostolic Exhortation:
“1. A clear ‘yes’ to Communion for the divorced and remarried, even if it would require some discernment in individual cases.
“2. A clear ‘no,’ while stressing that divorced and civilly remarried believers remain part of the Church and can participate in its life in various ways.
“3. A call for more study and reflection, saying that the time isn’t right to make a decision.
“4. Decentralizing the question to some extent by offering broad guidelines and then encouraging local bishops to make decisions.”
Elaborating on that fourth option— which has become popular among dissenters searching for more subtle ways to violate Catholic teaching — Allen continued: “Francis could provide greater scope for what is known as an ‘internal forum’ solution, which basically means that pastors and bishops could work with people in a second relationship to reach a private decision in conscience that they meet the requirements for Communion, even if they don’t fully meet the requirements in Familiaris Consortio.” (Emphasis added)
Orthodox Catholic theologians and faithful Catholics are surprised — not to say scandalized — that these questions are even being asked, for in their judgment, this is an easy call for Francis. He really has only one legitimate choice, as the Vicar of Christ, and that is to proceed with option number 2: to clearly reaffirm settled Catholic teaching as is, uphold the ban of Communion for the divorced and remarried — unless they receive a proper annulment, or refrain from sexual relations — while treating everyone with compassion, encouraging them to participate in the Church as far as Catholic teaching permits.
If Francis does anything less — if he is seen as giving ground, delays his decision, or grants discretion to local clergy to create their own solutions for those in irregular relations — it will not only destabilize Francis’ papacy but gravely injure the authority and unity of the Church — until a new Pope arrives to repair the damage. That is the worst-case scenario.
Fortunately, just as we approach the Pope’s moment of truth, there are signs that Francis will avoid such a calamity, vindicate Catholic teaching, and confound his critics.
In January, Francis delivered an address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s official Court, which was as unexpected as it was powerful. Categorically rejecting the idea that the Church needs to sacrifice truth for mercy, Francis declared: “The Church, in fact, can show the indefectible merciful love of God to families, in particular to those wounded by sin and by the trials of life and, at the same time, proclaim the inalienable truth of marriage according to God’s plan” (emphasis added).
He then endorsed the Synod’s support for Tradition by stating that “the synodal sessions on the subject of the family, which the Lord granted us to carry out in the last two years… indicated to the world that there cannot be confusion between the family willed by God and all other types of union” [e.g., homosexual “marriage” or civil unions, and/or heterosexuals living outside of marriage].
Francis then told the bishops, “When the Church, through your service, decides to declare the truth about marriage in a concrete case, for the good of the faithful, she has present at the same time those who by free choice and unhappy circumstances of life, live in an objective state of error, but continue to be the object of the merciful love of Christ and therefore of the Church Herself. The family, founded on the indissoluble, unitive and procreative marriage, belongs to God’s ‘dream’ and that of His Church for the salvation of humanity.”
After clarifying the Church’s new norms for annulments and emphasizing that they must never be used to weaken the authentic marital bond, the Pope declared that “errors” regarding “the sacredness of marriage” needed to be approached with a “renewed sense of responsibility,” concluding: “The Church continues to propose marriage in its essential elements — offspring, the good of the spouses, unity, indissolubility, sacredness — not as an ideal for a few, despite modern models centered on the ephemeral and the transitory, but as a reality that, with the grace of Christ, can be lived by all the baptized faithful” (emphasis added).
And therefore, the Pope concluded, “there is greater reason” and “pastoral urgency” to better prepare Catholic couples for marriage, lest they fail to truly understand and appreciate it and live up to its teachings, which derive from the will of Christ.
No sooner had Francis completed his address than many Vatican commentators went into overdrive, revising and even completely changing their opinions about his pontificate and upcoming Apostolic Exhortation. One writer for the Catholic Herald noted joyously that it was a speech that could have been delivered by St. John Paul II, or Pope Emeritus Benedict — who, for all we know, may have served as an advisor for it.
Whatever compelled Francis to deliver his superb address to the Roman Rota, it quickly became “the papal speech heard round the world,” and sent a strong signal, at least to many, that there would be no dramatic changes proposed in Francis’ upcoming Apostolic Exhortation — quite the contrary.
Francis’ statements that the Church’s teachings on marriage are not impossible ideals which only a heroic few can live up to, were seen as a clear rebuke to Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has said that living up to the Church’s teachings on marriage is a “heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian.” Cardinal Kasper could not be more wrong — and the Pope could not be more right — for the Gospel teaches that “God is faithful” and will never burden us with any situation we cannot endure (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Pope Francis understands — as dissenters do not — that God will lift us up in our moment of need, if only we trust in Christ and follow His lead, for Our Lord Himself declared: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matthew 11: 28-30).
As we move forward, the stakes could not be higher for the leaders of our Church, not to mention religious and ordinary Catholics. Matthew 24 warns of a time of great confusion of such a dimension that it will confuse even the elect. More than ever, uncompromising clarity and precision are required from the Holy Father and the bishops in union with him.
Since the Holy See has proclaimed this a Year of Mercy, Francis and the bishops could begin by reclaiming the authentic meaning of that beautiful word, mercy.
Secular society, as well as dissenters within the Church, specialize in altering the fundamental meanings of words — particularly those that relate to the truths of the faith. How they have dealt with the word “mercy” is a case in point. The traditional meaning of mercy is that God eagerly desires to forgive, but that repentance of the sinner, and a firm willingness to change one’s sinful ways, is required to allow that divine forgiveness to proceed. Now, however, the word “mercy” has purposely been watered down by those trying to justify illicit ways of living. So they argue that divine laws and settled Catholic teachings are outdated, and militate against the freedom of “liberated” people, who should be allowed to act according to their (very generous) “conscience.” Of course, their idea of “conscience” never appears to be formed in light of Catholic teaching, but only in light of their own whims — allowing them to do whatever they please, and then convince compromising pastors to justify them, in the name of Christian “mercy.”
It cannot be emphasized enough how the meanings of Christian words have been hijacked by the devil, resulting in a poisoned environment. In this crisis, it is the strict duty of the Vicar of Christ to speak clearly and unequivocally, for the benefit of souls. For as the saints remind us, when it comes to the essentials of our faith, “ambiguity is a form of betrayal,” and faithful Catholics must have nothing to do with it. As we await the Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation, let us pray for Francis, that he have the wisdom and courage, guided by the Holy Spirit, to sustain the beauty and full integrity of Catholic teaching, so that he will inspire and strengthen the faithful everywhere.
Do Editorial “Maneuvers” Make Tagle a Leading Papal Candidate?
Since the March 2013 conclave which elected the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Pope Francis, many Vatican observers have been watching for signs of possible candidates to succeed him at some future time. In this context, the traditionalist website Rorate Caeli has just published an interesting analysis by a priest who wishes to remain anonymous, who calls himself Father Pio Pace. Father Pace argues that the candidacy of one cardinal is now becoming ever more likely. That cardinal is Luis Antonio Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila in the Philippines. Here are excerpts from the analysis. —The Editor
By Father Pio Pace (a pseudonym)
Today, when, in the ecclesiastical milieux opposed to the Bergoglian establishment, the “candidacy” of Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, is mentioned, the subject is barely worthy of attention. And yet, great editorial maneuvers have started with him!
Vaticanist Cindy Wooden, who directs Catholic News Service (in Rome) has published his biography, Luis Antonio Tagle: Leading by Listening (Liturgical Press, 2015).
Qualified as a “Cardinal of the Poor,” a man who listens, a man of dialogue, he is presented as being on the cutting edge of the new evangelization. The book is being translated into several languages, including French. In Italy, always on the same theme of “the man of evangelization” and “the poor,” yet another book on Cardinal Tagle is to appear, Dio non dimentica i poveri. La mia vita, la mia lotta, le mie speranze (“God Does Not Forget the Poor: My Life, My Struggle, My Hopes”) [Editrice Missionaria Italiana].
Tagle, an intelligent man… young (not yet 59), staunchly liberal, is the ideal character to solidify the hopes of all those who do not wish the pontificate of Pope Francis to be a simple parenthesis.
In a previous article on February 9, 2015, we wrote here that this son of the Manila upper class had obtained his university degrees in the United States (on the theme of episcopal collegiality), and had taken part in the works of the team that had supervised the monumental History of Vatican II, edited by the ultra-progressive School of Bologna (Giuseppe Alberigo and Alberto Melloni). He had as his mentor Father Catalino Arevalo, Filipino Jesuit, who was acknowledged by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences as the “Father of Asian Theology,” a local version of liberation theology… An enthusiastic elector of Pope Francis in 2013, he met him again at the time of his apostolic voyage to the Philippines in January 2015. Francis placed him in front of him, to the point that numerous journalists started treating him as the “heir”…
A co-president of the two last assemblies of the Synod of Bishops, in 2014 and 2015, he had made himself known, at a press conference at the Holy Office Press Office, by these words: “In this Synod, the Spirit of Vatican II has made itself manifest in the Fathers.” In her book, Cindy Wooden presents the Cardinal of Manila as a man of the future, one of the great future pastors of the Church.
What St. Charles Borromeo was for the Council of Trent, Luis Antonio Tagle would be for Vatican II: the example of a new way of governing in the Church…
—from Rorate Caeli