Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, one of the five cardinal contributors to the book “Remaining in the Truth of Christ” that reasserted the Church’s teaching on marriage ahead of the Synods on the Family, is confident about the outcome of the synod and Pope Francis’ plans for decentralization.

In this Jan. 30 interview with the Register, the Italian cardinal, a renowned canon law scholar, gives reasons for his optimism but also stresses the importance of knowing the destination of the Church's journey, acknowledges that many faithful are confused, and asserts that the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) can only refer to practicing Catholics who do not dissent from the Church’s Magisterium.

Your Eminence, regarding the decentralization of the Church, the Pope has emphasised the importance of synodality and collegiality. Could you perhaps share with us what this new vision of a decentralized Church entails?

It is difficult to speak precisely about this because the discourses have only just been drafted, but part of the general vision is to involve the bishops more in the periphery, which is a fairly widespread desire and corresponds to the needs of today. But doctrinally, what would be new? We are a bit at the beginning. It is difficult to single out anything precise beyond this general concept.

Some have concerns about this, particularly regarding a possible weakening of doctrine, and fear it would lead to a quasi anarchical Church similar to the Anglicans. Are these concerns valid?

I wouldn’t say there are concerns because there aren’t the elements to be concerned about, to lament. There is the general will it seems to me, to involve the bishops’ conferences, the bishops, more. This tendency has been around for a while…. I believe the Pope wants to find a path that permits greater flexibility. As long as we remain in fidelity to the doctrine…

Does this nevertheless pose a danger for you?

I don’t know if you can say that it’s dangerous. Above all you can say, [it’s important] to properly determine the responsibility of these bishops’ conferences and local bishops. It can’t mean independence from the Pope because otherwise it wouldn’t be cum Petro et sub Petro [with Peter and under Peter], but it can’t be absolute autonomy either. That is, the responsibility of the last word, both disciplinary and doctrinal, has to always be with the principal chair, the Holy See, the See of Peter. This means that eventual relevant pastoral choices and even eventual tasks of particular legislation have to always be approved by the principal chair, the See of Peter. Otherwise we won’t be sub Petro. It means applying well this cum Petro e sub Petro. Everything relevant that happens in the dioceses, even if it is done by the local bishops, the bishops’ conferences, has always to have the ultimate approval of Rome, of the Pope.

If we have this principle, what is there to fear? Today, one speaks a lot of this doctrinal-pastoral aspect. I don’t believe this is dangerous. There was always a doctrine that then has to be reduced to practice — doctrine reduced to practice. But practice being an application of the doctrine can’t go against doctrine. A practice which would be contrary to the doctrine would be a negation of the doctrine. There is a certain fairly widespread fear that this practice may go against doctrine. But a practice which goes against doctrine, that is contrary to doctrine, I can’t imagine that it’s possible.

There’s the concern that Holy Communion could be given to divorced and remarried, which would make practice inconsistent with doctrine. Is this possible?

I don’t know. I read the document that came out of the synod, especially the paragraph numbers 84,85,86 of the Final Report of the Synod of Bishops, given to the Holy Father. They regulate it in a special way and specify the place of the divorced and remarried in the Church and their integration, as far as possible. These paragraphs should be read in their entirety. They may have potential for further clarification. For the moment, we can simply summarize the essential points.

At this point, the text is sufficiently clear it seems to me… The text continues saying that the pastoral practice, in this case, has to begin with the doctrine of the Church. The practice has to have as a basis the doctrine of John Paul II: "St. John Paul II offered overall criteria which remain the basis for the evaluation of these situations: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations.” And then it says: “It is therefore the task of pastors to accompany interested persons on the way of discernment in keeping with the teaching of the Church and the guidance of bishops.”

How can one use a practice which was denied by John Paul II? John Paul II explained, also in the heart of discernment, it is necessary to distinguish between innocent divorced people and non-innocent divorced people, such as it is. However, he has always said, as long as they are living together in an unmarried life, it is absolutely not possible to give the Eucharist. If it is in view of the public, the Eucharist should be refused. It is true also that it should all be according to the Magisterium of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop — all go together, Magisterium, doctrine, guidelines. The practice cannot go against the doctrine. The guidelines of the bishops cannot go against the guidelines of the Magisterium. The Pope has always repeated that the doctrine is not to be touched. If we want to make this affirmation concrete, we can’t have a pastoral care that is contrary to doctrine.  

Are you perhaps concerned about the ambiguous language in the Final Report?

I want to say that is also our problem, but the Pope himself has also said many times that he does not want to raise doctrinal questions. He wants to find a path. Only that, when I am walking a path then in fact I have to understand if I am in the right direction. When I walk a path, I have to understand if I am in accord with the law. When I walk a path, I have to understand if my steps are in accord with the truth. But one does not propose problems of principle at the beginning. They are raised while one is walking. When one is walking, one sees what one can do and what one cannot do.

Without doctrine we cannot walk a path. To walk a path one must always know if we are going towards the destination, and if our steps are the right ones, for reaching the destination. St. Thomas said, maybe I haven’t yet quoted St. Thomas, it is something very simple: “In life it is not important to run, it is important to go in the right direction.” For if someone runs in the wrong direction, on the wrong road, he distances himself even more from the destination. If one limps, as long as he is going in the right direction, he nears the destination. [So] I wouldn’t be concerned about this, I wouldn’t be sad about this.

Because the doctrine cannot fundamentally change?

For me it is a huge guarantee that the Pope has always affirmed that the doctrine is not to be touched. Then, if in the passage between doctrine and practice, some doubt arises, such a doubt seems to me to be possible.

What would therefore be an acceptable form of decentralization to you?

I think that when a new model is proposed, it should have as a model one which mirrors this principle which has always been proclaimed and the Pope has always proclaimed of cum Petro e sub Petro. It has to be always preserved. Even in the context of the autonomy of individual bishops and episcopal conferences, this has to always be preserved. There isn’t independence. There has to be the principle of unity, otherwise we will not be in the collegiality.

Everything has to be in conformity with Tradition?

The Tradition, exactly. We have a very rich doctrine in the Church which must be respected. …The Church, to express these truths of the faith, has to use reason. To express dogmas, do you know how many struggles the fathers of the first centuries had to endure to express the dogmas of the faith, the dogmas of the trinity and the incarnation, the principal mysteries of our faith? They had to work hard because it is necessary to express the dogmas in a rational way. The doctrine of the Church is presented in a rational way — rational, not in the sense of human rationality, but in the sense that they don’t go against rationality, they don’t contradict rational principles. The principle of non-contradiction holds also for the Church. There are these rational truths that we recognize the Church as having the power to define infallibly. When it defines them, it defines them infallibly. Then there are other truths which the Church presents normally as things common to all the episcopate, but about which it has not made a definitive declaration. These truths must be preserved. They must be held. They can be eventually modified only if and after they are shown not to have an adequate foundation or for well founded reasons. We cannot say that because they have not be defined they can be easily changed, especially if it is a doctrine and a truth that has been marked by the Magisterium of the Church for centuries. To change it, a strong reason has to be found. So could I don’t see how [doctrine on admitting remarried divorcees to the Sacraments] could be changed. To give communion to the divorced and remarried is a contradiction.

There is the problem that some bishops, particularly in Germany, want to change the pastoral practice in this area to allow access to the Sacraments for remarried divorcees. People are concerned if this is allowed to go ahead, it could lead to disastrous consequences. Are you concerned about this?

Now I speak according to my point of view. On this point, I cannot see how this could be possible. The introduction of such a practice should be subjected to approval by the competent authority, as per the principle cum Petro et sub Petro … to determine whether it is compatible or not with the teaching of the Magisterium and the Church's doctrine.

With regard to decentralization of the Church and other issues, there is some confusion among the faithful.

For the faithful there is truly a problem, but in general, it’s more to do with the means of communication. You cannot even say if it is their fault, or bad will. These journalists write on everything and everyone. Our Christian, Catholic faith has many subtleties of which it does not always seem they are aware. It is an easy [trap for them] to attribute consequences to certain affirmations which in themselves do not have those consequences.

Is there too much emphasis and trust in the sensus fidelium [sense of the faithful] especially when many are not catechized?

The sensus fidelium is important, but it is presupposed that they are fideles who practice the faith. And this is a serious problem. In the instrumentum laboris of the Synod on the Family, there were responses [from the laity] that didn’t conform to Catholic doctrine. The sensus fidelium is of practicing Catholics. They know there is a magisterium of popes and of bishops. If they dissent from the Magisterium of the Pope or also from the defined Magisterium, then you cannot say this is the sensus fidelium. They are baptized faithful who unfortunately are not conformed to the faith as they ought to be. The sensus fidelium implies the gift of the Spirit that leads the faithful to give their adherence to the Magisterium of the Church.