VATICAN CITY — At this year’s synod on the family, Archbishop Charles Chaput might be dubbed “The Shepherd of Truth.”
Over the course of the three-week gathering of bishops from around the world, the Philadelphia archbishop has garnered attention for his unswerving commitment to speaking with clarity about the key issues in play and for insisting that any outcome from the synod must not compromise important Church teachings.
In an Oct. 22 email interview with the Register, Archbishop Chaput again remained true to his synodal form, discussing frankly the overall positive atmosphere of this year’s synod, while at the same time not glossing over the tough issues that have arisen and that remain in play, two days before the synod fathers vote on the content of the synod’s final document.
As the synod draws to a close, what’s your view of the how it progressed?
It’s not finished, so I can’t offer a final opinion. Overall, it was a very good, very fraternal experience. It was a lot friendlier inside the synod than people on the outside seemed to think. There were some serious issues and differences among the synod fathers — the nature of conscience and the problem of Communion for the divorced and remarried, among others. How those matters resolve themselves will shape how the synod is judged.
The process is new. It had some glitches and ambiguities. Translations have been a problem. I think many synod fathers would want the final drafting commission to be elected, not just appointed, in the future.
But so far, the experience has been very positive, and I suspect the final document will be a great deal better than the original working text.
A lot of media attention focused on the question of reception of Communion for the divorced-remarried, and the German small-group report proposed that this issue could be addressed through the “internal forum.” What exactly does this mean, and do you see this proposal as a way to move the discussion forward without compromising Church teachings?
To oversimplify, it amounts to shifting the decision about receiving Communion down to the individual divorced-and-remarried person, with the counsel of a priest. This sounds like a merciful solution, but it’s a very imprudent idea. If the “internal forum” approach — which appears nowhere in canon law or Church teaching — can be used for divorce and remarriage, why not for contraception, abortion or a dozen other hard issues? It creates many more problems than it tries to fix.
Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge indicated that support might be present among the synod fathers for another idea promoted by the German bishops, that regional and national bishops’ conferences should be allowed to adopt varying local practices with respect to issues like reception of Communion for divorced-remarried couples. Has there been any discussion of this?
Again, in the view of many synod fathers, this isn’t a good idea. We’re living in a confused age. The last thing we need is disunity in sacramental practice. There’s good and bad decentralization. Fragmentation of practice on matters of substance isn’t the good kind. It inevitably leads to fragmentation of belief.
Pope Francis laid out a vision of synodality in his address on Saturday. What were the key points of his remarks, in your assessment?
The Holy Father said pretty much what his predecessors also taught. He used some new language and ideas. He had a different structure to his comments. But he didn’t say anything radical. I know some people were delighted, and others upset, by what they thought he said about a new ecclesiology. I think they misread his content.
Do you feel this year’s synod has been an expression of the Holy Father’s vision?
In a general way, yes. Between the vision, the design and the execution, a lot can happen. The Holy Father wanted a frank and respectful discussion of difficult issues, and he got that. Personally, I hoped for a lot more focus in the original text on helping average Catholic families, encouraging large families and acknowledging the joys and responsibilities of raising children. Children are the future. The absence of children-related issues from much of the discussion surprised me. Other matters shaped the conversations.
But again, and this is important: The final text is likely to be much improved from the instrumentum laboris.
Another significant discussion has been over the need to find new language to communicate the truth and positive elements of Church teachings, especially with respect to hot-button issues like the indissolubility of marriage and homosexuality. At the same time, you and other synod fathers have highlighted the need for clarity of language, when discussing matters that might have the potential to compromise important Church doctrines or give rise to other problems. Could you discuss this issue of searching for new and more effective pastoral language?
George Orwell wrote a great essay many years ago — “Politics and the English Language” — about the inverse relationship of complex language to clarity and truth. The more inflated the language, the warier we need to be about what the words actually mean and what they deliberately muddy up. When bishops speak, we need to be as simple and clear as the content of our teaching allows. And we need to be honest; not evasive and not ambiguous. Obviously, our words need to be shaped by charity, prudence and respect for persons — but also by truth. That’s the biggest gift Christians can offer the world. There’s no real mercy without truth.
It remains unclear what the final outcome will be from this year’s synod, in terms of an official teaching document and about whether the discussion on some of the disputed issues should continue in other forums after the synod concludes. Can you provide any additional clarity about this?
I’m sure the Holy Father will answer that very well, in due course. This Pope is a wonderful pastor, and we can trust in his judgment and leadership.
Obviously, there has been a lot of media attention on the differences of opinion among synod fathers, and during the synod, you have not tried to downplay the reality of the existence of such differences. At the same time, there seems to have been a great deal of agreement on most other matters. What do you think will be the most important takeaways for you as a bishop when you return home, in terms of your own pastoral ministry within your diocese and for the Church as a whole?
Bringing bishops together makes no sense unless you want them to speak frankly. And candor is something Pope Francis has welcomed — which I find very healthy. The Church could use a lot more of it at every level: honest discussion, always ruled by charity and respect. And those last two words — charity and respect — need to be more than just pious language that gives us some cover while we destroy people whose ideas we don’t like. There’s already too much of that in ecclesial life. It was obvious in the media coverage of the synod.
The key lesson we need to learn is very local and personal. We need to behave like the Christians we claim to be — people who belong to Jesus Christ; people of love and truth; not tomorrow, but right here and right now. If we can do that, we’ll be talking about very different things after the next synod.
Tom McFeely is the Register’s news editor.