During last fall’s synod on the family, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier served as one of the five co-presidents of the gathering, which was convened to consider how the Church can better assist Catholic families. And he has a simple yet powerful message for married Catholics wondering how they can follow the Church’s message on marriage in today’s challenging context: Live it!
In a wide-ranging interview last week with Register correspondent Sophia Feingold in Washington, the South-African cardinal touched on a number of hot-button current Church issues, including German Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to allow reception of Communion by some divorced-remarried couples, synodality and collegiality, racial tensions and Pope Francis’ recent comments about the use of the contraception in the context of the Zika virus.
The largest single focus of the interview, though, was about the vocation to marriage and the positive ways that the Church can accomplish its mission of strengthening sacramental marriage in contemporary culture.
Let me begin by asking: What can the Western Church learn from the Church in Africa and vice versa?
I could speak about what we have learned from you. But in terms of what the West could learn from Africa, I would say a few things. The first thing would be strong relationships between the priest and the laity. They are closer in Africa and much more real in Africa than it would be in some other parts of the world. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the priest very often has a number of outstations, communities that he has to visit, and in many cases, he only visits them once a month. So the priests of necessity have to have laypeople who are trained to run those communities in the meantime, and that means that there’s a good interflow of information and formation that takes place between the priest and those communities.
The second thing I think that the Church in Europe could look at — I look at the arguments going on in the West, and especially around the Church, around Pope Francis at the moment, the niggling things that people are looking at: Doctrinal expressions are not accurate; they’re not right. In Africa, we’d be saying, “Man, we’ve just got to try to survive, and we need God to guide us how to survive, how to become better persons.” So the urgency of engaging with God is much more closely felt in Africa than it would be in the West.
Racial tensions are still a problem in the United States — manifested most recently in the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the social and political discussions that has created. Especially given your experience in Africa in the 1990s, what would you say the Church in the U.S. can learn about reconciliation from the experience of the Church in South Africa?
I was going to say maybe the question could be put the other way around: “What can we in South Africa learn from the experience of the Church in the United States?” But I think it’s a process. What we have been able to do is to concentrate all of our efforts on the community-building aspect of the pastoral plan that I spoke about yesterday [at a talk at The Catholic University of America]: “Community Serving Humanity.” And that certainly is a virtue that we’ve developed: how to work at making people feel that they are members of the same community, even though they come from very different racial, cultural and even religious backgrounds. I think that’s one of the things we could certainly pass on here.
Ironically, when we were doing that in the archdiocese where I am now, my predecessor sent a team of people to Rhode Island, where they were running a program called Renew. Renew was a faith-sharing program where a parish would be broken up into small units, and those units would meet weekly to reflect on material that was supplied; and the whole thing was about making the faith real in people’s lives. Now, in order to implement the pastoral plan, Archbishop Denis Hurley sent this team of six or seven people to come here, learn about Renew, and then go back and implement it; and it spread from one diocese to another diocese. And the essence of Renew was a laity that is engaged with clergy in plotting the way forward to a much more active, much more engaged faith. It’s ironic that while we were trying to implement our own thing there, this Renew was imported. And it really did work wonders. Other programs then used the small Christian community model of church as a way of giving communities a sense of being built up. Because you mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that racial tensions are only between blacks and whites. It’s within the black community as well; there are certain tensions there. They might not be racial, they may be tribal or linguistic, but in all cases, we were trying to do the same thing: to get them to accept each other as brothers and sisters, and the equalizer would be our faith in Christ.
Pivoting to the synod, but keeping with the theme of Africa and the West: One of the things that some have suggested in the context of certain proposals, such as those by Cardinal Kasper, is that while doctrinally the Western Church and the Church in developing countries are the same, there need to be differences in praxis — for example, about Communion for the divorced and remarried. Is this possible; is this advisable, or no?
When that debate was going on, in fact when Cardinal Kasper made his initial proposal, it was at a meeting called by Pope Francis to feel the way forward, in a joint venture by the College of Cardinals, the College of Bishops, as a way of reforming and renewing the Church. And marriage was seen as the main thing, because marriage forms the family, and the family is the basis of society and the Church. So when Cardinal Kasper presented that first — made that first presentation — it was very well argued about how marriage is indissoluble, it’s one, and it’s supposed to be fruitful, and so on and so forth. Those major qualities were quite well emphasized.
Then when it came to divorce and remarriage, the breakdown of the marriage relationship, he used an image that is very interesting: Marriage is like a ship that has gone on the rocks, or in difficulty in stormy waters. What do you do when a marriage gets into difficulties? You launch lifeboats to rescue people from the peril that they are in. I thought it was a very good image: that what we’re looking for, therefore, is a lifeboat that’s going to rescue these people in this marriage that has been wrecked. And he didn’t go as far as to say that the lifeboat means allowing them to receive holy Communion. But he used that image, and I thought it was a very good image; and I’ve been reflecting on it myself.
When we get to the point of [marriage and Communion]: Well, if marriage is the same, and the same demands are there for marriage and for access to the Eucharist throughout the entire Church, then how can you say that a different praxis would suit us in a different situation here? Because [Africa’s] first question would then be, “Okay, you have a different situation, you have marriages in irregular situations in Europe; you want the Church to allow them to come to the sacraments in that irregular situation. Can you help us with how we are going to handle irregular situations in Africa? For instance, if a man marries a wife, he says he’s just taking the one wife; but the culture is there for a second and a third wife — now what happens if he’s a Catholic? He enters into an irregular situation, where he’s got two wives at the same time, whereas in the European Church, you have a successive [situation]. So how’s your praxis going to be different from ours when the situation is the same? The essential meaning of marriage has been violated in both cases.”
And I think that’s where the crux of the problem lies. What I would say is this: We do have our strong points, and in the West they have their strong points. They have a long philosophy and theology of marriage; we would have the strong culture and community that upholds marriages — so we do have those two [different] things. But I don’t see that as Christians, as Catholics, we can actually come up and have two different praxes that actually are contradicting the basics, as we have understood them up to now: And, that is, to be able to receive Communion, you have to be in the state of grace. If you’re in a second marriage relationship, it’s doubtful whether you are.
Turning to the synod itself, what did it accomplish, and what didn’t happen? What did it leave to be done?
I think the first thing it accomplished was laying the problems on the table quite openly and honestly. … There certainly was an openness and a frankness that one hasn’t heard very often before in the Vatican. So, for me, that was the first thing that the synod accomplished.
The second thing that the synod accomplished was — and that was the 2015 synod — to identify very clearly how marriage looks from Christ’s point of view and how we must try to see marriage through that perspective ourselves. You go right back to the basics, when Christ says, “This is not the way it was from the beginning.” That clear definition of marriage, bringing the Old Testament in, but also reinforcing it with Christ’s words, was one of the things [the synod emphasized]. And people needed to hear that. There was a lot of confusion [that arose] out of some of the things that came out in the second week of the first synod.
The third thing that I think came out of [the second synod] was that we need to define marriage as a vocation — not an institution or a contract or a covenant — we’ve got to see it as a vocation. And then, as with other vocations, you have to develop it; you have to form people into that vocation. Marriage preparation shouldn’t just be preparing for the wedding day; it should be a whole process of formation — how do you enter into a relationship? How do you keep that? How do you raise the level of that relationship? That was the third thing that I think the synod really did: [It emphasized] the necessity of good marriage preparation.
And the fourth one was that, while we’ve helped people enter the marriage state, we need to accompany them [afterward], especially in the first years of marriage — that’s when real and serious adjustments have to be made. First of all, living together with somebody you haven’t lived with before is quite an adjustment. And you get a child coming in the middle between you — well, how do you situate; what happens to the relationship then? And so accompanying couples is one of the key things that also came out of the synod.
A fifth one would be: how to deal with problem situations in families or in marriages — a child-headed household, a single-parent household, same-sex unions, kids who are mixed up, and so on — how do you deal with those? I think those are some of the things that got clarified at the synod. We were certainly not there to resolve them, because the topic of the second synod was the vocation and the mission of the family, not about how to resolve problems in the family.
So I saw a lot of positives that came out of the synod, and I’m looking forward to reading what Pope Francis is going to come up with [in his exhortation], because I think he’s going to emphasize many, if not all, of those points which I’ve identified.
So you expect that?
I do. I do expect that. Anyway, whether it comes or not, we are already trying to implement [these points] in our diocese.
You spoke a bit on synodality and collegiality yesterday afternoon. Are there limits to them? Is there a point at which the conversations simply don’t work out or a point at which you stop talking and you listen to the Pope?
I think both. I think we’ve got both. We’ve got the point where, on certain issues, the Pope is going to have to say, “This is where it goes, and that’s it; and I need you to come support me on it.” And I think that’s got to happen. How the Pope goes about that is another question altogether. He can do it by decree or he can do it — as Pope Francis certainly favors — by frequent meetings where issues are tossed around, and then he will go off and make a decision about it. He knows more or less the feeling of his College of Bishops; but I think it would be a mistake if the college were coming out on a particular position, and he went in another direction. I think that would undermine the whole concept of collegiality.
What I like about Pope Francis — and I think this is one of the things that certainly has come up very strongly — is his emphasis on listening. He calls it listening, but, actually, I would say “consult”; and consult seriously, so that people know that their views are being weighed up. They may not always accept them or follow them, but they’re being weighed up all the time; and I think that’s one of the key things for both collegiality and synodality.
How are we to understand Pope Francis’ recent comments about using contraception to avoid the Zika virus? Is this similar to Pope Benedict speaking about using condoms in the context of AIDS in Africa?
Well, I think, first of all, one would need to make a very clear distinction. I just read an article this morning that was not so much what Pope Francis said; it was what a doctor said explaining what Pope Francis said.
[Furthermore], the first point that she made was, when you talk about contraception generally, you’re talking about a relationship between people who agree to enter it, and if they don’t want to have a child, they use contraceptives. In the case of rape, for example, it’s a different situation. And that seems to be one possible way in which the question was given [to Pope Francis: comparing the Zika virus to when] nuns in the Congo were given oral contraceptives so they wouldn’t have babies if they were raped — and the expectation was that they were going to be raped. That’s the second consideration.
The third one is this: I would need to sit down and listen very carefully to people who are saying the Zika virus needs to be dealt with by contraceptives, because I don’t see the direct connection between the Zika virus and contraception and the result: a baby with microcephaly — I don’t see the connection as clearly as perhaps those who are advocating contraception would see it. And one of the reasons I have that problem is that I think all the birth-control methods have an abortifacient agent; and, therefore, that would be a block [to the use of contraception]. This doctor was saying that Pope Francis, when he talked about family planning, meant natural family planning; but he didn’t say it in those words, as far as I know — I haven’t seen his full text. But the understanding of the media was oral contraceptives were to be distributed far and wide and everywhere.
By pure coincidence, last night, I switched on my radio, and I was listening to a BBC discussion about the effects of some of the contraceptives. I think it’s something like 500 — 5 million women have died suddenly in the last 25 years from contraceptives — just dropped down dead. So when you talk about contraceptives as a cure-all, you have to suppress a whole lot of other information that I think is pertinent.
So I think probably we’re going to have to have a lot more clarifications as to what Pope Francis actually intended when he was saying this.
Do you think there is a connection between the message that Pope Francis will be trying to send in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, due to be published in April, and the Year of Mercy?
Quite clearly, there is going to be. Almost everything that Pope Francis has done right from day one has been, No. 1, reaching out to those on the margins. He has used expressions like “The Church is a field hospital.” And where are field hospitals? Field hospitals are where the war’s going to come; where people are victims, very often innocent victims, and so on. He has also said the sacraments are there for those who are sick and need them — they’re not there as a reward for living a good life. So I can see that the debate is certainly going to be moving in the direction of asking how we can, during this Year of Mercy, extend God’s mercy in a way that people can feel, so that they know that God is actually looking after them through the Church and that we as the Church are trying to find them, trying to bring them back so that we can put them into regular situations.
I think there’s probably a misunderstanding or an over-simplification that Pope Francis is going to bend the rules to suit those kinds of situations. I don’t think so. The fact that he recently simplified the annulment process is a way of saying, “While I’m not bending the rules, I’m simplifying the rules, to make the process more effective and more efficient, so that it can be accomplished more quickly as well.” And I think that’s the way the mercy’s going to be: Let’s use the rules; let’s use canon law to bring in people who are cut off. Very often people cut themselves off — they’re not cut off by the Church; they cut themselves off. Let’s bring them back in and overcome those obstacles that have kept them outside.
Since you spoke about accompanying people after their marriage, on a practical level, what would that look like? What needs to happen that isn’t happening?
I know some parishes in the diocese are doing it. And what they’ve done is they’ve designated senior couples with good marriages to accompany a young couple that’s preparing for marriage. It’s part of the marriage preparation. But they would continue walking with that couple for the next couple of years thereafter. I think the priest has to also be involved somehow — he can’t leave it to the couples and say, “They’re going to accompany them.” I think people need the priest there as well. Or a deacon — we’ve got lots of permanent deacons now, and because they’re married, they would be in a better position to actually do it. And [the first] five to seven years after marriage are the crucial years, when accompaniment needs to take place. But there could be other times — change in status in the sense of getting or losing a job — I think that kind of thing also would need the clergy and the parish to be alert that this couple needs to be accompanied.
Many laypeople, certainly in the United States, look at the situation of marriage, and they see rampant divorce for generations, contraception, pornography, same-sex “marriage”; and they say, “What can we do? Do I even want to raise a family in this environment? Is it even possible to raise a family in this environment?” So is it possible? And what can laypeople do to protect marriage and the family?
My simple answer would be: Live it!
That’s too easy!
No, but if you’re going to live it, you’re going to meet up with a series of things. First of all, if you’re living it, you’re against the current. And I think you’ve really got to be strong on that one. I also think that movements like Marriage Encounter — they were a fashion in the 1970s, and they were really good; but they became a bit too clannish; the groups got too exclusive — but I think something like that is really needed. We’ve got quite a number of those: Équipes du Notre Dame, Marriage Encounter; there’s another one that’s come over from the Philippines recently, Couples for Christ. I’m encouraging all of those, because I think anything that brings people together where they can look at each other and see their difficulties, work them out together, know that they’ve got a support group that’s praying for them, even if they’re not coming and talking, that’s a very good thing.
But I think it was Pope Francis himself who said the other day that young people want to get married; they value marriage. So we’ve got to make it clear that we’re there to support them in making a successful marriage. I think that’s where the biggest challenge lies in the Church. So I would hope that the post-synodal exhortation is going to come out in a very clear affirmation of marriage, saying, “In spite of this, in spite of that, this is what we stand for.”
And remember, the sacramentality of marriage is really about how this husband relates to his wife in a way that makes it evident how Christ relates to the Church. I think that we’ve got to develop the idea of sacramentality — because people think a sacrament is something the priest does to minister to you, rather than something you live out yourself. But by the very fact of your living it out, you’re showing Christ’s presence in the world.
Sophia Feingold writes from Washington.