George Weigel and Cardinal Schönborn Offer Hopes and Predictions for the Synod

(photo: Register Files)

With the ordinary synod just weeks away, the California-based Napa Institute invited Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and author George Weigel to share their thoughts about this much-anticipated event in the life of the universal Church.

While the public conversation between the Austrian cardinal, who led the vast effort to draft the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Weigel covered other matters, their thoughts regarding the synod were especially fascinating.

Here’s an edited transcript of their exchange:

Cardinal Schönborn: I am confident about this synod, but I think we all have to pray. The main importance of this synod, for me, is the fact that it is on marriage and family. Pope Francis has introduced a synodos, a common way together on marriage and family, now for two and a half years. This simple fact of putting marriage and family so much in the center is already the core message of the synod for me.

No Change in Doctrine

I am confident there will be no change in doctrine. That is evident. The Church cannot declare suddenly that marriage can be dissolved. The Pope was very clear in his final message to the last October synod that nobody can put in question the solid doctrinal foundations.

The question is, first of all, what Pope Francis wants, and I think that is his Latin-American experience: to look clearly at the situation and address it: “How is the situation of marriage and family in your countries?” That was the purpose of the great questionnaire.

On African Bishops

When I hear some bishops in Africa saying that in Africa everything is okay with marriage and family and the good tradition, I ask myself, “How is that possible, with the enormous cultural clash that African society is living with: massive [migration] into the great cities and the change in traditions?”

Decline in Marriage

The question is: How do we deal with the fact that, in a growing number of countries all over the world, people do not marry — they live together? This is not to put in question the doctrine, but to ask: What does it mean as a challenge for us?

Finally, I think the best ally we have for the Church’s doctrine is human nature. The concept of human nature is debated and contested, but, nevertheless, human nature exists. The best ally for Catholic teaching corresponds deeply to human nature. If we do not believe there is a deep correspondence between what the Creator wanted for men and women and for the family, then, of course, we have a problem.

George Weigel: I have four hopes for the synod in October:

1. That it lifts up the Christian and biblical view of marriage and the family as the answer to the manifest crisis of marriage and the family around the world. That unapologetic answer is the first order of business.

2. That the synod does not get deflected, as it was for the first two weeks last year, on to a rather narrow set of questions that are of primary concern to northern European bishops, who, frankly, represent churches that have not fully embraced the New Evangelization. I am sympathetic to their problems, but the pastoral situation in those countries does not suggest that the pastoral line they wish to take should necessarily be followed.

3. I heard something slightly different from some of the African members of the synod last year. That was the striking testimony that the biblical view of marriage has come to their cultures as liberating. In traditional cultures of polygamy, the Christian view comes as a great liberation.

As our own cultures get crazier, with questions about who can marry whom, that kind of testimony from young Churches, who are experiencing the joy of the Gospel in a very existential way, seems to be very important.

In the long view of Church history, the most important thing last October was the willingness of these African bishops to “own” their experience and confidently bring it forward. They are no longer stepchildren. They are full participants in the life of the Church.

4. Taking off from Pope Francis: Whatever comes out of the synod, [I ask] that we not sound like an NGO [non-governmental organization]. I am afraid the current instrumentum laboris (working document) is not user-friendly, in that it reads like an NGO document.

The people of God have a right to expect that pastors of the Church addressing these questions will begin with the word of God and not sociology. I know many of the American and Canadian bishops who will be participating in the synod are fully convinced of that too. We need to begin with Revelation and our confession of faith in Revelation, and then move on to an analysis of these very serious problems.

Schönborn: I would very much insist that the liberating message of Christian faith that applies to Africa applies to all of us, Europe and America.

To start with Revelation: This is certainly a true and right desire. It is the old conflict between two schools of theology. Our common venerated master, Hans Urs von Balthasar, would insist, “Start with divine Revelation; start with the word of God.”

There is another school that starts first, with a so-called analysis of reality, and then comes to the word of God. The danger is that if you stop with the analysis, you do not reach the word of God.

Weigel: You will be at the synod?

Schönborn: Yes.

Weigel: I hope we can work together to help bridge that gap, so that our friends who wish to begin analytically, sociologically come to understand that, in the confusions of this moment, it is only through the light  of Revelation that we see accurately what is going on. You are right to describe this division: It is a false dichotomy. We see the world and the truth of things more clearly through the light of Revelation. So, see you in October.

Schönborn: I ask your prayers for the synod, and I trust in the work of the Holy Spirit. When so many bishops come together, I don’t think the Holy Spirit takes leave. As we have seen before at so many councils of the Church, at the moment, it looks like a big battle between different tendencies, schools and even different nations — between Germany and Poland. But very often, in the experience of the Church, the Holy Spirit guides these discussions through to a deeper view and a truly common message. This was the case in so many great councils, where the end was not a political compromise, but a real step to a deeper understanding. This is my hope for the synod.