Head of Polish Bishops Reflects on Family Synod

In new EWTN Germany interview, Archbishop Stanisław Gadecki discusses meeting’s strengths and weaknesses, dismisses talk of a German-Polish “war”, and recalls that the greatest expression of the Church’s mercy is the Sacrament of Penance.

Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Posnan, Poland.
Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Posnan, Poland. (photo: YouTube)

KÖLN / POSNAN — As many eagerly await Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Synod on the Family after a long and tempestuous process, EWTN Germany’s Robert Rauhut sat down recently with Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the synod, a “big change” in the return of St. John Paul II’s teaching at the most recent meeting, and the relationship between truth and mercy. The archbishop also speaks of synod fathers’ “astonishment” at the few mentions of the word sin in the synod’s final document, the hype surrounding holy Communion for remarried divorcees, and why bishops must “rectify” exaggerated expectations and adhere to the teaching of the Church. Here below is an edited version of the interview, to be aired soon on EWTN Germany.

EWTN: Thank you for the opportunity to ask you again some questions after this very intensive and fruitful Synod. How do you assess this family synod from the perspective of the Polish bishops?

Stanisław Gądecki: Our assessment can be summarized in three points: Firstly, that the Church's teaching has not changed, because it has been addressed and confirmed by the Pope as well as by the cardinals and bishops from both sides. We have analyzed the synod text and see no evidence of a change in doctrine. However, there is a certain change in the practice, especially regarding the points 84, 85 and 86 of the final document [pastoral care of remarried divorcees], which speak of "discernimento" and "accompagnamento ", meaning the "discernment of spirits" and the "accompaniment"… Here the synod expressly states that priests ought to get involved and help with a deeper exploration. Practically, [the] easiest way of exploring your conscience takes place in the confessional.

Secondly, the recent teachings of the Church, which differ from previous doctrine, have not been emphasized much.

Thirdly, holy Communion for remarried divorcees is actually not mentioned anywhere. Of course, the document speaks of a deeper "integration", a greater "participation" and a larger introduction of remarried divorcees in various spheres of ecclesial life [but] none of that involves receiving holy Communion. Nevertheless, some things are not feasible in every country. There are countries and bishops, for instance, who stress that all the divorced and remarried should be allowed to be catechists. But in Poland, this isn’t possible, because a person in such a situation is deemed a weak witness as he stands unfaithfully in truth.

So these are the three issues in the context of the most frequently asked questions. The synod tried, within the realms of possibility, to integrate remarried divorcees into the Church, but not to such an extent that it would give the impression that the person may live in adultery and still receive the holy Communion. That would be contrary to the teaching of our Lord Jesus himself. In that case, we would be back in the days of Moses.


EWTN: What are the strengths of the synod and its results?

Gądecki: The results are strong where they are the easiest, which is in the first part [of the final document]. There it deals with a sociological vision of marriage and family and the difficulties currently experienced by marriage and family. That includes the given number of divorces and concubinages, shared life without common commitments, the various erroneous concepts of family. These are all difficulties connected with today’s secularization that we expose ourselves to and that we must not submit to, because the Gospel is permanently running against the mainstream. In addition, we cannot claim to live in the most difficult of times, as there have been times of obvious persecution, when you had to put your life on the line to witness your fidelity to Christ. Those were really difficult times. Today, we often face a confrontation with "political correctness" that demands being as the media says and following the media’s voice. That is not an insurmountable difficulty for someone who is firmly rooted within Christ.


EWTN: Are there any weak points in the final document?

Gądecki: I see weaker points in the second part. There the document speaks of the divine vision of the family, which is presented in compliance with the vision of the Bible [but] after that, we notice a startling gap: There is no single word regarding divorce and what the consequences are. There is no reference to "in the beginning, it was not this way." Of course, it is still confirmed that man and woman constitute a marriage and that they have this project in the Song of Songs, in Hosea; but when it comes to the New Testament, we do not hear either of John the Baptist or of the "conversion", the absolution from sin, the confession of sins.

Many synod fathers returned with astonishment, affirming that they have tried to point out that the document does not speak very openly of sin — as if we were ashamed. In order not to hurt the sinner, we have to make use of euphemisms, delicate language that says a certain behavior is not compliant with rules, with norms. However, no real doctrine of the love of God [was offered], which is the starting point, of sin and grace, practically, also of salvation. There is this theme in a veiled language, but even after having talked about it, I don’t think it was as clear and as evident as it should have been in the document.

In this sense, the document shows certain deficiencies that the Holy Father himself has pointed out and that there were many other issues that could have been addressed on this occasion, but that we did not address. For instance, instead of issuing a single compendium — understandable, simple, and clear for each family — they talk about "mercy" as a whole. The Church has been merciful from the beginning. Most importantly, it is what God thinks of him or her, not what other people think or what he or she — in a certain sense — thinks of him or herself. The greatest expression of the Church’s mercy, starting with Jesus Christ, is the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. There is no greater sacrament of mercy.


EWTN: The Polish bishops have led by example, issuing a communiqué on Nos. 84-86 of the final document to stress that it does not mean you can basically receive Holy Communion if you have entered in a second civil relationship. Is your initiative to be understood in this way, as an example for other bishops and bishops’ conferences to follow?

Gądecki: Having foreseen the confusion that might arise in Poland in response to comments, we decided to publish this communiqué. That is why we have, in this respect, given attention to maintaining the traditional teaching of the Church. However, it is not our duty to teach other episcopal conferences. They have their own mind and will certainly do what is best within their power.


EWTN: Right after the synod, the media gave its take, saying that the synod had allowed holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried even though that wasn’t the case. How do you assess this sociologically recognizable phenomenon?

Gądecki: I think an explanation is quite simple. Since the conclusion of the extraordinary synod of bishops in 2014, a narrative has been passed around the world, maintained by the media, that “Communion for the remarried civilly divorced will come, it has to come as there is no way that it could not be". Hence, people had already gotten used to it and started to wonder whether the synod has gathered in order to consider the Holy Communion for remarried divorcees, and now they wonder why it has not yet been clearly announced. That is why, I think, it is up to the bishops to now rectify these hyped expectations and stick to the teaching of the Church.


EWTN: How was the figure of St. John Paul II present?

Gądecki: I think a big change has occurred. At the extraordinary synod, John Paul II was almost not present at all … whereas his personality and his teachings have been strongly present at the latest synod on the family. The synod fathers have much more frequently than before referred to "Familiaris Consortio". It was named and talked about. Actually, considering the statements on marriage and family made by the Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis there has been already an improvement. So, the task was not just to solve difficulties here and there directly, but to remember and to recall the way the Church has been moving during the last decades, which must not be simply erased. One Pope teaching against the other Pope is unacceptable.


EWTN: Nevertheless, taking into consideration for example the fragmentary use of Familiaris Consortio No. 84, which operates with the tension of subjectivity and objectivity, one gets the impression that in the methodologically of the final document a bit of a "quarry exegesis" [selectively extracting individual traditions from a certain work and then purposefully assembling and combining them outside their actual context] occurred?

Gądecki: Yes, absolutely. This was quickly exposed as an inconsistency, because when referring to John Paul II’s "Familiaris Consortio", we must be honest.


EWTN: The subjective part of the sacrament loses its meaning if the objective part is missing, right?

Gądecki: Yes, it does. Similar to the question of subjectivity and objectivity was the issue of judgments of conscience: Some spoke of "conscience as the voice of God", not as a room in which we hear the voice of God. Others saw the conscience as the voice of God – a highly subjective category, because everyone can maintain that "I see this or that issue in my conscience in this or that way and I do not care what the Church or people say. I see this in a subjective way and regard it as God's voice." That was a mistake. It is similar with the view of moral standards as a burden too heavy to carry or as something that runs alongside the conscience, which is understood as the "voice of God".


EWTN: What other aspects played a central role in the discussions, such as the relationship between the Church and the world, the correlation between the teaching and practice or between truth and mercy?

Gądecki: The Church-world relationship was rather secondary; important was the discussion about the relationship between truth and mercy, love and compassion, faithfulness and mercy. This is a crucial problem, because it is hard to reach a satisfactory solution when confronting truth with mercy. In my mind, the Holy Father, as well as the citizens of Argentina, have a different view on interpersonal contacts as we have, here in Europe. Perhaps, it is not that much of a different way of thinking, but the contacts are more sincere, warmer and more southern. You can hardly find something comparable in Europe, maybe in Italy. However, in northern Europe such a thing is for sure not existent. Maybe we do not understand the Pope until the end, but we should.


EWTN: One last question: A cardinal spoke of a German-Polish war, a battle at the synod. How do you see that?

Gądecki: Many synod fathers, including the Holy Father, said not to consider the synod on the family as a "parliament" and to transfer democratic rules and procedures of the respective states on the life of the Church. When the synod fathers speak, we do not deal with a copy of a parliament, there are no parties. We are aware that we act first within the scope of synodality and only then in the framework of greater collegiality. Even the synod is not the final voice of the Church. The synod is only a movement towards collegiality between the Pope and the bishops occurring with and under the Pope. The synod is useful only insofar as it serves this collegiality. Canon law frames the essence of the synod. Therefore, speaking of a German-Polish war at the synod, for instance, is a huge exaggeration. The issues represented by the Germans come not only from Germany, but also New Zealand, the French-speaking part of Canada, Switzerland. So, it is not only the German side. Content-related differences do not comply with languages, but one bishop is of this opinion, the other bishop holds that opinion. Conjuring up images of a Third World War at the synod is a little funny.


Original interview in German 

Translation by Marion Sendker