The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Excerpt

(photo: Register Files)

For Professor John Rist, one of the Church’s foremost experts in patristics and Church history, the Synod on the Family represents the first time since the fourth century “there has been a serious clash about a basic moral teaching of Catholic Christianity.”

In my new eBook “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family”, published this week by Ignatius Press, Professor Rist lays out the controversial meeting in the context of the Church’s history – a perspective for which many readers have noted their appreciation. He also explains the way in which it marks a break with how such assemblies have been conducted in the past.

In writing the eBook, I have tried to examine how the III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family that took place in October 2014 was controversial not only for the subject matter it discussed, but also for the way it was run.

Despite the Pope’s wish for an open and free debate in a bid to help the Church rise to the pastoral challenges facing marriage and the family today, the dramatic two-week meeting was marred by allegations of manipulation, lies and dirty tricks.

My aim in uncovering some of what went on is to in some way contribute in helping the next Synod on the Family in October 2015 to be more open, fair and honest and perhaps closer to the Holy Father’s overall vision.

Here below is an excerpt containing Professor Rist’s contribution, as well as further historical perspective from Walter Cardinal Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences.


How This Synod Compares with the Past

Many experts in Church history will say that the Synod on the Family was like no other that had gone before it and was, in both senses of the word, extraordinary. Professor John Rist, who wrote a chapter on patristics in Remaining in the Truth of Christ, noted two important historical aspects to the meeting.

Speaking at his home in Cambridge, England, Rist, who is regarded as one of the Church’s foremost philosophers and historians, said the first and most important of these is the changing nature of the papacy, an area where, he believes, there is “something quite significant going on”. He explained that, “In the past when doctrine was generated and developed, it wasn’t normally done by popes. It was done by bishops, theologians, abbots, or whoever—people who were thinking about these things: Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Newman. The role of the pope was to scrutinize and declare whether this fitted the tradition or not. The tradition of the faithful came into that, too. The dogma of the Assumption is an example. In Italy one sees churches dedicated to the Assumption going back to 1100. But the doctrine itself was only finally approved and promulgated by the papacy in 1950.

“So that’s a good example. One of the very few popes, in the whole history of the Church, who constructed doctrine in a very strong and active way was [Pope] Leo at Chalcedon. Even there the situation was very different from what’s happening now, and one of the reasons for this is a clearly unexpected effect of Vatican I [First Vatican Council 1869– 1870, which promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility]. One of the effects of that council was to focus the minds of the unthinking specifically on the pope as a sort of doctrinal font.

 “That probably wouldn’t have mattered so much at the time, or perhaps at any time in the past. But a number of particular phenomena in more recent society have turned it into a problem. The first of these is, in a way, analogous to what happened in the Middle Ages: that is the failure of local bishops to uphold traditional teaching. This is very obvious in the UK, and you can see it in many other places—instances of bishops, happily not all of them, but prominent ones who do so fail.

“That has led to a constant tendency, as it did in the Middle Ages, of appealing over the bishops to Rome, a centralizing drive, as it were. That is undesirable on various counts, and had the bishops done their jobs, it wouldn’t have happened. Then, connected with that, the local bishops often feel safer if they can talk, not as individual bishops, but via bishops’ conferences. That’s a new thing on the scene. And the only parallel that I can think of, historically, is at the Council of Nicaea—the first effort to attain consensus in the Church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. The bishops’ conference, of course, was widely debated in the times of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. And Benedict particularly didn’t like it because he feared a return to “Gallicanism” (a belief that tended to restrain the pope’s authority in favor of that of bishops and the people's representatives in the state or the monarch), and you can understand that fear: the more power you give to the bishops’ conferences, the more chance for fragmentation of doctrine.

“So that didn’t really solve the problem; it just left it lying on the table. Therefore everything is still focused on the pope. Then that feeds into the contemporary social scene— namely, that the media wants quick answers to difficult questions. And they think: Let’s just see what the pope says.

“Now this is not what has happened in the past, or not in that sort of way. And it has a huge effect. Obviously modern popes have tended to be more active, particularly in social affairs, since Leo XIII and his successors. But recently this has become much more the tendency, so that the pope has become almost a celebrity, and this began with John Paul, though really, I suppose, there was a bit with Pius XII as well, but particularly with John Paul II, with his thespian and crowd-pulling talent.

“Well, that may have been fine, and, in many way, it was. But it encouraged this media attitude where you go to the pope for quick answers. And that means that popes need to be infinitely more careful than they had to be in the past. I mean, Innocent III could say crazy things, and almost no one would know until a year or so later! Now it’s two clicks and it’s gone around the blogosphere.

“So this general situation lies behind part of the problem. And of course it encourages undesirable things around the pope, as well as with the pope. I mean, the people who surround the pope have got huge power. They can cause all sorts of trouble. They can also be hung out to dry if things go wrong, as usually happens in a court situation. A situation that has happened recently.”

The example to which Professor Rist referred was an attempt to force out of post Father Robert Dodaro because he edited Remaining in the Truth of Christ [explained in an earlier chapter of this eBook]. He then went on to detail that this is the first time since the fourth century there has been a serious clash about a basic moral teaching of Catholic Christianity.

The kind of proposal put forward by Cardinal Kasper is a very modern phenomenon, he said, caused by pressure from secular society. He noted the precedent in Tudor England, with bishops who resisted the secular leanings of the ruling monarchs (Henry VIII and Elizabeth I). This country, he said, “is very familiar with this sort of scenario”. Only one of the then bishops—Saint John Fisher—stood up against Henry VIII. All the others caved in, “partly because they didn’t understand the issue involved and partly caving in to threat”.

“This present situation, which has parallels obviously among the Anglicans, is comparable to that. The king is gone. He doesn’t cut people’s heads off anymore or burn or disembowel them. But the central force for secularism is there, taking a different form: now, not the monarch, but in the form of the London intelligentsia, for example: the people who control the BBC, the literary journals, and so on, and their counterparts in the U.S.A. and elsewhere. Now they predominate in the universities, too, where it’s quite fluctuating, but there is a huge amount of ‘political correctness’. So it’s very easy to see what’s happening.”

More immediately significant: Rist sees this secularist trend infiltrating the Church— and taking on a life of its own. He explained that “The original proposals from Kasper were misguided, based on poor scholarship, but comparatively modest compared with the sort of things that are being kicked around now. There is a dynamic in this sort of situation, analogous to what happened in Vatican II. There [Joseph] Ratzinger, who was originally a reformer, was one of the very few who realized that the thing had taken on a life of its own. And all sorts of further ramifications, again from the secular world, were being imported.

“This seems to be because the Church authorities don’t understand the dynamics of revolutionary movements. You can compare them in the civil sphere: in [the French Revolution of] 1789, Mirabeau was replaced by Robespierre, and in [the Russian Revolution of] 1917, Kerensky gave way to Lenin. The more extreme position builds up, and that is what happened in Vatican II. And what’s happening now.

“When all this started, Kasper wasn’t talking about how much respect we should have for homosexuals and other sexual byways. But now they’ve been brought into play—have become almost central, in fact. How far Kasper will go along with it, I have no idea, but some of his fellow cardinals, notably Cardinal Marx, seem favorable to it. What that shows again is that the people who—insofar as they were in good faith—were orchestrating the original move didn’t understand the dynamics of revolutionary movements.”

Rist also sees those behind the synod agenda as being taken unawares by the strong resistance of those holding to the Church’s tradition and doctrine—further evidence, he believes, of those in charge being out of touch with reality.

“I suspect that Kasper, at least, and possibly the pope, didn’t really expect the kind of intense opposition that they’ve actually run into”, he said. “Cardinal Burke might have been thought to be one such person. ‘[He’s a] nuisance, get him out of the way.’ But I don’t think they expected the wholesale opposition of most pro-life groups. That they didn’t again shows they don’t really understand the world they live in.”

He continued: “Again there are parallels in the not too distant past. I mean when Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae vitae [his encyclical confirming the Church’s opposition to contraception], he seems to have been genuinely surprised at the hostile reaction in the Church. Again, he shouldn’t have been! And again it shows how those at the top are blind: that maybe they are doing the right thing, but they don’t understand the world they’re living in. The same problem we are coming up against now.”

Although Rist does not fully agree with Cardinal Burke’s culturally more traditional side, he does see the American cardinal as acting contra mundum [against the world], like Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, the fourth-century saint who fought the heretical Arian bishops (and emperors) in defense of orthodoxy.

“It’s a very good thing that there are people like that”, Rist said. “But I think what really annoys some of the people around the pope, if not the pope himself, is that they really didn’t expect to find that kind of resistance. Well, Henry VIII didn’t expect Fisher to resist either.”

He added: “It seems to me that among both bishops and people there are three groups. There are the people like Burke who want to maintain a traditional line. There are liberals. In between, there are people who are just watching the wind and will do what they think the pope wants them to do. When Benedict was in post, they did what Benedict wanted them to do.”

Walter Cardinal Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, also notes the novelty of the Synod on the Family in the context of history. But for him, the synod was not just unprecedented: it is not, strictly speaking, a synod at all.

“You must be aware that this synod of which we are speaking is not a synod in the exact canonical sense”, he said. “There are synods in line with canon law, and there are others. A real synod, a council, is an assembly of bishops with the pope. They have supreme jurisdiction for the doctrine and life of the Church. But this, what we call synod now, is no such synod, because it has no canonical power and it has no jurisdiction. It is an assembly for consultation, for counseling the pope, not more. There will be no decisions taken.”

What he meant by this was that in the history of the Church, a synod was historically a council that usually convened to decide an issue of doctrine, administration, or application. The word “synod” comes from the Greek σύνοδος (synodos) meaning “assembly” or “meeting”, and it is synonymous with the Latin word “concilium” meaning “council”. Originally, synods were meetings of bishops, and the word has been used in that sense since 1965, when Blessed Pope Paul VI created the “Synod of Bishops”.

Under canon law, this body comprises a group of bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet at a time chosen by the pope to promote the close relationship between the pope and bishops. The bishops are meant to assist the Roman Pontiff “in the defense and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the mission of the Church in the world.”

Its overall function is to “discuss the matters proposed to it and set forth recommendations”. It is not its function to “settle matters or to draw up decrees”, unless the pope gives it powers to do so. It is up to the pope to ratify the decisions of the synod, which he does through an apostolic exhortation—a papal text written shortly after the end of a synod.

Cardinal Brandmüller also played down the importance of this. “It is only an apostolic exhortation”, he said, and not a document concerning doctrine. “We should not consider it too important. It is only important in the sense of creating, forming a public opinion in the Church. But this is also dangerous,” he said, “and therefore we must be very careful, cautious, and astute.”