VATICAN CITY — The October Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family has sparked much discussion about just what Pope Francis really intends to achieve.
In this recent interview with Austen Ivereigh, author of the recently published The Great Reformer, probably the most comprehensive biography of the Holy Father to date, he discusses with the Register Francis’ probable intentions, how he is likely to view the well-publicized disagreements the synod has engendered and whether he really would like to see Cardinal Walter Kasper’s controversial proposal for re-admitting divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics to holy Communion adopted by the universal Church. Ivereigh, a former deputy editor of The Tablet and once a press office spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, is also the founder of Catholic Voices, which aims to improve the Church’s representation in the media.
What do you think is the Pope’s general view of the synod?
It’s a misreading to see Pope Francis as seeking to impose a concrete solution to anything. He sees himself as initiating and overseeing a process, which is basically of the Holy Spirit. His own criteria for discernment are: If you get people together who are faithful to the magisterium, who speak boldly from their own experience and listen humbly to each other, and you give the process sufficient time for a proper discernment, then, if there is a convergence at the end of it, you can be confident that is of the Holy Spirit.
From my own research into his life, it became very clear to me that this actually is a subject that has occupied him since his 30s [and derives from] his deep reading of theologians, but also his understanding of how Church councils worked and his own experience of Church governance, first with the Jesuits and then the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires and with the presidency of the bishops’ conference. [These have] taught him a lot of lessons about how the Church develops, as it were, under the Holy Spirit and how it can avoid the temptations that can beset any exercise of Church reform, which is splitting into parties. So that’s how I see the process. I see him enacting the process that is, in fact, very, very deeply thought through.
Do you think it could actually be causing a split in the Church?
Two things are going on, which can be confused with each other: There’s disagreement and then there’s division. We have to distinguish between those two things. You can’t have an authentic process of discernment without strong disagreement, because wherever human beings are gathered together, particularly Catholics and Church leaders, there will be disagreement. And some of these questions being looked at are, frankly, very complex questions and difficult questions.
Because there has been strong disagreement over some of the questions of the synod, it doesn’t follow that there’s division, because division happens when people start to look at a question not through the eyes of the Church, but through the eyes of a particular way of viewing the world. And they start to prefer that view and stop listening to others and seek to impose that view. That’s division; that’s schism.
I don’t think we’ve reached that point at all. What happened last year was that the Kasper address to the cardinals opened up the question, as Francis wanted it to. I think it’s a mistake to see Francis as wanting Kasper’s proposals.
But would you say that he is, at least, sympathetic to them, as he did want the discussion opened up?
Yes, well, what he wanted to open up was the question of how to bring back to the sacramental economy those who have been alienated through remarriage and divorce. And the hermeneutic, the lens that he wanted to use for that, was the lens of mercy, which Kasper has developed in his theology.
So he was using Kasper, yes, to open up the question, but I think the specific proposal was modeled on the Orthodox Church for readmission to the sacraments — I’m not aware that Francis has any particular sympathy, necessarily, for that. I don’t really know if he has sympathy for it or not.
So Kasper opened up the questions, and there was a very, as you know, strong reaction from [Cardinals] Müller, Caffarra, Pell and so on. And I think I heard reports that Francis was disturbed by this.
I don’t know whether that is true or not, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that healthy debate. And I don’t think Francis was bothered by it — not troubled by the disagreement, but he may have been worried that a lot of the disagreement was taking place outside the protected space of the synod. That’s another important thing to point out: He sees the synod as a space, a safe space, in which that discernment can take place.
Isn’t a debate outside the synod inevitable in this process?
Yes, it’s inevitable that disagreements are going to be expressed in the press, but what happens when parties develop is that you begin to get people campaigning, if you like, to persuade public opinion of a particular view in order to put pressure on the synod. That is what he would regard as unacceptable. That would be when it became politics. And a bit of that did happen.
Wasn’t that easily foreseen?
Yes, some of the disagreements were inevitable. I think the extent to which some synod fathers were using the media could not necessarily have been foreseen. What was going on in the synod was that, particularly, the interim document was received by the wider world, the liberal press, as this is putting doctrine up for grabs. And a number of cardinals, who were deeply concerned that that was the message getting through to the media, then went out of their way to criticize the synod in order to demonstrate that that wasn’t going to happen.
In other words, they thought there was a very strong reaction to that. Now, that dynamic was unfortunate, because it gave the impression there was a much greater struggle, as it were, going on — that was the image of the synod that came out to the outside world.
My understanding, from talking to people present at the synod, was that it wasn’t like that actually inside. There were, I know, a couple of dramatic moments — Pell saying it was unacceptable — but I don’t think that was problematic. I think it shows that it was a healthy, functioning synod.
What I’m saying is: I don’t have the impression that there were two parties in tension at the synod, and I think the final votes reflect that, actually even on the famous three paragraphs [on issues relating to pastoral practice towards civil unions, cohabitation and divorce and remarriage that failed to get enough votes]. They’re still majorities. Okay, they didn’t get the two-thirds [majority required for a consensus], and there is, and we obviously know there is, disagreement on those issues. But that wasn’t an issue of doctrine.
Edward Pentin is the Register's Rome correspondent.