Archbishop Kurtz on the Synod: ‘Mercy Without Truth Is Not Mercy’

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops discusses key aspects of the just-concluded Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz (photo: CNA)

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was one of the 191 synod fathers who took part in the third Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, which concluded Oct. 19.

In this Oct. 16 interview with the Register’s Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, as the synod was drawing to a close, Archbishop Kurtz reflected on how the synod had proceeded. Among the topics he discusses are the controversial interim report (which was superseded by the final report Oct. 18), the importance of pastoral language and the debate over doctrine and pastoral practice.


Your Excellency, did the synod match your expectations?
I’m glad you asked this. I did a blog when I first came, and, quite honestly, it was the result of one of my Holy Hours when I was praying.
What are the intentions of the synod? Three things came so clearly to my mind: to restore confidence to the United States that a fruitful, holy and healthy marriage, open to new life, is attainable — or, to put it another way, that young people or young people getting married today are not simply a message of statistics.

My hope is that that strong message of hope that people yearn for would be very much at the core of the synod. My second [intention], which relates to it, is that we would unfold and uncover in people’s lives and hearts the beauty of the teachings of Jesus and his Church on sexuality, marriage and the family. Then, the third [intention] was to accompany people who were hurting — and what does it mean to accompany them? So that’s what I came with [to the synod].

Not all expectations are answered immediately. Obviously, I had my chance with my intervention [talk] to promote this. My own sense was that the initial document that was released was so focused — and I understand why — on the problems of people who are hurting that I didn’t feel in that first document a strong sense of promoting confidence and of acknowledging the faithful witness of people who, at great sacrifice, are living faithful lives. In my small-group discussions, I found that many people shared those desires that I shared.


The relatio [interim report] caused a lot of problems: People said it seemed to be taking its cue from the world rather than the faith, that it was trying to find a language that the world wants and to seemingly bow down to the world. Is it your view that it had an incompleteness?
Let me say it in a more positive way, and then I’ll return to that. I like the words being used of a missionary option and the more I’m hearing about them.

In the small groups, we went a little deeper. I’m discovering that, really, at the core, there’s a pastoral experience that I found it [the document] to have.

As a pastor, before I became a bishop, it was a very simple one [experience], which was to reach out to people when I meet them, to uncover what I see is good in them and to build on what is good — and then accompany them to Christ.

The document, first released, had a sense of incompleteness to it, and so there were statements made without refinement and clarification. So, for example, the statement regarding the principle of gradualism: The more we get into conversations about it, the more I became comfortable with what is the primary direction. And that is: It’s not a change in the doctrine; it’s not, as St. John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio, a gradualness of the [moral] law, which I think people think is what’s happening, but, rather, it is an understanding of the law, a desire to live that law, to turn away from sin and selfishness.

You may know I worked in Catholic Charities for two dozen years, and so [I knew] a lot of people were involved in addictive behavior. I’m not suggesting every problem in the world is addictive behavior — of course not — but there are elements there in which, when you’re seeking virtue, it’s tough, and there’s a call for great patience and great understanding.

We know where we’re going … and that person knows what the end mark is. We all know that. But there are ups and downs, and there’s failure and rising up again, and that advice, which was so much in the vademecum [handbook] for confessors in 1997, on the principle of gradualism, is what I see at work here. … Of course, I’ve written on my own blog [about] a fuller understanding and what I would call a correct understanding of what gradualness is, where it can be properly applied and where it is not.


People have all said that it is all very good to be accompanying, welcoming and all that, that that is not a point of contention. What they’re saying is there’s not enough talk about sin, salvation of souls — the ultimate point of all this. Is this a valid point? Or were these issues raised in the small groups?
The first thing we discussed is what I started with earlier: that there is a need to identify the faithful examples of witnesses, and I still believe that is the best way to lead people. It has always been the best way.

People are unbelievably inspired by a saint. These were the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen: He said it is a lot easier to crowd evil out than to drive it out. So, pastorally, I, of course, acknowledge sin, my need for redemption, the need for the cross. I also acknowledge the fact that most people will be accompanied by someone who first loves them and then leads them on that process of conversion.


But doesn’t loving also mean telling them the truth? For example, telling someone they might be living in mortal sin and explaining the law of gradualism, which, as I understand it, means making a break with sin and then gradually working towards holiness.
It does, and you’re absolutely right. I guess the best place that I saw, where we took it up, was to make sure we don’t have any false divide between mercy and truth. They are one.

In other words, mercy is the best path to truth, and mercy without truth is not mercy. There has been great discussion and even some amendments that have talked about that importance.


A lot has been said about doctrine and that it won’t be changed, but that it is possible to change pastoral practice. Cardinal Raymond Burke says it’s a false dichotomy: You cannot have one without the other, and practice must serve doctrine. What’s your view on this?
I mention this [in my blog], and most people recall it, which is: How we pray and what we believe are integrally connected, and also true is what we believe and how we provide pastoral practice are fully connected.

If there is not integrity in how we pray, how we worship, what we believe and how we provide pastoral practice, it will break down. What I have called for, in any amendments that I was able to provide, was to make sure that any creative pastoral practice being considered would be firmly grounded in good, solid theology.


The issue of language and changing language — removing words like “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered” and “contraceptive mentality” — was raised at the synod. It’s said that’s a change in pastoral practice that doesn’t serve doctrine, because you’re taking away half the truth, as it were, that you’re softening it. What do you say to this?
Well, Familiaris Consortio, I don’t think, used the words or phrase “living in sin.” I would consider Familiaris Consortio a very solid document of pastoral praxis. I would make a distinction: The kerygma — namely, repent and believe in the Good News, the thing that always accompanies the giving of ashes on Ash Wednesday — that is the kerygma of Jesus Christ, and we cannot water down or change that kerygma.

How do we bring someone to Christ? I guess that would be the other question. How do I go about bringing someone to Christ? As a pastor, I made lots of parish visitations — a third of the parish, every summer, I would seek to visit. And there were people who were distant from the Church. Believe it or not, the first thing I said when I entered their house was: “Well, I haven’t seen you for a while!” That [using phrases like “living in sin”] would not be a way of inviting them, and I think most people know that. So I think what we’re talking about here is: see the person first.

We have to lead them to Christ. We would not do them a service if somehow we hid or watered down the truth. You’re absolutely right about that, but I would say that, in my own pastoral practice, there were different ways I would approach someone. I would eventually get to that process, but I would deal with what I thought would first touch their hearts and bring them [to openness to the faith]. And I think that’s what a good pastor has always done, don’t you?


But some feel that, in this day and age particularly, it’s necessary to hold up the truths, as someone said, like a lighthouse, not simply a torch, walking with them — or, perhaps, both are needed?
I’m not a good one on voting one analogy over another, so if you’re looking for an analogy on that, well, analogies are supposed to serve, not become the source of debate [laughs].


But would you agree with that: that it is important to have a kind of lighthouse, and the Church is that guiding light?
First of all, evangelization is announcing the Gospel. The Holy Father is saying in his apostolic exhortation — which, of course, completed the work of the last synod — that the first words to talk to people about are about joy.
It was interesting to me [to see] that when the Catechism begins — the first chapter — it’s on happiness. I don’t think that’s an accident. If you go back to Augustine, back to the history of the Church, people first want to be inspired, and inspiring is not watering down truth: It is leading people to the beauty [of faith and truth]. Now, as people uncover the beauty, then I think they can come to understand the wisdom and depth of Church law, of Christ.


Another observation, certainly during the synod press briefings, was little mention of Christ, Jesus and the Eucharist as the source and summit of our faith.
I agree with that. I think there was more mention, actually, in the instrumentum laboris. I agree with that, and I don’t think it was a deliberate effort not to mention Christ. I think what happens is, when you do a working paper, you don’t get everything in.

I will be disappointed if we don’t begin with a strong affirmation of the call of Christ. Marriage and family, grounded in natural law, is a call to all people, people who believe in Christ and to the whole world, and so we’ll be mindful of that. I’m not suggesting with these words that somehow the gift of marriage and fidelity is only meant for Christians. No, it’s meant for the whole world and for society. But I think you are correct in saying that the leadership — and the joy that we call people to — has to be firmly rooted in the love of Jesus Christ and his sacrificial love, and there’s no resurrection without the cross.

We know that, and I’ll give you an anecdote: One of the things, when I was a family counselor, I would say to people — these were people who were coming with some difficulties — was: “Who has loved you the most in your life?” And, Edward, I got the most beautiful examples of sacrificial love. I tell people: “Don’t explain to me that people do not understand sacrificial love — they understand it very well and they’re capable of understanding very quickly the sacrificial love of Jesus and the laying down of his life.” What’s the problem, with all of us, is that a lot of things get in our way: priorities, secularism — the whole thing.

So I think it doesn’t take long to reach out and come to know someone, to love them, to begin to lead them to Christ — that they will understand very quickly the sacrificial love of Jesus. That’s the thing that attracts them to other people.


People have said this synod has been slanted in a certain direction and certain voices haven’t been heard, and the media restrictions placed on it play into that argument. Are you concerned about that?
I favored the fact that the relatio — the interim report — would be made public, just as they had been in past synods. I actually favored, also, that the reports of the small groups be made public. And they were made public.


My question really refers to the interventions in the first week, which were summarized generally.
I wish they were [made public]; I wish they were. I think the understanding was — if I understand it correctly — that the Holy Father himself wanted to promote as free a conversation as possible, and so didn’t want to inhibit someone from thinking: I won’t say what’s in my heart because it’s going to be in writing. I guess that’s the thinking.

I guess, in retrospect, I would say I would have liked to have had the intervention that I gave, that was in writing, being printed in the same way as it was two years ago. I suspect that, in future synods, we may turn to that. That’s my guess. I favor that. I think that that is better.


Regarding the midterm relatio, it’s fair to say many were furious with it, as they felt it gave a false view to the media of the Church’s stance on these issues.
I would say [what I said at] the press conference [on Oct. 15]. I said at that time, this relatio was a working document, and if, for some reason, that was not portrayed by the media in that way, please do so. That’s what I said, and, today, what I can say, which I couldn’t say yesterday, is: “Hey, we have 10 more working documents,” and I asked people to read them, and I was inspired by them today.

There’s a certain richness to each of the 10 groups, but I think there are some commonalities; and I think that is going to help the process because, as I said yesterday, the work of the synod needed to be refined and clarified. There was an ambiguity that we could not have lived with.

Let me end with a word of hope. I want to go home and be able to announce to people: We need your help; we’re pushing for a great renewal in the gift of marriage and family; we need to support faithful couples. And you know what I said at the press conference yesterday, and I really believe that. I hope people do not picture faithful couples as being a rather narrow group of people.

I think there are many people out there who are living very faithful lives, and they’re the silent majority right now. We need to acknowledge them and call them forth.