At Synod, Cardinals’ Letter Controversy and Doctrinal Issues Take Center Stage

Following a relatively calm initial week, the synodal discussions took on a somewhat edgier tone on Oct. 12.

(photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Mystery over a private letter sent to Pope Francis from a group of cardinals and heated discussions in the synod hall over issues impinging on doctrine were the highlights as the debate heated up on the first day of the second week of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.

In an article published Oct. 12, Vaticanista Sandro Magister revealed the purported contents of a letter, first reported by Vatican Insider’s Andrea Tornielli last week, in which it was claimed that 13 cardinals had appealed to Pope Francis; they allegedly said the synod lacked the “openness and genuine collegiality” needed to accomplish its purpose.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, was among the reported signatories who wished to alert the Pope to concerns that new procedures imposed on this year’s gathering could hinder the participants in their responsibilities.

As published by Magister, the letter — delivered to the Pope on the first day of the synod — was clear in its criticisms: The instrumentum laboris, or working document for the synod, needs “substantial reflection and reworking,” it said.

The document has “excessive influence” on the synod’s deliberations and on the final synodal document, the letter continued, and so “cannot adequately serve as a guiding text or the foundation of a final document.”

The signatories allegedly went on to say that the new synodal procedures “will be seen in some quarters as lacking openness and genuine collegiality,” and they criticized the lack of voting on propositions at this year’s meeting, which “seems to discourage open debate and to confine discussion to small groups.”

Magister’s text of the letter urged that the crafting of propositions “to be voted on by the entire synod should be restored.” Voting on a final document, they added, “comes too late in the process for a full review and serious adjustment of the text.” 

Additionally, according to the text, the cardinals pointed out that the drafting committee for the final report “created considerable unease” because its members had been “appointed, not elected, without consultation.” They allegedly said it is “unclear” why the new procedural changes were necessary. “A number of fathers feel the new process seems designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions,” they said.

But what observers said was the most important paragraph was the last one, in which the signatories said various fathers had “expressed concern” that the “theological/doctrinal issue of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried” is dominating the debate. The comment indicates that, despite reassurances from the Pope and others that doctrine won’t be changed, in the judgment of some of the Church’s highest-ranking prelates, this issue does in fact touch on doctrine and consequently is a cause for deep concern.

The letter stated that if this issue continued to be up for debate, it will “inevitably raise even more fundamental issues about how the Church, going forward, should interpret and apply the word of God, her doctrines and her disciplines to changes in culture.”

They warned that the collapse of most of the Protestant desnominations in the modern era, “accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.”


Inaccuracies, but Letter’s Existence Confirmed

At today’s press briefing on the synod, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said he “could not confirm” the existence of the letter, but added that Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris and Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan — both named by Magister — had disavowed to being signatories of it.

Further denials followed during the day from Cardinal Peter Erdö, the synod’s general relator, who denied seeing or signing it, and from Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the Apostolic Penitentiary. Cardinal Wilfrid Napier said he signed a similar letter but not the one Magister published.  

In a statement released Oct. 12, a spokesman for Cardinal George Pell, one of the signatories, confirmed the letter’s existence. The cardinal was aware that, one week in, ”concerns remain” among “many synod fathers” about the composition of the drafting committee of the final relatio (report) of the synod.

The spokesman added that the cardinal was also aware that concerns continue to surround the process by which the final relatio will be presented to the synod fathers, as well as voting on the document.

The cardinal’s spokesman said the letter to the Pope was private and “should remain private” but that there were “errors in both the content and the list of signatories.” He also stressed that “obviously there is no possibility of change” in the Church‘s doctrine on proper dispositions necessary for the reception of holy Communion, despite “minority elements” wanting to change the Church‘s teaching in this regard.

Still, various questions remain unanswered about the letter. It’s not clear why apparently false names were listed, though this may have been because some had said they adhered to the contents of the letter but subsequently decided not to sign it for various reasons.

America magazine reported Oct. 12 that it “has learned from informed sources that 13 cardinals did indeed sign the letter, including four not named on Magister’s list: Di Nardo (United States), Njue (Kenya), Rivera (Mexico) and Sgreccia (Italy).” The article went on to list all 13 cardinals it said had signed the letter.

The letter’s accurate content is also not known (Cardinal Pell’s office could not confirm or deny the contents as reported by Magister), although it appears that most of it is authentic.


Reception of Sacraments

In the synod hall on Friday afternoon and Saturday, the general congregations started to debate the third part of the general congregations that touched on doctrinal issues. The part was brought forward while the small groups are still discussing the second part.

A wide range of subjects were discussed, most notably to do with access to the sacraments. According to various language attachés briefing reporters Monday, some synod fathers warned that “easy access” to sacraments shouldn’t be possible; others “proposed pastoral solutions.” At least one said “two extremes” were not possible: “not doing anything” in changing pastoral care to better help today’s family and marriage situations;  or in being eager to do “too much,” the Church ends up being unfaithful to her teaching.

One of the interventions, not mentioned at the press briefing but which subsequently received much attention, was made by Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, on Saturday.

While recognizing the need to help civilly remarried divorcees “with special charity,” he stressed that when it comes to their admission to the sacraments, the Church “cannot yield to the will of man, but only to the will of Christ.” Allowing cohabiting couples to the sacraments without the sacramental bond “would be contrary to the Tradition of the Church.”

He stressed the objective nature of this rule, saying their condition in life objectively contradicts the “union of love between Christ and the Church, which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.” The Eucharist is the sacrament of the baptized “who are in the state of sacramental grace,” Archbishop Gądecki said.

Admitting the civilly remarried divorcees to Communion would cause “great damage not only to family pastoral ministry, but also to the Church’s doctrine of sanctifying grace,” he said. Furthermore, he warned it would “open the door to this sacrament for all who live in mortal sin,” leading to the “elimination of the sacrament of penance” and distorting the “significance of living in the state of sanctifying grace.”

Moreover, added Archbishop Gądecki, “it must be noted that the Church cannot accept the so-called gradualness of the law” (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 34).

He added: “As Pope Francis reminded us, we who are here do not want and do not have power to change the doctrine of the Church.”


Final Report Questions

Meanwhile, reporters learned today that it is still not clear if the final report for the synod will be made public. It will be debated, submitted to the commission on the final report and then presented on Oct. 24 to the Pope, who will take the final decision on what to do with it.

“We don’t know what the Pope will decide about it,” Father Lombardi told reporters, adding that perhaps the Pope will publish it very soon after receiving it or “might keep it, revise it and turn it into a post-synodal apostolic exhortation or publish something else.” Some synod fathers have privately voiced perplexity at the absence of a decision, especially in the face of confusion over the Church’s teaching emanating from the two synods.

On Saturday, the synod heard from more lay auditors, this time from two couples, one from Brazil and the other from India. Ishwalal Bajaj, a Hindu, explained how, through his marriage to his wife, Penelope, a Catholic, he converted to the Church on their silver wedding anniversary. His baptism, he said, “elevated our marriage to a higher spiritual level, with a much better understanding of our relationship with one another.”

Penelope asked jokingly if there was “someone out there who knows how a perfect marriage takes place.” She said she and her husband “are still learning and understanding our marriage every day. If it were not for my husband‘s tolerance and love of Christianity and my love and understanding of where he comes from, we would never have been able to celebrate our life and intercommunity differences.”

Pedro Jussieu De Rezende, who has been married for 35 years, said he and his wife, Ketty, have worked with couples in Brazil, which has been a wonderful experience to see “so many families out there live Christian moral values” and as a consequence “have such a joyful life.” He said the opportunity to participate in the synod has been “almost overwhelming.”

Reflecting on the synod more generally, he said “something very surprising” was to see press reports that didn’t correlate with their experience in the synod hall. “The content of the instrumentum laboris is what is being dealt with by the synod fathers, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so I was surprised to see what was coming out was not quite faithful.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.