Cardinal Baldisseri: ‘The Church Is Not an Abstraction’

The secretary general of the upcoming Synod of Bishops explains his recent comments about Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on marriage.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the October Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the October Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family (photo: Alan Holdren/Catholic News Agency)

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the October Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family, caused controversy recently when he said in an interview that he wanted to bring Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching on marriage, contained in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) up to date.

Some misinterpreted his comments to mean he was suggesting a change to Church teaching. Noting that the document is more than 30 years old, he said: “The Church is not timeless; it lives amid the vicissitudes of history, and the Gospel must be known and experienced by people today.” The interview appeared in the Belgian Christian weekly Tertio.

In this May 20 email interview with the Register, the Italian cardinal explains what he meant by his comments, addresses concerns that the synod may appear to intend to change the Church’s teaching on Communion for civily divorced-and-remarried Catholics and is asked why John Paul II’s teachings on marriage and family have been noticeably absent in some key debates by synod leaders.


You said that the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family needs to be “updated.” What did you mean by this?

In the sense that St. John XXIII intended [the word “updated”] for the Second Vatican Council. This means that the theme of the family, after over 30 years, since the document Familiaris Consortio, must be looked at in a global sense, considering the often uncommon anthropological and social situations today.

The Church is not an abstraction; it is a human and divine reality that moves through history. The Church’s mission is to proclaim Jesus Christ, who is a Person, the Son of God made man. The message is addressed to real people and is transmitted through the word and testimony of people who have believed in him and who, in virtue of different roles and charisms, become missionaries in the world.


Some are concerned that the synod will make it seem as if the Church’s teaching has changed, when that is not the case. Is this concern justified, in your opinion?

The Church’s teaching is contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which everyone can read. The Church’s magisterium exists, which ensures the integrity and authenticity of the faith. There is also theological research and that of other ecclesiastical disciplines that help to deepen the knowledge of the truths of faith, confessed by the faithful and guaranteed by the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

The magisterium has the task of certifying fidelity to the “deposit of faith,” entrusted to the pope and to the bishops. So the next synod moves along this line of doctrinal certainty towards pastoral care suited to the times.


What will be your exact role in the synod, and how much influence will you have on its apostolic exhortation?

The document that will be released by the synod will be the result of the study and reflection of the synod fathers on the themes established by the instrumentum laboris [working document]. The secretary general has the task of monitoring the progress of the event. In the presence of the Holy Father will be the president delegates who, in turn, will direct the sessions and congregations and a relator general with a special secretary, who is in charge of collating the issues and helping with the drafting of the document, which must have the consensus of the members of the assembly and which will then be consigned to the hands of the Holy Father, who will use it as he deems appropriate.


Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the general secretary of the Italian bishops’ conference, recently said the synod should discuss issues related to abortion, homosexuality, etc., without any taboo. Do you agree with this?

In this regard, I would like to say that the topics that will be discussed in the assembly of the synod of next October are those indicated in the questionnaire. The theme of life and, therefore, also of abortion, euthanasia and others, as well as issues that affect the family in its social, economic and political aspects, shall be handled in the second stage. And this will be done with all freedom and clarity.


Some people have noted a reluctance among some of those closely connected with the synod to apply the teachings of St. John Paul II on the family. Why is this, in your opinion?

The teaching of the Church has the secular dynamic of a journey, as on the road to Emmaus. Jesus stands at the side of the disciples, accompanies them and nourishes them with sacred Scripture and the Eucharistic bread as they go along.

Each person, in various stages of life, roles and charisms, brings his contribution, and if we accept this perspective, which is often emphasized by Pope Francis, there is room for everyone to join in and work in the pursuit of truth and the practice of love.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.