Do the Pope’s Synod Picks Signal Support for Controversial Agendas?

NEWS ANALYSIS: The full list of delegates, released yesterday by the Vatican, is fuelling concerns about the possible direction of next month’s meeting.

Pope Francis leads a session of the synod on the family inside the Vatican's Synod Hall on Oct. 10, 2014.
Pope Francis leads a session of the synod on the family inside the Vatican's Synod Hall on Oct. 10, 2014. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican yesterday published a full list of participants for October’s Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, in which those pushing for Church reform in pastoral practice figure highly, especially among those personally chosen by the Holy Father.

In the view of observers who are concerned that the synod might endorse controversial approaches that could compromise Church teachings on matters like divorce and homosexuality, the list of papal choices appear skewed in favor of delegates who appear inclined to support such ideas.

And, as expected, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who spearheaded resistance to last year’s efforts to advance those agendas at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, has been omitted from the final list.

In total, 279 bishops from well over 100 nations will be attending, underlining the international nature of the meeting, which will run Oct. 4-25.

The meeting, with the official theme of “The Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World,” follows last year’s synod that was marred by controversy and allegations of manipulation.

Pope Francis will preside at the meeting, which will be led by four president delegates: Cardinals André Vingt-Trois of Paris; Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines; Raymundo Damasceno Assis of Aparecida, Brazil; and Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa. Cardinal Napier was added to ensure Africa is more fairly represented.

This October’s synod will also include representatives of the Eastern-rite churches, the Orthodox Church and members of Protestant denominations.

Metropolitan Hilarion, the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign minister, will again be present, as will the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk. Lay experts and auditors are also included among the participants, in addition to the heads of the Roman Curia, who are automatically invited to the synod.

More revealing are the representatives the Holy Father has personally chosen to attend. There are 45 papal appointees, slightly exceeding the limit of 15% of total participants that normally is applied by the Synod of Bishops to such papal appointments.

Observers point out that many, if not the majority, of the Pope’s choices are those who would like to see changes in pastoral practice regarding issues relating to marriage and the family in a bid, in their view, to make the Church’s teaching more relevant and merciful to the complex nature of human relationships today. Opponents consider some of their proposals heretical and subtly intended to adapt the Church’s teaching to secular values, thereby diminishing the gravity of what the Church has always considered sinful behavior.


Archbishop Cupich

One of the Pope’s choices is Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, who, in 2011, discouraged priests and seminarians in his diocese from participating in demonstrations in front of Planned Parenthood businesses or supporting 40 Days for Life, a pro-life movement that conducts vigils at abortion facilities. He also recently morally equated the trafficking of aborted baby parts by Planned Parenthood with the immorality of unemployment, forced migration and other social-justice issues.

Controversially, the Pope has again chosen 82-year-old Cardinal Godfried Danneels, archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels, to take part in the synod. The cardinal reportedly advised the king of Belgium to sign an abortion law in 1990, told a victim of sexual abuse to keep quiet and once said same-sex “marriage” was a “positive development,” although he also distinguished such a union from the Church’s understanding of marriage.

Despite attendance in Belgian churches collapsing since the 1960s, and the country falling steeply into secularism (in 2013, it passed a law allowing child euthanasia), Cardinal Danneels isn’t the only Belgian on the list of papal delegates.

Another is 74-year-old Bishop Lucas Van Looy of Ghent. The bishop, already an alternate for Belgium’s representative at the synod, said he was “surprised” by the appointment and assumed it was because of his “experiences in the world Church and as chairman of Caritas Europe and member of the international administration in Rome.”

Bishop Johan Jozef Bonny of Antwerp, who will be the third prelate from Belgium at the upcoming synod, called for Church recognition of same-sex unions last December. Bishop Bonny has also voiced in a new book his opposition to Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) and the notion of the natural law. Although not present at the synod last year, he wrote to the meeting, stressing that the Church urgently needs to connect with contemporary society, showing more respect for homosexuality, divorced people and modern kinds of relationships.

In the 2000s, Bishop Bonny was an assistant at the Vatican to Cardinal Walter Kasper, whom the Pope has chosen again to take part in the synod, despite the cardinal’s controversial thesis on readmitting civilly divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion.


The Order of Papal Delegates

The order of papal delegates may also hint at their influence in shaping a synodal agenda. Topping the list is Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who, at 87, remains dean of the College of Cardinals and still holds close and influential ties to the Holy See diplomatic service that he directed while serving as Vatican secretary of state.

Second on the list is Cardinal Danneels, followed by Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who said recently that a stable same-sex relationship is better than a “temporary” one. Cardinal Kasper, 82, is listed fifth, while Cardinal Burke, a strong opponent of the Cardinal Kasper thesis, is noticeably left off the list, despite the Pope’s calls for synodality and inclusivity.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, a close confidant of the Pope who is listed seventh, told a Dallas audience in 2013 that the Church “did not have a monopoly on truth anymore, nor could she pontificate on a thousand human matters.”

Also included in the list is Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and an old acquaintance of the Pope. In an interview earlier this year, he said the Pope is moving slowly “to ensure the effectiveness” of reform. “If you go slowly, it's more difficult to turn things back,” he said. “You have to realize that he is aiming at reform that is irreversible.”


Other Picks

Among 23 expert collaborators, the backgrounds of some challenge orthodox teaching, such as professors Maurizio Gronchi, Michele Guilio Masciarelli and Georges Henri Ruyssen. The German-language relator is Jesuit Father Bernd Hagenkord, who attended the “shadow synod” in Rome in May that sought to influence opinion on Church teachings in favor of same-sex unions.

Among the participants elected by their national Churches are others who participated in the “shadow synod”: Bishop Jean-Marie Lovey of Sion, Switzerland; Archbishop Georges Pontier, president of the French bishops’ conference; Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference; Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin; and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrueck, who recently publicly argued in favor of Church recognition of same-sex unions.

The Pope has also chosen Jesuit Father François-Xavier Dumortier, rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University, to take part in the synod. The university was the venue of the secret synod-related meeting in May and a second similar symposium held last week and headed by Cardinal Rodriguez.

Also on the Pope’s list of delegates is Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, who headed the commission on annulment reform announced last week. In an article for L’Osservatore Romano Sept. 8, Msgr. Pinto said it is “no longer time simply for analyses; it is time for action, in order to begin that work of justice and mercy so long awaited — by re-ordering the pastoral practice and canon law, to a large extent in effect for almost three centuries.”


Additional U.S. and African Representation

Not all of the picks involve individuals closely identified with reforms that have generated controversy. From the United States, Pope Francis has also chosen Cardinals Donald Wuerl of Washington and Timothy Dolan of New York as papal delegates, along with Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, an African-American bishop who, like the Holy Father, is a Jesuit.

The Pope has also selected Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, Italy, who is founding president of the Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, and Cardinal Peter Erdö, the synod’s general relator.

The Church in Africa will also be better represented at the synod, with Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah and Cardinal John Njue of Kenya. The Pope has also personally chosen three bishops from the continent: Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cardinal Philippe Nakellentuba Ouedraogo of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.