On Synod, Archbishop Kurtz Calls for Unity Between Catholic Beliefs and Pastoral Practice

The USCCB president — who is a synod delegate — says the 2015 synod aims to address the challenges, yet also the beauty, of family life.

(photo: CNA/Bohumil Petrik)

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was recently named to be one of four U.S. delegates to the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, which will meet at the Vatican in October.

On March 16, he discussed the issues and questions related to the synod in the context of the Church’s New Evangelization at a public forum with John Grabowski, an associate professor and director of moral theology/ethics at The Catholic University of America and a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Archbishop Kurtz, who has presented his synod views in other forums, spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond in advance of today’s event about the message he will bring to the synod, the criteria for changing Church discipline on reception of the Eucharist and the lessons he learned from media coverage of last year’s extraordinary synod.


What did you want to accomplish at today’s public forum at The Catholic University of America on the synods?

The synods are a movement of the New Evangelization, and we look for opportunities in the public square to speak about the good news of the Gospel and Pope Francis’ vision of family life.

I was grateful to see that people want to learn more about both synods on the family and the idea of synods in general. This is part of the New Evangelization — to announce the good news of the Gospel in and out of season.

I was also grateful that there would be time for questions and answers. Sometimes it is best to hear what is on people’s minds and address the questions they have going into the event.


While many Catholics think of Pope St. John Paul II as “The Pope of the Family,” Pope Francis has called for two synods on the family. What has been the current pope’s message?

Over and over, he has repeated that he is a son of the Church, and he wants to be true to the legacy that is founded on the very words of Jesus and a concept of the family that is written on the hearts of each one of us — what we would call natural law.

Pope Francis wishes to bring a new dimension to the whole notion of synodality. There has been far more consultation and far more discussion than there was in any synod in the past. That was intentional on the part of Pope Francis. Bishops are called to participate in the process of synodality and of collegiality.

He also brings a beautiful sense of the parish as a family of the families.

He speaks often of seeing the person first and of accompanying people when they are hurting and in need. Isn’t this the very nature of the intimacy that we identify with the family?


As one of four delegates to the upcoming ordinary synod, what message will you carry to Rome?

The dimension that I would bring is the unity and integrity of how we worship, how we believe and how we provide pastoral care. It will be very important that there is not a gap between the way we worship, believe and provide pastoral care.


Some lay Catholics are anxious as they watch this synodal process. They fear that something grave could happen, and they don’t seem to be satisfied with the answers that are being given. How have you tried to address such concerns in your own archdiocese?

I can’t say that I am hearing a great deal of anxiety. I sense that, in general, people are eager to reach out to those in need.

Of course, they also want assurance that we will not depart from the time-honored teachings of the Church. There is a rightful concern that we remain true to the teaching of the Church, and that is an attitude I will take to the synod.

People have raised two other issues. First, they want to hear encouragement for faithful witness to fidelity in marriage and family, both in daily life and in specific programs, such as marriage preparation.

Everyone needs to be inspired to the good. 

Second, as we look at challenges of married life, we cannot forget the sacrifices spouses make. People mentioned families in which a child might have a disability or there is an unexpected illness. We need to make sure we are reaching out with pastoral care to people who live out their vows under great stress. This is a form of accompaniment.


At the same time, other Catholics are impatient for signs that the Church is responding to their concerns. Are there elements of our pastoral care that can be changed in a way that deeply affirms the doctrine and mission of the Church?

I hope that the process itself will highlight the beauty of the teaching of our Church. The final document [of the ordinary synod] used the word “beauty” a great deal, and appropriately so.

As a bishop, I am aware of the challenges of family life, but I am most aware of the great beauty of this vocation.

Our Holy Father talked about us being very open to new opportunities to reach out to people. I am reminded that in the seminary this principle was given to us, “Sacraments are for people.” So we do have a responsibility as bishops to first ensure the integrity of the sacrament, but also to ensure that we are looking at ways to reach out to others.

One example is the Holy Father’s effort to form a committee to explore how the process of granting annulments might be streamlined and how unnecessary roadblocks might be removed, without doing violence to Church teaching.


What concerns have Catholics raised in public forums about the synods?

Many have talked about the pastoral need for patience from the Church and that it can be difficult for people, day to day, to live a good and faithful life. The Church, in addition to upholding our teaching, needs to offer patience.

A number of people also said they appreciated the opportunity to be listened to.

One common point is the fact that many people had directly experienced the suffering of a failed marriage or knew someone who had. They were sympathetic to the need to reach out to people.


Media reports on the synods have suggested that the Church may change its teaching on same-sex “marriage” and related issues. What concerns have people expressed to you about this subject?

There is a great sense of compassion for people [with same-sex attraction]. They also want to be true to the teachings of the Church that are in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And they want to make sure these teachings are put into practice; first, that every individual, regardless of orientation, be treated with dignity.

Second, many are also aware [of political] advocacy [on this issue] and want to make sure the Church’s definition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman is cherished and maintained.


Some members of episcopal conferences abroad have signaled that they want to provide Communion for Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried but have not received annulments. What principles must be applied to evaluate such proposals so that there isn’t a break in the unity of doctrine, worship and pastoral practice?

The overall question is: How do we accompany people who are in irregular situations — separation and divorce, failed marriages  — and have sought to marry outside the Church? In those cases, it will be the task of the synod to look at many opportunities to provide pastoral care.

The delegates to the synod will have to evaluate each one of the proposals based on theological guidance [regarding its] effect on the theology of the Eucharist and on our need to be in grace as we approach the sacrament.


One president of a bishops’ conference abroad stated that the conference was not just a “subsidiary of Rome” and that it might seek a course of action independent of the synod. What is the relationship between episcopal conferences and the Holy Father?

The document that gives the most authoritative description of the relation between the pope and the episcopal conferences is Apostolos Suos [The Theological Nature of Episcopal Conferences].  

Issued by Pope St. John Paul II in 1998, it clearly says that episcopal conferences are very important in the life of the Church. It also states that they are to be in union with the Holy Father and that they should support individual bishops, address vital issues in the nation in which the conference is based and collaborate with other episcopal conferences. 

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis talked about exploring the further involvement of episcopal conferences, but he didn’t give any specifics.


 Is there any precedent for the Church allowing individual bishops’ conferences to depart from the general approach to pastoral practice on key issues?

There have been approved adaptations to a local culture. In those cases, most have been in the area of liturgy, and, in all cases, a special permission is required so there will continue to be unity within the Church.

These adaptations, however, are not in the area of doctrine. Instead, they focus on how a bishops’ conference might serve the people in a way that preserves unity with the Church. This is done in dialogue with the Holy See and includes a request for an indult or special permission. Any approval by the Holy See for such an adaption would not involve a doctrinal question. 


As the president of the USCCB, you witnessed the media’s coverage of the 2014 extraordinary synod. The coverage sparked excitement but also confusion about the likely outcome of this gathering. Now, the ordinary synod will take place in October, and there are signs of a replay of that dynamic. What have you learned about public messaging during this process?

I have a commitment to be available to the media and find ways to present a positive and accurate message about the synod.

Whenever I give talks on this subject, I begin by saying to people — even before I ask the audience to pray — “You have a responsibility to deepen your education about the synod.” If people limit themselves to headlines, here and there, they will always have a limited and inaccurate understanding of the synod. They need to find solid material.