The Synod’s Fundamental Issue: The Legacy of St. John Paul II

COMMENTARY: How much of John Paul’s vast teaching and witness will remain of guiding importance and what aspects, if any, will be left aside?

Pope John Paul II in 1991
Pope John Paul II in 1991 (photo: L'Oservatore Romano)

During the recent synod on the family, I wrote a column highlighting that several of the central issues under discussion had been debated for decades by Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper.

This theme was subsequently employed during the synod by Cardinal George Pell in an interview with Le Figaro, the French daily newspaper. Cardinal Pell spoke of various camps in the synod, some following Cardinal Kasper and some following Cardinal Ratzinger. Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, Germany, at a press conference a few days later, took offense in the name of the German bishops on behalf of their brother, Cardinal Kasper, criticizing Cardinal Pell by name for using the Ratzinger-Kasper analysis. After the synod concluded, veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister — whose reporting was widely noted and influential during the synod itself — summarized the entire process as “Kasper vs. Ratzinger, the unending dispute.”

Two weeks after the synod, it strikes me that, while the Ratzinger-Kasper framework remains useful, a more fundamental question lay behind much of the synod’s work: What position would the synod take on St. John Paul II?

Ten years after his death, and more than two years after his chief lieutenant, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, abdicated, the Church is coming to an assessment — contested, to be sure — about how much of John Paul’s vast teaching and witness will remain of guiding importance and what aspects, if any, will be left aside.

This question was highlighted on one of the synod’s most dramatic days — Oct. 22, the feast day of St. John Paul. All day, beginning early in the morning, various synod fathers could be seen at the tomb of John Paul in St. Peter’s Basilica, praying there, one expects, for his intercession for the synod itself. That evening, the first draft of the synod’s final report would be given to the participants. Indeed, when that draft was a vast improvement over the much-criticized instrumentum laboris, more than one bishop half-joked that John Paul had worked another miracle.

Yet the synod itself marked the feast day with silence. There was no official visit to the tomb by the synod leadership. When Vatican Radio released the daily homily of Pope Francis, there was nary a mention of John Paul. Not a few synod observers considered the omissions noteworthy, given that the Holy Father himself, when canonizing John Paul last year, spoke of him as the “Pope of the Family.”

Certainly there are clear continuities from John Paul’s pontificate, not the least of which is that John Paul himself chose the family as the topic for his first Synod of Bishops as pope. And the forthcoming jubilee year lifts up the mystery of Divine Mercy that John Paul introduced to the universal Church with an encyclical on the topic (Dives in Misericordia) — published just days after the 1980 synod on the family concluded — the canonization of Sister Faustina Kowalska and the establishment of Divine Mercy Sunday. All this will be at the center of World Youth Day next summer, held in the Krakow of Sts. John Paul and Faustina.

When John Paul was elected in 1978, few Catholics outside of Poland had ever seen the image of Divine Mercy; by the time of his death, it was unusual to visit a parish anywhere that did not have the image displayed.

On the other hand, the vast corpus of John Paul’s teaching on the complementarity of the sexes, the “language” of marital love, the theology of the body and marriage is more contested.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the synod’s treatment, in its final report, of the divorced and civilly remarried. The definitive magisterial text on their pastoral care is John Paul’s Familiaris Consortio, written following the synod on the family in 1980. In the key paragraph (84), John Paul teaches that those in such “irregular situations” should be fully integrated into the life of the Church and that the variety of their circumstances requires careful discernment by pastors on how that integration is best achieved. It goes on to confirm, at the same time, that such integration cannot include admission to holy Communion or sacramental absolution in confession as long as the second conjugal union continues, because the person remains sacramentally married to someone else.

Some synod fathers proposed that the entirety of Familiaris Consortio, 84, which was confirmed by the synod on the Eucharist in 2005, be included in the final draft. That did not happen, and the synod approved, by the narrowest vote possible, a final text which refers to John Paul’s call for “discernment.” That discernment must be conducted according to the “comprehensive criteria” of John Paul and the “teaching of the Church.”

Commenting on those paragraphs, Cardinal Pell definitively said that the issue had been resolved by upholding the teaching of Familiaris Consortio, 84. Meanwhile, Cardinals Marx and Kasper and many others insisted that because the synod did not explicitly cite John Paul’s teaching about the sacraments, they no longer held the force they did previously.

The division over the proper meaning of the synod’s final report is clear. As the report itself is only advisory to the Holy Father, presumably the question will be resolved by Pope Francis when he issues his own version of Familiaris Consortio sometime next year. Will the Holy Father affirm John Paul’s teaching explicitly, contradict it explicitly or follow the synod in affirming it implicitly but not explicitly, thereby leaving room for ambiguity?

If it is the last, the contestation over John Paul’s pontificate that was evident at the synod will mark divergent paths in the Church. After all, Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper were made cardinals by John Paul, though the former was far more central to the pontificate than the latter. While the Ratzinger-Kasper issue remains important, the debate is more fundamental still about the continuing relevance of John Paul himself.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998 to 2003.