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Aberrations, Confusion, Synodal Machinations

When asked for his thoughts on this October’s highly controversial Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said, “I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.” His off-the-cuff response during a question-and-answer session following a lecture sponsored by the journal First Things does not translate, as many press pundits have suggested, into a full-on condemnation of the synod or the synod fathers. He didn’t actually go so far as to say that the synod itself was a cacophony of confusion. Nonetheless, Archbishop Chaput was disturbed — disturbed enough to remind everyone present that “confusion is of the devil,” a theological aphorism unpopular in the contemporary culture.

This “image” of confusion was substantially formed by the ill-considered — and, yes, confusing — language in the synod’s interim relatio (released Oct. 13), a working document offering proposals that would push the Church to be “more welcoming” to gay Catholics, cohabiting couples, and the divorced and remarried. Vatican reporter John Thavis called the relatio a “pastoral earthquake” because many of its proposals were unprecedented, and many Catholics found them confusing at best. But to suggest that the confusion was entirely a byproduct of media coverage — and for the record, Archbishop Chaput did not do this — is to misunderstand the substance of the synod. The interim report, offered up by the Vatican Press Office halfway through the two-week- long synod, afforded the public a glimpse into the inner workings of the Vatican’s task force, manned by prelates handpicked by Pope Francis and widely regarded as his ideological counterparts. It shone a light on a house divided between reformers who seem bent on transforming the Church into a replica of the Anglican Communion, and Catholic leaders who want to clarify and strengthen the Church’s positions on marriage and the family in the face of the trend to ratify same-sex marriage, cohabitation, and permissive divorce.

Some have suggested that the widely publicized release of the interim relatio — an action contrary to standard operating procedure — was a calculated maneuver by media-savvy reformers seeking to garner support for the implementation of their agenda by giving the impression that a consensus on the debated topics had already been reached. Whether or not this is true, not all synod participants were happy with the release of this working document. “The message has gone out: This is what the Synod is saying. This is what the Catholic Church is saying,” South Africa’s Wilfrid Cardinal Napier said at a Vatican press conference the day after the release of the relatio. “And it’s not what we’re saying at all. No matter how we try correcting that…there’s no way of retrieving it.” He explained that some controversial statements made by certain individuals were included in the report as if those statements reflected the majority view of the bishops in attendance.

The release of the relatio was more revealing than confusing. Anyone who followed the preparations for the synod will know that Pope Francis enlisted the help of Walter Cardinal Kasper and Óscar Andrés Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, both of whom are followers of the late reformer Carlo Cardinal Martini, to push through several controversial proposals for serious discussion. First and foremost, Cardinal Kasper, a combative supporter since the early 1990s of dropping the Communion ban for the divorced and remarried, was given a high-profile opportunity to present his pet proposal to a consistory of cardinals in February. Pope Francis lavished praise on Kasper’s presentation, lending credence to the German cardinal’s repeated claim in the ensuing months that he has “coordinated” with Francis and was speaking for the pontiff. (Pope Francis, by the way, never made a move to correct this conception.)

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