Pope Francis’s three-week Synod on the Family began on Sunday. Most of the 279 ‘Synod Fathers’ are senior bishops, many of them cardinals. They have no authority to change any aspect of Catholic teaching or pastoral practice. They are discussing the ‘hot button’ issues of communion for the divorced and remarried and the spiritual care of gay Catholics — but, once the meeting is over, power will rest entirely in the hands of the Pope.
Conservative Catholics aren’t happy. Last year, at a preparatory ‘extraordinary’ synod, officials hand-picked by Francis announced in the middle of the proceedings that the Fathers favoured a more relaxed approach to gay relationships and second marriages. Senior cardinals exploded with rage, because most Fathers favoured no such thing. The liberal synod organisers — Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the synod, and Archbishop Bruno Forte, its ‘special secretary’ — were forced to drop their claims. The whole thing was a car crash and obviously their fault.
Yet Francis stuck by them. As a result, once again the synod working papers are stuffed with sociological waffle. Worse, Baldisseri and Forte are sitting on the commission that will draft the final report that goes to the Pope. This time round, however, the conservatives are alert to the dangers. On Monday morning they struck first.
Cardinal Péter Erdö is Primate of Hungary and a much-admired canon lawyer who received his red hat at the age of 51. He’s still only 63. As ‘general relator’ of the 2014 and 2015 synods, it has been his job to deliver an opening address setting out their goals. Though emollient in manner, he is unquestionably a conservative — but, last year, his speech was full of liberal platitudes. What went wrong? The journalist Edward Pentin claims in his book The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? that Erdö had his arm twisted by Baldisseri, who forced him to rewrite his 2014 address to make it more Francis-friendly. ‘Baldisseri wanted a lot of mercy, less truth,’ says Pentin’s source.
This week, by contrast, Erdö gave the opening address that conservatives were longing to hear. To quote the Vaticanologist John Allen, ‘He seemed determined to close a series of doors that many people believed the last synod had left open — beginning with the controversial proposal of German Cardinal Walter Kasper to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to communion.’ That ban, said, Erdö, was ‘intrinsic’ to the nature of marriage.
Kasper, an old foe of Benedict XVI whose career has been resurrected by Francis, did not join in the applause at the end of the speech. But it was interesting to see how many supposedly liberal cardinals clapped vigorously.
That was because it was a masterful speech. Erdö wove scripture, moral philosophy, canon law, the teachings of St John Paul II and anthropological theory — including a startling reference to internet pornography — into a subtle and humane defence of traditional doctrine. He also quoted from the writings of Pope Francis, perhaps suppressing a wince at the clunky prose.
These are early days, but it looks as if the Pope has backed himself into a corner. Having put the Kasper plan on the table, he has found so little support for any version of it that he has allowed the general relator to trash it, albeit elegantly, in front of all the Synod Fathers.
One highly placed source thinks Francis was expecting a different sort of synod. ‘He reckoned this was going to be another Vatican II, and it isn’t,’ he says.
If so, the Pope has only himself to blame. He has made sure that developing countries are heavily represented among the Synod Fathers. That’s fair enough. But Catholic bishops from Africa and Asia, while applauding Francis’s tirades against ‘economic imperialism’, take a dim view of divorce and an even dimmer one of gays. Like Erdö, they want last year’s doors slammed shut.
It’s possible, too, that Pope Francis has overestimated the liberalism of practising Catholics in the West. Last year the bishops of England and Wales sent out a questionnaire to ‘facilitate’ reflections on the 2014 synod. The ‘summary of responses’ bears the fingerprints of lefty pressure groups — moaning about lack of funding for ‘justice and peace’ stunts and nostalgia for trendy liturgies. This may be the sort of thing Baldisseri and Forte want to read; but as a snapshot of parish life it is useless — and adds to the synod’s air of inauthenticity.
There’s also a lot of confusion. Many Synod Fathers are steering clear of factions because they want to stay loyal to the Pope. Yet they can’t work out what he really thinks. They like him but don’t know if they trust his judgment.
One decision really bothers them. Why did Francis ask Cardinal Godfried Danneels, a retired Belgian archbishop, to join the assembly? Danneels maintains that the church ‘has never opposed the fact that there should exist a sort of “marriage” between homosexuals’. No other cardinal holds this batty view.
But that’s not the problem. In 2010, a man confided in Danneels that he had been abused by a bishop, Roger Vangheluwe. The cardinal, who didn’t know he was being tape-recorded, told him to shut up until after the bishop retired.
The victim was Bishop Vangheluwe’s nephew. And now the cardinal who tried to cover up the abuse has been invited by the Pope to a synod on the family. Also, very unhelpfully, he has just written a book claiming credit for getting Bergoglio elected. ‘The Danneels thing is the most troubling aspect of the synod,’ says a respected Catholic writer. ‘If the scandal breaks properly, it could blow the whole thing apart.’
Fortunately for Pope Francis, the media aren’t interested in breaking his pontificate, which they realise is more fragile than it seems. Nor are most conservatives, who are mindful of his popularity in their home dioceses — and, despite everything, can’t help warming to the old boy. But they look at his date of birth and think: whether he retires or dies, we’re probably in the latter half of his reign.
The synod is their opportunity to identify a cardinal around whom they can unite, something they failed to do in the papal conclave of 2013 — preferably a younger man who can preserve the deposit of faith without coming across as a bigot, and certainly someone who, when he’s excited, doesn’t say the first thing that comes into his head. As of last Monday, all eyes are on Péter Erdö.