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Bishops arrive in procession for the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the family in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano, handout
Bishops arrive in procession for the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the family in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano, handout

Letters from the Synod: Volume 7 – 6 October

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and elsewhere, on the XIV Ordinary General assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Edited by Xavier Rynne II


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…from and about Synod 2015

Two addresses, given on the morning of 5 October, set down important markers for Synod-2015 on its first formal day of work.

Pope Francis began by urging the Synod to “always keep before our eyes the good of the Church, of families, and the supreme law, the salus animarum [the good of souls]”. The Holy Father then defined the unique character of a Synod:

“…the Synod is neither a convention, nor a parlor, nor a parliament or senate, where people make deals and reach compromises. The Synod is rather an ecclesial expression, i.e., the Church that journeys together to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God; it is the Church that interrogates herself with regard to her fidelity to the deposit of faith, which does not represent for the Church a museum to view, nor even merely something to safeguard, but is a living source from which the Church shall drink….”

The Synod, Pope Francis continued, happens within a Church in which bishops are “shepherds – which is to say…servants”. The Synod fathers must remain open to the power of the Holy Spirit; but that power will only be felt if the bishops “vest ourselves with apostolic courage, which refuses to be intimidated in the face of the temptations of the world – temptations that tend to extinguish the light of truth in the hearts of men, replacing it with small and temporary lights; nor even before the petrification of some hearts, which, despite good intentions, drive people away from God; apostolic courage to bring life and not to make of our Christian life a museum of memories…”

And so, the Holy Father concluded, “the only method of the Synod is to open up to the Holy Spirit with apostolic courage, with evangelical humility, and confident, trusting prayer, that it might be He who guides us, enlightens us, and makes us put before our eyes…fidelity to the magisterium, the good of the Church, and the salus animarum”.

The second defining speech was given by Cardinal Peter Erdő, archbishop of Esztergom–Budapest and Rapporteur-General of the Synod.

After reviewing the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family in its various dimensions, Cardinal Erdő spoke about marriage and family life as a vocation: institutions given by God as part of the “divine pedagogy” by which we learn the dignity of human life and human love, and the true meaning of our being made male and female. The Hungarian cardinal then looked at marriage and the family through the lens of Revelation and theology, noting that in God’s creative design, the unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage were “inscribed” as a truth-built-into-us. Christ’s work of redemption, he continued, had restored within marriage and the family “the image of the Most Holy Trinity, from which springs every true love”.

Cardinal Erdő then located the Christian family in the context of the New Evangelisation, reminding the Synod fathers that “the missionary dimension of the family is rooted in the sacrament of Baptism”, through which all are commissioned to be missionary disciples, and from which the Christian family is constituted as a “domestic Church”. Thus the family, as St John Paul II taught in the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio [The Community of the Family] “is the way of the Church”, a point Blessed Paul VI had also underscored in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, when he challenged the many ways in which modern technology detached marriage from family by separating “procreation from conjugal love”. Moreover, as Benedict XVI taught in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate [Charity in Truth], “the experience of love in marriage and the family” is absolutely vital to the life of society: not least, Erdő continued, because the family is the place where one learns the meaning of the common good through experience.

The Synod Rapporteur-General then underscored that the “teaching of Christ on matrimony”, monogamy and the indissolubility of marriage, was a “true gospel and a font of joy” in which the human person realises his or her “vocation to personal relationships” of freedom, mutual self-gift, and full acceptance of the other. This teaching on indissolubility, the cardinal noted, had come from the Gospels and St Paul, and has always distinguished the Christian view of marriage from others’.

Cardinal Erdő then reminded the Synod fathers that mercy and revealed truth cannot be put into opposition, for “merciful love, as it attracts and unites, also transforms and lifts up. It is an invitation to conversion”. In this light, the cardinal then affirmed that “a merciful pastoral accompaniment of the divorced and civilly remarried” cannot “leave in doubt” the “truth of the indissolubility of marriage taught by Jesus Christ himself”. “The mercy of God,” he continued, “offers sinners pardon” but always “calls to conversion”.

Erdő then noted that “it is not the shipwreck of the first marriage but the living-together in the second relationship that impedes access to the Eucharist”. The cardinal then referred to the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (#84): when those who in conscience believe that, for the sake of their children or the common life they have built in a second marriage, they must remain in that marriage, there is access to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist when the couple practices continence, “living their relationship as one of mutual help and friendship”. Such a requirement on the part of the Church does not, Erdő said, reduce marriage to a mere exercise in sexual expression, but rather recognises the truth of the situation, which reflects the truth about marriage taught by Christ.

As to the question of “gradualism” in an individual’s or couple’s growth in the moral life, Cardinal Erdő said that, while we all grow in the life of grace, it is also true that “between true and false, between good and evil, there is in fact no such ‘graduality’”. And while there may be “some positive aspects” to be found in irregular relationships, “this does not imply” that these relationships “can be presented as good”.

Taking his text from a document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Erdő then stated that “there is no foundation” in truth for making any “analogy, however remote, between homosexual unions and God’s design for marriage and the family”, while urging respect and sensitive pastoral care for people who experience same-sex attraction. The cardinal then urged the pastors of the Church to resist campaigns to affirm these new designs for building families, and stated bluntly that the pressures put on poor countries by international institutions that condition financial aid on the former’s acceptance of “same-sex marriage” are “unacceptable”.

The Rapporteur-General concluded by urging the Synod fathers to continue their attentive listening to the Word of God so that the Church’s response “to the needs of our contemporaries” may be one that “offers them liberating truth” in the witness of greater mercy.

[A few analytic comments: Pope Francis’s speech to the Synod made clear that the Church reads and judges the signs of the times through the lens of the Gospel; the Gospel is not judged by the signs of the times. Moreover, the Holy Father clearly affirmed that there are “sacred givens” in the life of the Church, and to ignore them is to cut oneself off from the wellsprings of the life of grace. The Pope’s subtle but unmistakable rejection of pressures from “the world” on the Synod and the Church made clear his conviction that the world does not set the agenda for the Church; thus Pope Francis quietly but unmistakably declined to follow the path trod by the World Council of Churches and Liberal Protestantism in general. 

Despite some spin from the Vatican Press Office, to the effect that Cardinal Erdő’s address was limited to the first third of the Instrumentum Laboris (the Synod’s working document), the cardinal in fact ranged far more widely than that section of the IL (whatever the agenda created by the Synod general secretariat may have decreed). And in doing so, the Rapporteur-General touched forcefully on many of the most controversial issues that had emerged in the pre-Synod debate and maneuvering.

By discussing the family within the context of the New Evangelisation, he tried to steer the Synod toward a discussion of the contemporary crisis of chastity, marriage, and the family that fit Pope Francis’s call for Catholicism to be a “Church permanently in mission”. His robust defense of the indissolubility of marriage and his reaffirmation of John Paul II’s teaching on Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly-remarried in Familiaris Consortio seemed to many a clear indication, unlikely to have been given without Pope Francis’s approval, that what has become known as the “Kasper proposal” is off-the-table at Synod-2015 – an intuition confirmed by reports that Cardinal Kasper did not applaud Cardinal Erdő’s speech and seemed somewhat shocked by it. Similarly, the Erdő address seemed to make clear that the Synod would not endorse “civil unions” for same-sex couples, even as it would urge the United States Agency for International Development and various U.N. agencies to cease conditioning development aid in the Third World on the legalisation of “same-sex marriage”.

There were indications late in the day that some Synod fathers believed that Synod-2015 would be well-served, and might proceed according to the original intention of Pope Francis, were the Erdő address to replace the Instrumentum Laboris as the foundational text for the Synod’s discussions or be used in tandem with it. Whether that happens or not, Cardinal Erdő, in sync with the opening speech of Pope Francis, oriented Synod-2015 toward that for which many, many Catholics had hoped: a Revelation-based reflection on the glory of marriage and the family, as the answer to the crisis of those basic institutions in the post-modern world. It now remains to be seen whether the message about the Synod’s work and its goals that the Holy Father and Cardinal Erdő delivered is understood, and taken to heart, by those who came to the Synod with other purposes in mind.  XR2


…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers

The following essay, offered to Letters from the Synod by Professor C.C. Pecknold of the Catholic University of America, unpacks some of the intellectual temptations that have given rise to various proposals that were debated before Synod-2015. Professor Pecknold thus offers our readers a “return to the sources” that clarifies just why proposals that may seem to make pastoral sense, especially in terms of the Divine Mercy, in fact makes no sense, and can even result in nonsense. XR2

Leaving Hegel Out of the Synod

Professor Thomas Stark has recently argued in Catholic World Report ( that Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposals on Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried are inextricably bound up with the errors of the modern philosopher of history, G.W.F. Hegel. If this is true, and there seems to be some evidence that it is, then bishops, periti, and observers at the Synod should understand the influence Hegel has had over modern theology more generally. Moreover, all involved should understand why the Hegelian tendency in modern theology is both influential, tempting – and pastorally disastrous for the Church.

The Hegelian view of God’s involvement in the unfolding of history as Geist [Spirit] is at root a Christian heresy, reminiscent of Joachim of Fiore and the Gnostics. For the Hegelian, God suffers with, and changes, precisely through the sin and suffering of his creatures, dialectically pouring out his love and mercy through the progress of history. This heretical view has had widespread influence in modern Catholic and Protestant accounts of God’s nature, in such a way as to misunderstand Christ’s two natures and the suffering of the Second Person of the Trinity in “the economy of the flesh”. Thus the Hegelian approach, in either its Protestant or Catholic form, preaches a God who cannot save: a God who cannot wipe away every tear because he is somehow bound up with our tears.

  1. A brief primer on Hegel on religion

As a response to Enlightenment rationalism, Hegel “dialectically” both accepts and rejects Kant’s infinitely transcendent God, even as he dialectically accepts and rejects the Romantic subjectivity which flowed from it: a subjectivity in which, without any accepted rational demonstrations of God’s existence, “religious feeling”, [Gefuhl] becomes the best evidence on offer. Rather, Hegel argued that the best argument for God was rationally demonstrable, and was objectively experienced, in history.

For Hegel, God is “Absolute” and Christianity is an “absolute religion”. Abstracting from the doctrine of the Trinity, Hegel imagines that God is the Absolute in the process of coming to greater self-understanding through a dialectical unfolding of his divine love in human history. The Absolute, or universal, chooses to move out of itself to the historically particular – a kenotic movement which non-identically recurs as God pours out this divine love into a common life of Geist, which must be represented by cult, by sacrifice, by a Sittlichkeit, or moral community. This is, of course, an ek-stasis which is supposed to philosophically mirror the Christian faith in the Incarnation of the Son, as well as mirror his death and resurrection which opens the way to Pentecost and the creation of the Church.

But Hegel universalised this as idealist philosophy. And in the process he radically transformed the orthodox Christian understanding of the Triune God into something quite different. Hegel does not see God as “the true font of light and wisdom and the primal origin raised high beyond things”, because in the most dramatic way possible, Hegel believes that “God is not God without the world”.

To some, especially Protestant theologians, it could seem that Hegel was saving Christian theology from the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which had made God so transcendent as to be radically inaccessible to us. Now, these theologians would argue, Hegel has reversed this trend and made God very close to us.  Citing a Lutheran hymn, “God himself is dead”, Hegel argues that God unites death to his nature. And so when we encounter suffering and death, we taste the particularities of the eternal divine “history”. As he puts it, “This is not a single act but the eternal divine history: it is a moment in the nature of God himself; it has taken place in God himself.” For Hegel, God suffers eternally. It is an aspect of his eternal nature. Our sin and suffering is necessary for God to be God.

  1. The Hegelian Theologians

The basic principle that many 20th-century theologians followed in the wake of Hegel was the dialectical process itself, positing a divine Otherness that is nevertheless constituted by a divine relationality, so that there is always something “becoming” in God.  We see this most notably in the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. But more to the point here, we see this in all the theologians of kenosis, especially Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, a kind of poster child for what Hegel looks like when he’s simply translated into explicitly Christian terms.

The witness of Catholic theology is more distant from Hegel in certain respects than our separated brethen. Catholic theologians, even when they are very influenced by him, have typically understood that Hegel’s thought needs to be refuted more than it needs to be translated into Christian terms. Hans Urs von Balthasar is a noble example of a Catholic theologian who tried to out-Hegel Hegel and pull his ecumenical brethren in a more Catholic direction.

For Balthasar, the ecumenal  missionary to the kenotic theologians, what modern theologians call “suffering in God”, we should rather say is a kind of “supra-suffering” in God. Balthasar tried to lift the Hegelian theologians out of their patripassianist tendency by introducing a “perfection term” for suffering in God, a term that does not imperil the Church’s theological understanding of God’s transcendence, immutability and impassibility. Mercy was not the word he chose, but rather “supra-suffering”. Like Moltmann, Balthasar wants to say that God suffers in a much higher way than we do, but unlike Moltmann he wants to say that this higher way is (paradoxically) where our suffering can be perfected into “supra-suffering”. But what is that?

Jacques Maritain, otherwise sympathetic to Balthasar, questioned the adequacy of this Catholic response. For Maritain, Balthasar did not go far enough in his return from the Hegelian journey, reminding us of the Augustinian principle that all evil and suffering is a privation of the good.  This means that evil and suffering can only be predicated of creatures, not the Creator. Maritain sees Balthasar reaching for a “perfection term” for suffering in Christ’s two natures – yet the Hegelian burden means that what is suffering in the human nature is too vaguely “supra-suffering” in the divine nature. That sounds like a dialectical game which ends up projecting suffering into the eternal divine nature in a way not too distinct from Moltmann. As Gilles Emery has claimed, Balthasar’s mistake is not in thinking about a corresponding “perfection term” for the suffering in Christ’s divine nature, but in failing to identify that “perfection term” simply as Divine Charity, which is poured out eternally within the Trinity and does indeed suffer in the economy of the flesh as God unites human suffering to himself in order to heal and transfigure human nature for eternal life.

  1. Hegel as a Pastoral Temptation

Hegel appeals to our modern therapeutic sense of sympathy, empathy and compassion. Yet tragically his is a particular kind of therapy that doesn’t really cause a change in us an therefore cannot heal us.  It certainly allows God to change, but not us. God always affirms us in whatever sin we actually are experiencing right now, so much so that our sins are implicitly part of our gradual realisation that we are already in communion with God.

Hegel’s God is not demanding. But neither is he genuinely merciful because Hegel’s God is very near to us precisely in the dialectical unfolding of our lives. And we must necessarily encounter the God who has negated his Absolute existence to become a “fellow sufferer”, uniting us in a communion of sympathy for our fellow man in the experience of some transcendent horizon which is always receding back into our experience of one another.

Hegel tempts us to project our suffering onto God, onto Christ, and onto his Holy Church – and in doing so, to transform God, Christ, and the Church into heightened version of ourselves.  Hegel tempts modern theologians to see sins, in our lives, and as they unfold in human history, not as a turning away from God, but as a kind of dialectical “moment” in which God suffers, and dwells with us in our suffering, extending always his mercy to sinners. Hegelianism can be dressed up to sound Christian. But it actually hides a post-Christian “projectionism” in which God is nothing other than the affirmation of ourselves writ large.

Hegel’s God is very sympathetic, but he can never be merciful.

Imagine a house on fire. People are crying out for help from the top floor, unable to escape. Crowds gather, yet feel helpless against the expansive flames. People on the street begin crying, weeping, showing great compassion and solidarity with the suffering of the people trapped. Suddenly, a man appears from nowhere. He throws a heavy jacket on and, at great risk to himself, barrels into the burning house, runs up the stairs and breaks down a locked door, allowing those inside to  escape. The man who saved the people trapped in that burning house was, in fact, much more compassionate than those in the crowd, even though he did not indulge in the street level empathy. Like Christ, the man subjected himself to suffering not in order to dwell in it, but in order to rescue human beings from death.

God’s mercy flows from the costly sacrifice of his Son in the economy of the flesh.  God’s plan is not to suffer with us in our sins, but to rescue us from them.  This means that divine mercy can only flow to contrite hearts by being lifted out of sin, not by being left in it.

  1. Hegel’s Universalism as Impediment to the New Evangelisation

The Hegelian view of God is pastorally disastrous for another reason, principally to do with eschatology and the new evangelisation.

Hegelianism is universalist in its eschatology: its theology of the Last Things and the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness. Because God simply is the unfolding of history, he is all in all, and we are all being enfolded into his life simply through our authentic existence in time. The good news here is that, through our authentic experience of God in the progress of history, we are in communion with God as members of an already redeemed humanity. All shall be saved in a manner according to the unfolding of history precisely because all participate in God’s own life. All things, even sin and death, are now found in God, and thus nothing is beyond redemption. Whatever happens, has happened in God.  And that includes our sins which will not, after all, prevent us from being eternally united to God’s life.

The trouble with this is that it is not the Gospel.

Hegel forestalls the possibility of conversion to Jesus Christ, ensuring that there is no movement in human nature from the state of original sin to a state of grace. Thus there is never a transfiguration of our wounds, and whatever tears we cry in this life will not so much be wiped away as shared by God eternally. In the name of mercy, Hegelianism translates the apostle Paul’s “all things are possible” into “all things are permitted” within the unfolding of “authentic” human and divine experience.

The other trouble with the Hegelian tendency is that it does not embody the authentic mercy that Pope Francis has proclaimed.  His call to exercise “the missionary option”, to move from the center to the periphery and back again, is itself a rescue mission, to bring the mercy of Christ to heal the sinners, not to keep them in their sin. The Pope’s call to renounce a throw-away culture of waste, death, decay, and destruction is not a call to dwell in that culture, but to repent, to turn, to be converted to Christ who is mercy, joy, peace, and life eternal: thus the Holy Father’s frequent appeals to us to turn away from the devil, to confess our sin, and to turn to the Divine Mercy, which has the power but to break us out of sin’s chains. Mercy flows not from empathy and compassion, but from conversion to Christ Jesus. This is the mercy that is most pastorally necessary, because it is precisely freedom from sin through contrition and a commitment to sin no more by the power of Jesus Christ, by whose mercy and grace the Church exists to liberate us from sin and eternal death.

As the Psalmist understood, it is only when peace kisses justice, and only when mercy enters into communion with truth (Ps. 85.10), that our human nature can be saved from sin, cleansed and purified for union with the divine nature. Divine Mercy is not poured out for us in Jesus Christ in order that we may dwell in the instability of our sins; Divine Mercy is poured out to rescue us from sin, and raise us up by grace to the path of holiness and virtue. As guardians of the deposit of faith, I am sure that the Synod fathers will want to guard us from the Hegelian idols (1 John 5.21).

C.C. Pecknold, Associate Professor of    Theology, The Catholic University of America


…for the Synod and the Church to hear

Bishop Jean Laffitte (b. 1952) has served as Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family since 2009, having previously worked in Rome as Vice President of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Ordained a priest for the diocese of Autun, Chacon and Macon, he is also a member of the Emmanuel Community. Jean Laffitte holds a doctorate in moral theology from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Gamily, having previously earned degrees in political science and philosophy.

Bishop Laffitte’s striking absence from the roster of episcopal members of the Synod on the Family is one of that list’s most  sorry omissions. He has, however, spoken at length and with keen insight on the issues engaged at Synod-2015 in a new book, The Choice of the Family: A Call to Wholeness, Abundant Life, and Enduring Happiness, recently published by Image. The following excerpts from that book suggest why his is a voice that the Synod and the Church should very much want to hear. XR2

Bishop Jean Laffitte, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, second from right, with Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop John J. McIntyre, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput,, and Everett A. Gillison, chief of staff for Mayor Nutter, after a press conference ahead of the September World Meeting of Families. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
Bishop Jean Laffitte, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, second from right, with Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop John J. McIntyre, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput,, and Everett A. Gillison, chief of staff for Mayor Nutter, after a press conference ahead of the September World Meeting of Families. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

On Love and the God of Love

“On the matter of love, experience is primary. One does not ask himelf one beautiful day, “Oh, what is love?” No. Rather: “How does it come to me? How does it happen in me? Why do I think endlessly about this person, and why is this thought filling me with joy?” Why then does the question of God pose itself to us in terms of love given and love received? When you teach on these matters, what you say first involves all men of good will, but also finds itself in agreement with the nature of the Christian life. Christian life is not an ideology, a current of opinion, a theory, a mathematical axiom, a prejudice. Christian life is primarily the experience of God who reveals Himself to man. It is the experience that men have of this God who reveals Himself by living us. It cannot be invented.

“All of the great Christian thinkers, the Gospel writers, St Paul, the Fathers of the Church, the martyrs, the great theologians such as St Augustine, the mystical saints like Saint Francis of Assisi, as well as the saints of today like Mother Teresa, who is a great spiritual master, are all part of the reality of who God is and what He has done in their lives. God allows himself to be contemplated. He exists before we contemplate Him! Yes, experience precedes analysis or the a priori explanations that man is tempted to develop.”

On Marriage Preparation

“…when the Church speaks of ‘marriage preparation,’ she means primarily and above all ‘preparation to receive the sacrament of marriage.’ She emphasises an event that is a Christian event. For, to take up an image from Gaudium et Spes [Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World], at the moment when the couple marries, Christ comes to meet them in order to dwell with them for the entire length of their lives. The Church holds to a conviction: From the moment the bride and groom marry and receive the sacrament of marriage, this marriage, far from being limited to the moment of the celebration, is given for the whole of their common life.”

On Marriage as a Covenant, and the God Who Does Not Break Promises

“One may think about, search for, and deepen the terms used to express [the Christian idea of marriage]. The Church has never found a better term than that of covenant [which] returns us to the biblical tradition…

“If Christ unites himself sacramentally with the married couple, His will not abandon His covenant on the pretext that the spouses have decided to divorce. That would make no sense. For this reason, if the sacrament is valid then it cannot cease to b so. The Church has neither the possibility nor the power to say the contrary: ‘The sacrament was valid; I declare that it is invalid.’ Why? Because the sacrament is a work of God. Christ has raised human love to the dignity of a sacrament. It is not the norm of the Church that did so. The norm of the Church codified it and made it explicit, of course, and gave the sacrament its form and canonical rules, but she did not create it…”

…being other items of interest 

There are 7.3 billion people on this planet; 63.8 million, or .008 per cent of them, speak Italian. Yet Cardinal Peter Erdő’s address to the opening of Synod 2015 was not made available in any language other than the Italian in which it was delivered by the Synod general secretariat or the Holy See Press Office.

This is unacceptable. Moreover, it gives rise in some quarters  to suspicions, which we certainly hope are unfounded, that the Holy See Press Office and the Synod general secretariat are not interested in permitting a wide engagement with speeches like Cardinal Erdő’s.

The best way to allay those suspicions and to foster the open dialogue for which Pope Francis called again in his opening speech to the Synod would be to make such major addresses available in the major world languages immediately after delivery. XR2

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