This time last year the second installment of the synod on the family was unfolding in Rome, the conclusion of which was as yet unknown. Now that we are in the implementation phase of Amoris Laetitia, we can look back on the entire process with greater clarity.
It is now clear that Pope Francis does not believe that the pastoral discipline regarding the inadmissibility of the divorced and civilly remarried to the sacraments is correct and wishes to overturn it. Yet while he has gone to great lengths to make his mind clear on the subject, he has gone to equally great lengths not to formally teach it.
There are two reasons for that. The first is that the tradition is clear, rooted in teaching of Jesus in the Gospel, and it is not possible for even the Pope to change it. Hence Pope Francis has had recourse to ambiguities, hints, private phone calls and leaked letters to let the Church know that he thinks what he cannot teach.
The second reason is that Pope Francis encountered surprising resistance to the Amoris Laetitia agenda, first outlined by Cardinal Walter Kasper in February 2014. The key moment in that resistance took place a year ago, on the opening day of the second family synod in 2015. It was then that Cardinal George Pell handed Pope Francis a private letter signed by 13 cardinal participants in the synod. The letter objected to the Kasper proposal in substance, and to the attempts to engineer the synod to approve it. The next day, with the existence of the letter still unknown, the Holy Father addressed the synod to reaffirm the procedures in place and to warn participants against conspiracy theories.
The news of the letter, of which there were only two copies – one for the Holy Father and one for Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the synod of bishops – was then leaked to favoured papal reporter Andrea Tornielli. One supposes that a papal insider – or implausibly, the Holy Father himself – thought leaking the news of the discreet resistance would work to the advantage of the synod managers, putting the traditional party on the back foot, apparently at odds with the Pope. That was a key miscalculation, and the crucial moment in frustrating the Kasper proposal. The letter of the 13 cardinals, once revealed, illustrated that some of the most senior cardinals in the Church were prepared, for the sake of fidelity to the Gospel, to resist a popular pope. The dynamic of the synod changed then, with the resistance emboldened, not cowed, and in the event the synod fathers refused to endorse the Kasper proposal.
The signatories had all seen what had happened the previous year, when Pope Francis dismissed the leading opponent of the Kasper proposal, Cardinal Raymond Burke, from his post as the Church’s “chief justice” to a largely ceremonial role. Yet they signed. And their collective credibility determined the course of the synod.
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