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.
The 13, in alphabetical order, included Carlo Caffarra, then archbishop of Bologna, formerly the first president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family; Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto; Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, vice-president of the US Bishops Conference; Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York; Willem Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht; Gerhard Müller, prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith; Wilfrid Fox Napier, archbishop of Durban; John Njue, archbishop of Nairobi; George Pell, prefect of the secretariat for the economy; Norberto Rivera Carrera, archbishop of Mexico City; Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Elio Sgreccia, president emeritus of the Pontifical Academy for Life; and Jorge Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas.
The cabinet’s front bench had written to the King. And the sovereign had to take note. When Pope Francis continued his push for the Kasper proposal in Amoris Laetitia, he had to do so within the limited room the synod had given to him. So the apostolic exhortation hid its intent in footnotes and ambiguities. Even now, the guidelines produced by those bishops most keen on the Kasper vision advise that any such admission to Holy Communion be done in secret. Administering the sacraments in secret is a clear sign that something is awry; any pastoral practice so conceived will not endure.
The letter of the 13 cardinals proved to be the turning point. The Holy Spirit was at work indeed, in a most unexpected way. The announcement this week of a consistory of cardinals occasioned commentary upon the role of the cardinals as the special advisers of the pope. In October 2015 the cardinals – 13 of them – gave perhaps the most important advice of recent times.