Arts & Books

Book review: What went wrong at the last family synod?

The ‘Hegelian’ Cardinal Kasper in conversation with Italian Cardinal Ravasi

The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?
by Edward Pentin, Ignatius Press, £11.86

The story of last October’s synod is well known, but Edward Pentin has written a short, useful summary of what went on and, more importantly, what went wrong. But this book offers more. Pentin was there: he has spoken to many of the participants, and his account is accordingly well sourced and authoritative. There are, in addition, quite a few juicy revelations.

Pentin analyses two key aspects of the synod. The first is the nature of the German Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to admit some remarried Catholics to Holy Communion, and the second is the way the synod was run. Cardinal Kasper and his allies have spoken of the evolution of doctrine, which implies that doctrine is historical and changes over time as it comes into contact with the realities of history. Pentin characterises this, correctly in my judgment, as Hegelian.

This Hegelian outlook is familiar from liberal, especially liberal Protestant, theology. It sees the doctrine of marriage as a product of its time. Likewise marital breakdown and the supposed goodness of second unions convey a historical truth from which we should learn. Hence the Kasper proposal, which recognises the supposed truth and goodness inherent in second unions.

Counter to this, in my view, is any theology steeped in the tradition of St Augustine: there are Eternal Verities, though they are expressed in human language, which requires updating from time to time – but it is not the task of reformulation to change the essential nature of truth, only to make it clearer.

Moreover, human nature does not change very much over the centuries – it would be absurd to see marriage, as traditionally understood, as now somehow outdated. The modern way of living is not mediating some great truth; it is, rather, showing us what happens when people ignore the truth. Doctrine should not accommodate itself to history. Instead, history needs to accommodate itself to the timeless truth of doctrine.

Pentin also sees the Hegelian turn as opening the door not just to a rethinking of the doctrine of marriage, but also a rethinking of the teaching about same-sex relations. This explains why the synod produced a paragraph in its interim report which seemed supportive of gay marriage.

Except, of course – and here we approach the second question – the synod did not produce that paragraph. The interim report was written and published before the synod fathers could see it. The paragraph in question was the work of one of the synod managers.

Pentin’s book makes it clear that the synod’s leading manager was, as one participant puts it in an aside, “out of his depth”.

A well-organised synod does not end up resembling a bar-room brawl. In one of the funnier revelations, we have a well-known cardinal “screaming” at another, much-loved American cardinal that the latter had plotted to discredit him with the African delegates. Was it like this at Nicaea, one wonders.

The book’s title asks a question: was the synod rigged? The answer is clear. Yes, there was manipulation, bullying and sleight of hand, but if it was rigged, it was certainly not well rigged. The manipulations of the schemers blew up in their faces, as when, producing an interim report that no one had had a chance to see, they saw the report disowned by the synod fathers themselves. They were out of their depth, which, as the same informant remarked, was a blessing, as otherwise the damage done might have been far worse.

The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? is only available as an eBook. Visit ignatius.com for further details

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (25/9/15)

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