Some say he is “a future papabile“, others that he is a dangerous thinker “permeating whole nations with his errors“. And last week he emerged as one of the most controversial figures in the Catholic world, when he was presented as the author of one of the most contentious passages in the family synod’s startling mid-term report.
The document urged the Church to take a radical new approach to cohabitation, remarriage and homosexuality, creating what one Vatican observer called “a pastoral earthquake“.
Yet Archbishop Bruno Forte remains a somewhat mysterious figure to many English-speaking Catholics.
So who, exactly, is he?
The most prosaic answer is that he is the Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto, an area east of Rome with around 300,000 Catholics. But Archbishop Forte is best known in Italy, and the wider Catholic world, as a prolific and remarkably well-connected theologian.
He studied at Tübingen, the German Catholic intellectual powerhouse associated with Hans Küng, Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper. He also spent time in Paris, before gaining a Laurea degree in philosophy from Naples university.
In the 1980s and 1990s Forte built a reputation as one of Italy’s leading theologians. In 2000, he oversaw the preparation of the Vatican document Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past, which led to the famous liturgy in St Peter’s Basilica in which St John Paul II asked God’s forgiveness for 2,000 years of sins committed in the Church’s name. The text, which called for “the purification of memory”, was criticised by some senior Church figures, who felt it implied the Church itself was flawed.
St John Paul II continued to favour the young theologian, asking him to preach the Vatican’s Lenten Spiritual Exercises in 2004 (later published as To Follow You, the Light of Life).
Three months later, John Paul II named Forte an archbishop. The 55-year-old’s principal consecrator was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Archbishop Forte was touted as a possible successor to Cardinal Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but the post went to the American Cardinal William Levada instead.
He was also mentioned as a candidate for the Archdiocese of Naples, his home see, when Cardinal Michele Giordano retired in 2006. But that post was given to Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe.
He reportedly expressed opposition to Benedict XVI’s decision to liberalise celebration of the traditional Latin Mass. It is also said that he became very close to Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the influential Jesuit Archbishop of Milan, in the latter’s final years.
A good entry point to Archbishop Forte’s thought for English speakers is his JH Walgrave Lecture, delivered at the American College at the Catholic University of Louvain in 2006. Described as “a virtuoso turn” by Rocco Palmo, the text presents the archbishop’s broad philosophical and theological vision. (Another good entry point is this 2010 interview with Zenit.)
In his lecture Archbishop Forte depicts the western world as “a society without fathers”, where “the collective murder of the Father” has removed all “vertical relationships” and permits “only horizontal ones, of equality and reciprocity”. He also discusses the struggle of believers in this hostile environment and concludes:
In the restlessness of questioning, the faith of the believer meets the invocation of those who would like to believe: on the ground of a common poverty and of a common search, but also on the basis of listening to the other who dwells in the depth of both partners of meeting, dialogue between believers and non-believers is one of the highest and most enriching challenges of the cultures marked by unbelief and religious indifference, that are particularly those of our post-modern Europe.
Shall we be ready as believers and as Church to accept this challenge without fear, with spirit and heart, trusting in the faithful God? On this question we must verify ourselves to make our choice in order to follow today, in our historical context, as persons and as Church, Jesus the living Lord.
Archbishop Forte’s theological heroes are said to be Cardinal Martini and another polarising Jesuit thinker, Karl Rahner.
Philosophically, he is preoccupied with the notion of “the Other” and engages with the work of Heidegger, Jaspers, Lévinas and Mounier.
How did Archbishop Forte influence the synod?
In October 2013 Pope Francis named Archbishop Forte as special secretary of the extraordinary synod on the family. He was closely involved in writing the synod’s mid-term report.
He appeared at a press conference (video) shortly after the report was released. When synod relator general Cardinal Péter Erdő was asked what the section on homosexuality meant, he pointedly turned the floor over to Archbishop Forte, saying: “He who wrote the text must know what it is talking about.”
Archbishop Forte answered: “I think the document intends to find positive aspects wherever these are to be found and they do exist of course. Rejecting something is easy but recognising and giving value to all that is positive, even when dealing with these kinds of experiences, I think is an exercise in intellectual honesty and spiritual charity.”
Archbishop Forte quickly became a lightning rod, with some hailing him as a courageous reformer and others as a betrayer of the Catholic faith.
What’s next for Archbishop Forte?
He seems to have kept a relatively low profile since the mid-term report furore. Some are suggesting that he might succeed Cardinal Gerhard Müller as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog. The 65-year-old appears to have Francis’s support, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Pope made him a cardinal.
What is certain is that his words will be followed closely from now on, not just by Church-watchers in Italy, but also around the world.