The synod of bishops that has just finished revealed two certainties. The first one: there is hope in the Church peripheries. The second: that the most hopeful peripheries are not those that one might expect. It is not Latin America, from which Pope Francis hails, and where the Church has assumed the social function of fighting poverty but has lost sight of the rolein once had of formingthe consciences when the Jesuits established themselves there and fought slavery with ‘reducciones’. The hope does not come from Asia either, a mature continent full of traditions, loved by Pope Francis, where the challenges are rather survival and religious freedom. The Church’s hope comes from Europe’s peripheries, in the East, where religious sentiment and culture fought hard against Communist totalitarianism. The Church’s hope also comes from Africa, a continent often deemed immature, but faithful to the Church of Rome and active in applying her teachings.
Bishops from Eastern Europe and Africa have been the most active in the revolt that has taken place at the Synod of Bishops. A peaceful –but strong– revolt. A revolt which followed the publication of the ‘relatio post disceptationem’, the synod’s midterm report. Cardinal Petr Erdo, General Rapporteur of the synod, had kept the relatio balanced, stressing at the opening of the evangelization the need for better-formed priests and faithful. But the very same Cardinal Erdo then distanced himself from a text it was not completely his own, and which generated an intense discussion in the synod’s hall right after he read it.
Going beyond the polemics on the so-called opening regarding same-sex unions and with respect to divorced and remarried catholics, what was really missing in the relatio was reference to the Gospel. The relation was just a snapshot of reality, a faithful portrait of the current situation where, in the end, there was no space for Christian hope. With that ‘relatio’, the Church had given up shaping the world, and had decided to allow itself to be shaped by the world. This perspective had been effectively summarized by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, during a briefing with journalists: «We cannot choose our faithful, we should go toward them.»
This was the setting of the relatio post disceptationem. The relatio recalled the limits of Liberation Theology. Id est, the limits of a perfect sociological analysis that is not able to go beyond the current situation. So much so, that the Marxism applied by Liberation Theology as a tool of analysis theorized about the class struggle and revolution,but in order to generate a new equilibrium rather than to change the people’s heart. Christianity, on the other hand, really goes beyond sociology. It is the Gospel, with its mission of love and its teaching based on truth, that can really shape the world and make it better.
Even the perspective behind the relatio denoted an understanding of a Church whose vision would be limited. Far from highlighting the beauty of the Christian life and the great examples that Catholic families provide to the faithful, the synod’s midterm report focused on the irregular situations, underscoring the need for a new, merciful approach. «As if the Church was not merciful before, and now it is,» said Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops’ Conference.
In fact, all that the relatio dealt with was a Church in need of a new approach. Some claimed that this new approach could be achieved even by eventually changing the doctrine. «The Church can have a change of mind. For example, we know that the Church at the beginning was in favor of slavery, and latershe was not anymore,» said Victor Fernandez, rector of the Catholic University of Argentina, vicepresident of the Commission for the Synod’s Message to the People of God, and Pope Francis’ ghostwriter.
This is a dangerous thesis, and also a false one. From St. Paul on, Christianity has always fought against slavery. So much so, that the first to speak about human rights were the Dominican Fathers Bartolomé de Las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria: sent to America, they coined the expression “human rights” and stressed they were universal, thus rejecting the way the ‘indios’ were treated by the conquistadores.
Of this contribution to international law, as well as many other Catholics’ contributions, there is no record in a large part of all the books written about the history of international law. In fact, almost all of these books have been written after the Enlightenment, with the purpose of finally getting rid of the Church’s teaching. The years of Enlightenment introduced a prejudice against the Church that continues today.
It continues particularly in South America, where the colonial powers pushed the Pope to abolish the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits): they were guilty of having established missions in South America, and teaching the ‘indios’ how to be independent. The movie ‘The Mission’ recounts this story well, which seems to be forgotten.
In fact, Pope Francis’ Argentina is the country that has lived through, more than any other, the new colonization, that of secularism. In only one year, Argentina introduced in its legislation gay-rights bills that allowed gay marriage and in-vitro fertilization, as reported by the 2012 Report on the Social Teaching of the Church issued by the Van Thuan Observatory.
African Bishops seem to be the most aware of the historic risks. It is because Africa is still a colonized continent. There, the Catholic Church is the most important institution working to create conditions for development, in the context of the common good. The Catholic University that has been established in Congo, the other Catholic university in Ethiopia, the health care system that is 70 percent Catholic (and that is now confronting the Ebola outbreak) tell the story of an Africa saved by Catholic ideals. And the Africans are very faithful to these ideals.
African Bishops put the challenges of the future on the table. The challenges do not deal with the pastoral for divorced remarried, or homosexual couples. For the first case, there is a pastoral praxis, put into practice and managed by confessors; for the second case, there is a 1986 instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which already addresses the issue.
The challenges of the future are those that arise from colonization by secularist ideas. The real assaults on the family – African bishops spoke about this – are those driven by states and international organizations. The latter are committedto the development of poor countries, but at the same time they link the delivery of aid to the introduction of laws based on gender ideology, undermining the family.
This is how gender ideology is developed: through processes of soft law that can only be opposed with a lot of skill and knowledge.
Skill and knowledge are needed to defend against assaults on religious freedom. Religious communities have the right to their freedom, something that Eastern European countries know well. Not by chance, countries from Eastern Europe were the only ones that sided with Italy when the latter appealed against the European Court verdict that forbid having crucifixes in Italian classrooms.
African and Eastern European bishops have been the most active in defending the doctrine of the Church. Cardinal Wilfried Napier, very angry for the way the midterm report had come about, understood that its content had been picked-up by media, and that any modification or change of approach would have been described as a step back. In his own words, it was an «irredeemable» situation. He also pointed out that «the synod is not convening to speak about abortion, contraception, same sex marriages. It was convened to talk about family.»
And Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and moderator of one of the small groups that has criticized the relatio, reiterated to Catholic News Agency the teachings of the Church about homosexuality and denounced pressure groups behind push to change the Church’s teaching.
Many synod fathers feared that a powerful lobby found its way into the synod and outside the synod, to undermine the teachings of the Church. The publication of the relatio opened the flood gates to the so-called resistance, culminating in the vociferous publication of the reports of the small groups.
After the first week of assembly, the synod fathers broke out in ten groups to analyze the text of the relatio and make their proposals and observations. Generally, all the proposals that gain a supermajority of two third are admitted, and the Pope later synthetize them in a post-synodal exhortation. This synod introduced a new methodology, according to which the synod’s secretariat, together with the general rapporteur, were tasked with writing a final report, which would become a sort of blueprint for the next synod. And even the proposals that did not gain a supermajority had been published – having being made public by the Pope the result of each vote.
The publication of the reports has shown that the majority of synod fathers were on the other side to the midterm relatio. The synod of the media, so well orchestrated and ready to hail with a hooray any doctrinal change in the Church, had been finally surpassed by the real synod.
It is yet to be known who had ultimately drafted the midterm report, which was so controversial and made even more controversial by mistakes in translations. Those that were suspected to have the role of steering the synod in a particular direction came to the fore when the decision was made not to publish the interventions of the synod’s fathers. Then, the number of suspects increased when Pope Francis appointed six prelates to assist Cardinal Erdo in drafting the relatio synodi, the synod’s final report – surprisingly, among the six, there was no one from Africa – the Pope later had to rectify the mistake by including the commission Cardinal Napier and archbishop of Melbourne Hart. Suspicions still aroused when it was rumored that Cardinal Erdo was only able to introduce very minor changes to the relatio he had received back Sunday evening, Oct. 12. The Pope – it is rumored – had requested the Cardinal to give him the text Saturday, Oct. 11. It is yet to be known who had worked on the text while it reportedly was in Pope’s hands, making it shorter than Cardinal Erdo’s, deleting any mention of sexual disorder, sexual education, and the Gospel.
Given that Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Special Secretary of the Synod, has been indicated by the same Cardinal Erdo as the drafter of the report, one of the bishops has said he recognized «the hand of Cardinal Ravasi» – President of the Pontifical Council for Culture and president of the message. Many of the bishops have seen Victor Fernandez’s hand in it (apparent in some inaccuracies of the Italian original). But the «guiding group» includes almost all the cardinals of the Council of Cardinals. Cardinal Marx was one of the most tenacious proponents of a change in doctrine. Not by chance, he was called to brief journalists in one of the very last press conferences of the synod.
In fact, this appeasement in the face of the prevailing culture contrasts with Paul VI, whose beatification was scheduled to crown this synod of bishops. A modern Pope, with a missionary vision, who had been able to keep the Church on course at a very difficult time full of controversy. A Pope who had kept his faith, and that had the faithful do the same, issuing the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” the very last of his pontificate. It was 1968, and his pontificate extended for another 10 years. However, after Humanae Vitae, Paul VI did not write any other encyclical. «He did not want his magisterial acts to be instrumentalized, he wanted to lead the Church with balance in that difficult time,» recounted Cardinal Paul Poupard, who had been among Paul VI’s collaborators. And then he added: «The first telegram that arrived in the Secretariat of State after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae was that of Dom Helder Camara. He thanked the Pope because, with that encyclical, he was protecting children and helping the Third World countries.»
Yes, the very same HelderCamara who lived in the favelas, cited as a champion by all the Liberation Theologians and Third World advocates asking for a greater opening-up of the Church. Today, Helder Camara’s heart seems to have been lost, while merely the cold sociological analysis has remained.