“The doctrine on marriage is not at stake; the family, as an irreplaceable resource of every human society, is.” Fr. Giampaolo Salvini, a former director of La Civiltà Cattolica, stated this in an article he wrote summarizing the working document (“instrumentum laboris”) of the upcoming Synod. The article is the last in a series of three published in the latest issue of the Jesuit-run magazine whose drafts are reviewed in the Secretariat of State prior to publication. Of the three articles, Fr. Salvini’s piece did not grab much attention, even though it is probably the one closest to Pope Francis’ thought.

La Civiltà Cattolica thus wades (again) into discussion about the Synod. The editor-in-chief of the magazine is Fr. Antonio Spadaro, very close to Pope Francis and considered by the Pope as one of those who best interprets his thought. It is often suggested that he will become an official of the Vatican’s communications secretariat, eventually director of the Holy See Press Office that will probably be restructured.

In the meantime, Fr. Spadaro works tirelessly. During the last Synod, he was a contributor to some of the key texts. He was part of the commission established to compose the Synod’s final message, but it is also rumored that he introduced some changes to the controversial mid-term report (the Pope wanted to handle it personally together with some of his closest collaborators before Cardinal Petr Erdo presented it), and to the Synod’s Final Report.

This is the reason why La Civiltà Cattolica’s editorial choices must be considered attentively. Pope Francis’ thought may be read in a nutshell through the magazine’s articles, because the Pope is a Jesuit and because he trusts the way Fr. Spadaro broadcasts his message. It is noteworthy that the three articles in the latest issue are dedicated to Synod’s main topics, as if there were a need to discuss them anew and to balance some earlier positions.

Out of the three articles, the interview that the Emeritus Theologian of the Pontifical Household, Cardinal Georges Cottier, granted to Fr. Antonio Spadaro grabbed most of the attention. The tone of discussion is also set by the other two articles. The first, by the Jesuit Mario Imperatori, is about “Marriage and Faith today: a rediscovery of God’s primacy.” The second, titled “Toward the Synod: the working document” is Fr. Salvini’s analysis of the Synod’s working document.

This latter is a good starting point. Fr. Salvini presented it as a summary of the working document, but the article goes beyond that, and makes some interesting points. Fr. Salvini opined that the working document observes in some cases points on which common agreement was found among the Synod Fathers, and he suggests that those points should remain as they are. However, “there are many other issues at stake, though no way out of them is indicated.”

Among these is “the issue of the cohabitation of men and women who, although they could do so, do not want to marry, but who also do not want to distance themselves from the Church.”

Fr. Salvini conceded that the problems that families face are all present in the working document, though “not all of them are equally developed.” He explained that the document “is not a theological-pastoral treatise, but rather a series of suggestions, hints, stimuli full of anxieties, but also full of hope.” In the end, “the doctrine of marriage is not at stake, but the family, as an irreplaceable source of every human society, is.”

Fr. Salvini then noticed that the document has some gaps. For example, he underscored that the family “is seemingly mostly viewed from the point of view of adult and parents, and that little is seen from the children’s angle, though the document speaks a lot about children, saying that they need to be educated, protected from family tensions, from a modern mentality, etc.”

Fr. Salvini added that “it is adults who are always addressed, not children, except to remind them they have to take care of their parents in their old age. But this should be said to adult children of older parents, not to teenagers.”

The Jesuit priest also emphasized that “just a short mention is given to the prickly problem of contraception, as well as to the issue of the presence of the women in the Church, including their economic emancipation and their participation in the education of priests, about which the working document dedicates just a few lines.”

How is the issue of mercy part of this framework? Fr. Salvini indicated that the document “does not demonize, nor forcefully warn about, some problematic aspects of modern life, though it highlights them. It mostly seeks to evangelize them.” Thus, “the family should feel supported and encouraged, not confronted with its limits and infidelities.” This point illustrates the continual call for mercy in the document.

In this way Fr. Salvini returns the balance to a discussion that seemed previously to be confused by a polarization between mercy and doctrine, as if a choice had to be made between one and the other. This polarization is resolved in the interview with Cardinal Cottier.

That La Civiltà Cattolica chose Cardinal Cottier is not by chance. He was the Theologian of the Pontifical Household and close to Joseph Ratzinger when he served on the International Theological Commission. Speaking to him thus demonstrates a continuity with the previous Magisterium. That the interview was strongly endorsed is shown by the fact that Vatican media highlighted it.

In the interview, Cardinal Cottier evoked the previous Magisterium, and recalled that St. John Paul II had established Divine Mercy Sunday. In the end Cottier mostly grabbed his notions from Dives in Misericordia, the encyclical on mercy of the late sainted Pope.

Cottier emphasized, “Mercy is doctrine. It is the heart of Christian doctrine.”

“Only a narrow-minded person can defend legalism and see mercy and doctrine as two different things.” He then added that nowadays, the Church “understands that no one, whatever his position is, should be left alone. We have to guide people, the righteous and sinners.”

The Cardinal affirmed, “I am convinced that today, in a particular way, it is the duty of divine things to protect human things and to give them life. Instead of retrenching behind fortified works, Christians should be profoundly involved in the world, counting on the strength of God, that is, the strength of love and truth. Divine things will save human things. The human tools of defending civilization will become always less adequate when faced with the gravity of the crisis of culture.”

As far as the upcoming Synod on the family is concerned, the Cardinal hopes for a new pastoral activity that “meets the gravity of the crisis” because the “current practice has become insufficient.” The Cardinal also reflected on wounded families, on “the divorced and remarried,” on children “victims of their parents’ divorce.” From the pastoral point of view, Cardinal Cottier said that “the existential coordination of people’s spiritual lives must be respected. In rigorism there lies a brutality that is opposed to the gentleness through which God guides every person.” Cottier also offered concrete examples of different types of divorced and remarried Catholics, emphasized that generalizing their condition does not reflect the different situations in which they find themselves, and invited pastors to consider each case individually.

In the end no changes in doctrine are envisaged. The emphasis given to mercy – which the same La Civiltà Cattolica headline suggests – does not lead to changing the cards on the table. It simply indicates an attention to the pastoral care that the Church is already putting into action.

The same agenda can be observed in Fr. Imperatori’s article. He describes marriage as “a problematic sacrament at the border,” whose pastoral praxis “is substantially that fixed by the Council of Trent.” According to Imperatori, this Tridentine framework means that “too often” nature and grace “were conceived as juxtaposed and parallel planes, and redemption was even considered as an elevation of nature to a supernatural plane to which nature was in the end foreign.”

Imperatori also highlights the problem of the canonical debate on marriage that he believes has focused on the freedom of the individual spouses to contract marriage, a focus that has “too often set aside” the theological dimension of the sacrament.

Imperatori does not in the end propose discounting doctrine for the sake of a pastoral approach. He instead proposes a more comprehensive understanding based on God’s centrality. He calls this approach a “re-harmonization of the pastoral and the doctrinal,” and he warns about a too rigorous approach which “risks secularizing Christian marriage.”

Imperatori also writes about the postmodern discovery of “Eros”, about which he says, “the rediscovery of feelings and the importance of relations must be valued,” while at the same time, “the contractualist, libertarian and emotional vision of the marriage contract must be rejected, as it gives life to the well-known phenomenon of liquid love.”

Imperatori’s goal in the end is not to lose sight of the relations with God, since pastoral challenges represent the transmission of faith. One of his proposals concerns marriage preparation courses that must be “thought about and put into practice from an evangelizing perspective, as an easy path to discernment that the Christian community can offer to those who have already started a to live together as a couple so that this discernment process is adapted to the time required for their maturation and willed consent.”

Pope Francis’ intentions and thoughts are probably well reflected in these three articles. We must not get trapped in the notion of a pastoral care based merely on mercy, as Pope Francis has clearly indicated when speaking about the family. The Pope has often referred to ideological colonization, has attacked gender ideology and has defended natural marriage.

There are those who promoted an agenda labeled “mercy” behind Pope Francis’ back. But if everything is lop-sided in favor of this agenda, there is the risk that truth can be lost from sight, and that everything becomes relativized. Many Synod Fathers saw this risk emerge during the 2014 Synod debate, and asked for a more rigorous theological approach.

In the end, where will the Pope stand? Will he be able to balance true mercy and doctrine, or will he be dragged into the agenda labeled “mercy”?


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