Cardinal Caffarra Expresses Serious Concerns About Family Synod Debates

Astonished that John Paul II’s Extensive Catecheses on Marriage and Family Are Being Ignored

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Reflecting on the Feb. 21-22 consistory on the family, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, the archbishop of Bologna, discusses the themes of next October’s Extraordinary Synod and 2015’s Ordinary Synod: marriage, the family, the teachings of Humanae Vitae, the sacrament of Confession. 

This interview appeared in Il Foglio 14 March 2014 under the headline: «From Bologna with Love: Hold on a Moment!». 


John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio is at the centre of a heated controversy. Some claiming it is the foundation stone of the Gospel of the Family, others claim it is simply out of date. Is it possible to update the Church’s teaching in this area?

If we are talking about gender issues and so called homosexual marriage, then it is true that at the time of Familiaris Consortio‘s publication these things were not in discussion. But the document does speak about all the other problems. In particular it speaks a great length about the problem of the divorced and remarried. I can testify to this personally because I was one of the consultors for the 1980 Synod. It is simply not true to say that Familiaris Consortio comes out of a historical context that is completely alien to ours today. That said, I think, above all, Familiaris Consortio taught us an approach to the questions of marriage and the family. Using this approach we arrive at a teaching that, even today, remains a reference point that cannot be disregarded. What is this approach? When Jesus was asked in what circumstances divorce might be allowed – a theme that was not discussed at that time- he did not enter into the casuistic issues which gave rise to this question, instead he indicated in which direction we should look in order to understand what marriage is and consequently why marriage is indissoluble. It is as if Jesus is saying “Look, you’ve got to get out of this casuistic logic and look in another direction altogether, you’ve got to look at how it was ‘in the beginning’. You’ve got to look at that moment when man and woman coming into existence and in the full truth of their identity as man and woman are called to become ‘one flesh.’” In one of his Wednesday audiences, Blessed John Paul II said, “ When man is placed in front of woman for the first time, the human person in its dimension of mutual self-giving, comes into being, The expression of this self-giving (which is also the expression of human personhood) is the human body in the whole original truth of its masculinity and femininity.” That is the approach of Familiaris Consortio.   

What in your opinion is the most fundamental meaning ofFamiliaris Consortio? And what is its message for us today?

In order to see realities from the perspective of ‘In the beginning’ Familiaris Consortioaffirms the Church’s supernatural sense of the faith, which “does not consist solely or necessarily in the consensus of the faithful. Following Christ, the Church seeks the truth, which is not always the same as the majority opinion. She listens to conscience and not to power, and in this way she defends the poor and the downtrodden. The Church values sociological and statistical research, when it proves helpful in understanding the historical context in which pastoral action has to be developed and when it leads to a better understanding of the truth. Such research alone, however, is not to be considered in itself an expression of the sense of faith.” (FC 5) When I speak of the truth of marriage I do not mean some sort of normative ideal. I mean, rather, the truth that God in his creative act has inscribed upon the person of every man and woman. Christ teaches us that before considering particular cases, we must know what it is we are talking about. Here we are not talking simply about a norm that may or may not admit of exceptions, nor of an ideal after which we strive. We are talking about the very essence of marriage and the family. Through this approach Familiaris Consortio focuses on and talks about what marriage and the family are, what is – to use the words of the famous sociologist Donati – their genome. This is not a natural genome; it is a social and communal genome. From this perspective the Apostolic Exhortation is able to pick out the deepest meaning of the indissolubility of marriage (cf FC 20). Familiaris Consortio, therefore, marks a great advance in the development of the Church’s doctrine that was made possible by John Paul II’s series of Catecheses on human love. In the first of these catecheses (3 September 1979) the Holy Father said that he wanted to accompany, albeit at a distance, the preparatory work for the following year’s synod. He did not do this by directly tackling the subject matter of the Synod but rather by directing his attention to its fundamental roots. It is as if he had said. “I, John Paul II, want to help the Synod fathers. How can I help them?  By focusing their attention on the root causes of the matter in hand. “ And it is from precisely this returning to the roots thatFamiliaris Consortio brings forth its magnificent teachings on marriage and the family. And it did not ignore concrete situations. It spoke about divorce, living together outside of marriage and the problem of divorced and remarried people receiving communion. To sayFamiliaris Consortio belongs to the past and has nothing more to say to us today amounts either to a caricature of the document, or reveals that the person making such an affirmation hasn’t read the document.

Many Episcopal Conferences have stressed that it has emerged from the consultation process thatHumanae Vitaecauses nothing but confusion. Is this true, or was this a prophetic document?  

On the 28th June 1978, a little more than a month before he died Paul VI said, “You will thank God and me for Humanae Vitae.” Now after 46 years, we see what has happened to the institution of marriage and we realize how prophetic that document truly was. Loosing the unbreakable bond between conjugal sexuality and procreation, which denies the core teaching of Humanae Vitae, has paved the way for its reverse, that is, separating procreation from conjugal sexuality: from sex without babies to babies without sex. We have lost sight of the fact that human procreation is rooted in conjugal love, and have gradually constructed an ideology according to which anyone can have a child: single men or women, homosexuals often using surrogate mothers. In this way we have passed from and attitude that waited upon a child as a gift to an attitude that plans or programs a child as if that child were a right. One thinks of the recent court ruling in Milan that affirmed the “right” to parenthood, that is, it affirmed the right of one human person to possess another! This is incredible. I have the right to possess things, but not persons. We are moving towards some sort of framework be it ethical or juridical that relegates marriage and the family to a sphere of purely private emotions, entirely divorced from civic and social life. No one today would dispute that, at the time it was published, Humanae Vitae rested on the foundations of a fragile anthropology, and that there was a certain “biologism” in its argumentation. But John Paul II’s Magisterium had the great merit of constructing an anthropology adequate to support Humanae Vitae. The question we must face today is not whether, or in what measure, Humanae Vitae is applicable, or if it is rather a source of confusion. We face another question.

Which question?    

Does Humanae Vitae teach the truth about that good which is inherent in
conjugal relationships? Does it teach the truth about the union of two persons, two spouses in the sexual act? In fact the essence of a moral or legal norm, is to be found in the good, the value, which it encapsulates and seeks to protect. If we do not take this into consideration, we fall into that same casuistry of which the Pharisees were guilty. You cannot escape this blind alley you have entered. In the end it will force you to choose between persons or moral norms. And you can only save one at the expense of the other. This, then, is the real pastoral question: how can I help spouse to live their conjugal love in truth? The question is not whether the couple in is a situation that effectively exempts them from the moral norm, but rather what is the good, the value, of their conjugal relationship? What is its inner truth? It leaves me perplexed that someone could say Humanae Vitae causes confusion. What do they mean? Do they know anything of the foundations laid by John Paul II for that document? Just one more consideration: I am flabbergasted that in this debate, even eminent cardinals do not bear in mind those 134 Catecheses of John Paul II. In the history of the papacy no Pope has ever spoken so much about this theme, and yet this teaching is ignored as if it did not exist. It creates confusion? Do the people who say this know anything about what contemporary science is saying about the effectiveness of natural family planning? Are they even remotely aware of the innumerable couples in the world today who joyfully live the truth of Humanae Vitae?

Cardinal Kasper has stressed that the upcoming synod has raised expectations in the Church and there is a risk of great disappointment if these expectations are not fulfilled. Is this in your opinion a real danger?

Well I’m not a prophet but this is an extraordinary thing that is going on. When the pastors of the Church, instead of preaching their own opinions or those of the secular world, preach the Gospel of marriage, their words are heard by the ears of those listening, but it is the Holy Spirit who acts upon the hearts of the listeners opening them the pastor’s words. I ask myself, then, what expectations are we talking about? One of the big television broadcasters in the U.S.A recently conducted a world-wide survey of the Catholic faithful and it revealed a global situation that was markedly different to that found in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. To give just one example: 75% of most countries in Africa are against allowing the divorced and remarried to receive communion. And so I ask again: which expectations are we talking about? Those of Africa or Europe? Does the Western world have the monopoly on what the Church should preach? Are we still stuck in that paradigm or have we started to listen, even just a little bit, to the poor? I am left perplexed when it is said we must go in a certain direction or there is no point in having the synod. Which direction? The direction desired by middle Europe? Well, why not the direction desired by the African community?

Cardinal Müller has lamented that many Catholics do not know the teachings of the Church, but he also argues that this ignorance does not justify watering down the Catholic teaching to spirit of the times. Does the Church need a pastoral approach to families?

This has been lacking. And we pastors bear heavy burden of responsibility for having allowed this to dwindled to no more than marriage preparation courses. And as to the emotional and affective guidance of our young people: how many pastors now talk about chastity? As far as I can see, in this area we have been as good as silent for years. We need to look at how we support young couples and ask ourselves if we have really announced the gospel of marriage, if we have announced this Gospel as Christ asked us to. And then we have to ask ourselves why our young people no longer get married. It is not always because of economic reasons, as many say. I’m speaking about the situation here in the West. If you make a comparison between the situation today and that of thirty or forty years ago, there weren’t fewer problems back then. But back then they committed themselves and they had hope. Nowadays they are afraid, afraid of the future. But if there is any decision that requires hope in the future it is the decision to marry. These are today’s fundamental issues. I have the impression that if Jesus were present today at a meeting of the clergy and they asked him just as the Pharisees did, “Master, is marriage indissoluble or not? Or are there cases, after the necessary penance has been completed…?” How would Jesus reply? The same response that he gave to the Pharisees comes to mind “But in the beginning…” The truth is that today we want to cure the symptoms without looking at the underlying illness. The Synod cannot avoid taking a stance on these issues. The way in which the family and marriage seem to be evolving and changing: is this good for individuals and their relationships and for society, or is it rather bad for individuals and their relationships and potentially ruinous for society? The Synod cannot avoid this question. The Church must not think that these facts (the young no longer marry, the rate of couples living together is rising exponentially, and amongst other things the legal recognition of homosexual marriage) are somehow inevitable historic trends to which the Church must accommodate herself. No! John Paul II in The Jeweller’s Shop wrote that “to create something that reflects both existence and absolute love is perhaps the most extraordinary thing there is. But people live this way without even noticing it”. God forbid that the Church should cease to discern the traces of eternity within human love.

The possibility of allowing the divorced and remarried to receive communion is spoken about. One of Cardinal Kasper’s suggestions was that they should undergo a period of penance that would bring them into a full readmission to Communion. Is this now an inevitable necessity, or is it the accommodation of Christian teaching to contemporary circumstances?

Those who make these suggestions have not, at least up until now, answered one simple question: what happens to the first valid and consummated marriage? If the Church admits them to the Eucharist, she must render a judgment on the legitimacy of the second marriage. It’s logical. But, as I said, what about the first marriage? The second marriage, if we can call it that, cannot be a true second marriage because bigamy is against the teaching of Christ. So the first marriage, is it dissolved? But all the popes have always taught that the Pope has no authority over this. The Pope does not have the power to dissolve a valid and consummated marriage. The proposed solution seems to imply that although the first marriage continues, the Church can somehow legitimate a second relationship. But in doing this, the proposal demolishes the foundations of the Church’s  teaching on sexuality. At this point we have to ask: why, then, can we not approve of unmarried couples living together ? Or why not homosexual unions? The question is simple: what about the first marriage? No one has yet answered that question. In 2000, John Paul II speaking to the Roman Rota said: “It is clear that the Roman Pontiff’s power does not extend to valid and consummated marriages and this is taught by the Magisterium of the Church as a doctrine to be definitively held even if it has not been solemnly declared through a definitive act.” It is a technical formula, “a doctrine to be definitively held”, and it means that on this point there is no further discussion to be had among theologians nor doubts among the faithful.  

Therefore, it is not just a question of praxis but also of doctrine?

Yes, this touches upon doctrine. Inevitably. You can try to say it doesn’t, but it does. And
not only this. You would introduce a way of thinking that in the long run would touch not only Catholics but everyone. You would suggest that there is no such thing as an indissoluble marriage. This, certainly, is against the Lord’s will. Of that there can be no doubt.

Is there not a risk that in this way Communion becomes a kind of disciplinary measure and ceases to be a means of healing?

It is true that the grace of the sacrament has a healing effect, but we have to understand in what sense. The grace of the sacrament of matrimony heals by freeing a man and woman from their inability to love each other for ever with the whole of their being. This is the medicinal quality of marriage: the ability to love one another forever. This is what healing means. Healing is not just making someone feel a little better but leaving them still fundamentally ill, that is unable in their being to do something definitively. The indissolubility of marriage is a gift that is given by Christ to a man and a woman of that marriage in him. Above all it is a gift, not a norm that is imposed. It is not an ideal after which they have to strive. It is a gift from God who never reneges on his gifts. It is not by accident that Jesus founds his revolutionary response to the Pharisees Jesus on a divine act: “That which God has united”, he says. It is God who unites, otherwise the definitively binding nature of the act would rest upon a desire that is yes, natural, but also impossible to achieve. God himself gives the completion of the act. Man is free to decide not to use this capacity to love definitively and totally. Catholic theology articulates this vision of the Faith through the concept of the conjugal bond. Marriage, the sacramental sign of marriage, brings about immediately between the spouses a bond that no longer depends upon their wills because now it is a gift God has given to them. We don’t teach these things to young people who marry today. And then we wonder why things so often turn out as they do.  

An intense debate is taking place over the meaning of the term “mercy.” What value does this term have?

Let’s take the episode of Jesus and the woman caught in the act of adultery. For a woman caught in the very act, the demands of the Mosaic Law were clear: she should be stoned to death. In fact the Pharisees asked Jesus what he thought precisely in order to draw him into their perspective. If he had said “stone her” they would have replied: “Look, He preaches mercy and eats with sinners but when it comes to it even he says “stone her”. If he had said “don’t stone her” they would have replied: “And this is where mercy leads us: it destroys the Law abnd every legal and moral bond.” This is the typical view of casuistic morality which takes you into a blind alley where you have to choose between the person and upholding the norm. The Pharisees try to trap Jesus in this blind alley. But Jesus doesn’t accept their perspective at all, he says that adultery is a great evil and that it destroys humanity, also of the person who commits this act. Jesus, in order to overcome this evil, doesn’t condemn the person who has committed this act; rather he cures the person of this great evil and commands her not to enter into this evil again. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not sin again.” This is the mercy of which only the Lord is capable. This is the mercy which the Church, from one generation to the next, announces. The Church has to call evil that which is evil. She has received from Jesus the power to heal, but this carries with it the same conditions. It is absolutely true that forgiveness is always possible: murder can be forgiven, and adultery. This is a difficulty that the Church even at the time of St. Augustine faced. Murder is forgiven but the victim does not rise to new life. Why not then pardon divorce, this state of life the new marriage even if a “resurrection” of the first marriage is no longer possible? These are totally different cases. In the case of murder, you forgive someone for the hatred they have nursed towards another and repentance from this hatred is necessary. At a deep level, the Church is troubled not primarily because a physical life has been ended, but rather because hatred has been nurtured in the human heart to such an extent that it has led in the end to the taking of another’s life. This, the Church says, is the true evil. Of this you must repent and for this you will find forgiveness. In the case of the divorced and remarried, the Church says: “This is the evil, the denial of the gift of God, the desire to break the bond that the Lord himself has brought about.” The Church forgives but the condition of this forgiveness is repentance. But repentance in this case involves returning to the first marriage. It isn’t sincere to say: “Although I repent, I choose to maintain that state which in itself constitutes the breaking of the bond, of whose breaking I repent.” Often, it is said: “But this is impossible, there are so many circumstances ….” And this may certainly be true, but in this case the person finds themselves in a state of life that is objectively contrary to the God’s gift. Familiaris Consortio says this explicitly. The reason why the Church doesn’t allow the divorced and remarried to receive Communion is not because she automatically presumes that they are all in a state of mortal sin. The Lord, who knows the heart, knows the subjective consciences of these people. St. Paul himself says “do not judge rashly” but because, and this is written in Familiaris Consortio, “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (FC 84). The Church’s mercy is Christ’s mercy, which says that the dignity of the spouses has been undermined in the denial of God’s gift. Mercy doesn’t say: “Be patient and we will try to sort things out as best we can.” That is a form of toleration that is essentially different to true mercy. Tolerance leaves things be because of ulterior motives. Mercy is the power of God which overcomes the state of injustice.

We are not, therefore, talking about compromise?        

Far from it! Compromise would be unworthy of the Lord. Man on his own can come to compromises. Rather we are talking of the regeneration of a human person and only God is capable of that, and in His name the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the justification of a sinner is a more marvelous work than the creation of the universe. When a sinner is justified, something greater than the whole universe happens, and this act comes about through a poor, humble priest in the confessional. Right there occurs an act greater than the creation of the whole universe. We must not reduce mercy to compromise nor to tolerance. This would be to undervalue, to be unjust to, the Lord’s work.

One of the insights most appealed to, and which might offer grounds for hope to those living in what might be considered irregular situations, is that although the faith is one, it is applied to particular circumstances and times in different ways. This is something the Church has always done. Would you like to comment on this?

The Church should limit itself to following historical trends? Is this truly proclaiming the Gospel? I certainly don’t believe that, because otherwise I would have to ask myself how can the Church hope to save mankind? Let me give you an example from my experience. A wife, still young, abandoned by her husband, said to me that she lived the virtue of chastity but she found it very difficult because as she said: “I’m not a nun, I’m a normal woman.” But then she added she couldn’t live without the Eucharist. And so the burden of chastity became light because she remembered the Eucharist. Or another example: A wife and mother of four who was abandoned by her hu
sband after twenty years of marriage, this woman said to me she had come to realize that although this was a crucifixion, she had to continue loving her husband “just like Jesus had continued loving me.” Why do we never speak of these marvelous works of God’s grace? These two women haven’t given into the spirit of the times. Certainly not. During this time of discussion, it is, I assure you, very wrong to remain silent about those husbands and wives who, although abandoned themselves, still remain faithful.  Professor Grygiel is right when he says that Jesus was very interested in what the crowds said about him. He wanted to know what the apostles thought. How many parish priests and bishops can tell similar stories about heroic witnesses to fidelity! A few years after I arrived here in Bologna I wanted to have a meeting with a group of the divorced and remarried. There were about thirty couples and we were together all afternoon one Sunday. In the end, more than one of these couples approached me to say that they understood that the Church in not admitting them to Holy Communion was truly acting as a mother.  In not being able to receive Communion they came to understand the greatness of Christian marriage and the beauty of the Gospel of marriage.     

Frequently nowadays the relationship between the penitent and confessor is being put forward as a possible avenue of resolution for those whose projects and life aspirations have gone astray. What is your opinion?

The tradition of the Church has always distinguished – distinguished not separated – her teaching competency from the role of the confessor. Expanding this image, you might say the Church distinguishes between the pulpit and the confessional. This distinction does not imply duplicity. Rather it means that when the she teaches about marriage from the pulpit, the Church gives witness to a truth that is not primarily a norm or ideal to be strived after. At this moment a confessor can say with great tenderness to a penitent “what you have heard from the pulpit is the truth, that touches upon your freedom, wounded and fragile as it is.” The confessor guides the penitent on this path that leads to his highest good. Neither is the relationship between pulpit and confessional that which obtains between the particular and the universal.  This is what the Casuists thought, above all in the seventeenth century. The role of a confessor, faced with the drama of a human life, is not to employ a logic that allows him to pass from universal norms to particular cases. This is not where the drama of a human life resides. This drama, in truth, is to be found in the relationship between a person and his freedom. The heart of the human drama is that I can affirm one thing with my reason, but at the same time negate it by my free choices. I see what is good and I affirm it, and then I choose to do what is evil. This is the drama. And a confessor must place himself within this drama, not in some sort of mechanistic process that passes from the universal norms to particular cases. If he were to do the latter he would inevitably fall into a kind of hypocrisy, saying: “Well OK this is the universal norm, but given your circumstances, it is not binding for you.” Inevitably one would end up creating cases that allowed exceptions. Hypocritically, the confessor would end up approving of one thing in the confessional while preaching quite a different set of norms from the pulpit. This is hypocrisy. Woe to that confessor who does not ever remind his penitents that we are engaged in a journey… He would risk, precisely in the name of the Gospel of mercy, eradicating mercy from the Gospel.  On this point Pascal in his Provincial Letters was right (though I might add he was wrong on many other things).  In the end a man can convince himself he is not ill, and, therefore, he has no need of Jesus Christ. One of my teachers, Fr. Cappello, Servant of God and a learned canonist, used to say that when you enter the confessional, it is not so much the teaching of theologians you follow. It is, rather, the example of the saints.

Carlo Caffara was made Archbishop of Bologna on 15 February 2004, where he succeeded Cardinal Giacomo Biffi who retired upon reaching 80 years of age. Two years later Benedict XVI made him a Cardinal. He has a doctorate in Canon Law from the Pontifical Gregorian University and wrote his thesis on the ends of matrimony. He subsequently obtained a diploma in Moral theology from the Pontifical Alphonsian Academy. In 1980 John Paul II nominated him as a peritus for the Synod of Bishops on marriage and the family, and the following year commissioned him to found the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for studies in Marriage and Family. In 1995 he was appointed bishop of Ferrarra-Comacchio where he remained for 8 years. Last June Pope Francis confirmed him as Archbishop of Bologna until 2015. He participated in last year’s conclave.

This interview has been translated from the original Italian and published by kind permission of Il Foglio.

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