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Amoris Laetitia and the Synods on the Family

Interview with Austen Ivereigh

On April 15, 2023, Pedro Gabriel interviewed Austen Ivereigh about Amoris Laetitia and the Synods on the Family. In this interview, we explored how to Amoris Laetitia was written taking into consideration the decisions made at the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family.

Pedro Gabriel:

Good afternoon. Once again welcome to our Amoris Laetitia talks. I am Pedro Gabriel and today we have Austin Ivereigh with us.

Austin is a writer and journalist known for his two biographies: Pope Francis, The Great Reformer from 2014 and Wounded Shepherd from 2019. In 2020, he published a New York Times bestselling book with Pope Francis on his vision for the post-COVID19 world. It was called Let us dream: The Path to a Better Future in conversation with Austin Ivereigh. All these books have been translated into many languages.

Austin is also currently a Fellow in Contemporary Church History at the Jesuit-run Campion Hall from the University of Oxford. His 1993 doctoral study at Saint Anthony’s College in Oxford was on the Church in Argentina.

He has also been very involved in the global Synod on Synodality called by Pope Francis for 2021 and 2024. First, he was on the national synthesis team for the Synod of England and Wales and then on the continental synthesis team in Rome. He advises the Synod’s Secretariat on communications.

Austin, welcome to the program. It’s an honor to have you here.

Austen Ivereigh:

It’s good. It’s good to be with you, Pedro.

Pedro Gabriel:

Always a pleasure. In this interview, we are going for something a bit different. Until now, my guests have been discussing Amoris Laetitia directly, but now I would like to explore the “sausage factory,” the process that produced the document. As is well known, Amoris Laetitia is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which means that it comes at the conclusion of a synodal process. In this case, the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family. But before we go there, let’s start with the principle: What the Synod is. One of the key words of Francis’s pontificate is “synodality.” So, what is this all about, this synodality? What is a Synod?

Austen Ivereigh:

A Synod is really something very, very old in the Church, which under Francis has been given new life. And this very old thing is really described in Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, when the disciples, of course, are without Jesus. Jesus has promised them that He will send his Spirit and the Spirit will lead them into the truth. They face their first major crisis, which is the whole question of whether people need to obey the Jewish law in order to become Christian, and they can’t agree. They call what became known as a Synod. In fact, it was the Council of Jerusalem. So, Council and synods have often been used interchangeably. So, Synodality—which is a way of bringing the people together to seek the guidance of the Spirit on major questions facing the Church—was a normal part of Church life in the first centuries, the first millennium of the Church, and then it kind of falls out of use. It falls away, it ceases to be used as a regular instrument, and the Church becomes, as it were, much more centralised, much more focused on the juridical institution of Pope and bishops.

Then we have—I’m condensing here a very long history, obviously—at the Second Vatican Council, the Synod of Bishops is revived as a standing body that will meet every two or three years in Rome, in which bishop delegates then discuss and discern major questions facing the Church. So, these Synods of Bishops have been going on since the late 60s, early 70s, as when they really began going under Pope Paul VI. So, the Synod on the Family, which is the one we’re going to get to, which was called by Pope Francis in 2014 and 2015, was in fact another Synod on the Family from the previous one called by Pope John Paul II in 1980, just a year or two after his election.

In this case, we have two synods—one in 1980, the other in 2014, nearly 25 years apart—dealing with, as it were, the same questions or the same challenge. Synods often have met to discuss particular topics or questions facing the Church equally, but they have sometimes involved a meeting on a particular area. So, for example, under Francis, we’ve had the Synod on Amazonia. I remember under Pope Benedict going to the Synod on the Middle East, where it was just the Middle East Church that gathered.

So, Synods have become an important part of the life of the modern Church, resurrecting what was very common in the first millennium of the Church.

Pedro Gabriel:

Yes, correct. And it’s a good thing that you mentioned the 1980 Synod on the Family from John Paul II because we have to recall that the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family were not the first synods on the family, and neither were they the first step in the process that culminated with Amoris Laetitia.

The previous sacramental discipline before Amoris excluded the divorced and civilly remarried from communion unless they abstained from intercourse. This was codified by Pope John Paul II precisely in a document called Familiaris Consortio which was in itself a post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

It came in the wake of that 1980 Synod on Marriage and the Family. We all know that papal critics today have been trying to pit Familiaris against Amoris Laetitia, because Familiaris is more restrictive in terms of sacramental discipline. Still, in your book Wounded Shepherd you also said that even Familiaris Consortio itself already opened up new possibilities for the pastoral accompaniment that were not present before it. What were those new possibilities?

Austen Ivereigh:

Absolutely. Well, for example, one of the significant developments in Familiaris Consortio was that people who have divorced and remarried without an annulment are not now—after 1980—excommunicated. They are part of the Church, and they are part of parishes. John Paul II was very explicit about this and very clear about this. And under a whole range of circumstances.

So really what John Paul II sets out following this synod is a whole series of, as it were, pastoral circumstances which the Church was already dealing with back in 1980, in which, for example, you might get to know somebody fleeing an abusive marriage, somebody who can’t get their marriage annulled for all sorts of reasons, or who remarries for the sake of the children. But all kinds of pastoral circumstances were already clear in 1980. So, I mean, the way I tell the story in The Wounded Shepherd is that actually John Paul II goes very, very close to where a Amoris Laetitia would then go. But he just pulls back and the way he pulls back is to, as it were, maintain the letter of the law, of the sacramental law to say that basically, if you are in an irregular union of any sort, including being divorced and remarried, you cannot receive communion. So, and now as you’ve just said, unless and they come up with, sort of as it were, “let out” possibility that you might be living together but, you know, not having sex. So that’s kind of where they left it in 1980.

In 2014 the bishops are gathering again and one of the things that it’s really important to understand about synods—and indeed about the Church’s pastoral practice and law throughout the centuries, and I say here nothing new—is that the Church is always responding to the circumstances of society, culture, society changes. And one of the big, to me, fascinating questions to look at when trying to understand Amoris Laetitia: What is the context, the cultural and social context that the bishops are bringing with them when they gather in Rome? So, they’re coming, remember, from all sorts of different countries, all kinds of different pastoral circumstances. They’re talking about what it’s like to try to live out the Church’s teaching and nobody is questioning at all the Church’s teaching, which is a call to indissolubility of marriage, open to children and all rest of it. In neither synod is that in question: Church teaching. But what has changed between 1980 and 2014 is the cultural circumstances in which people are seeking to live out the Church’s teaching.

The way I describe it in The Wounded Shepherd, is—and I say this, Pedro, not because, you know, this is some great theory of mine. As a journalist, as a writer, I try and listen, and I wasn’t at the 1980 Synod. But I have a close interest in the topic, and I was very, very struck in conversations with bishops in 2014 and 2015 and the conversation that they were having among themselves that they were sharing with us. It’s clear that something very, very important had changed, and what has changed is this—and I do this, by the way, whenever I’ve been giving a talk, as I’m sure you do, when you’re giving a talk on Amoris Laetitia—you address a group of Catholics and you say: hands up anybody here who is either divorced or knows somebody in your family who is divorced? And virtually every hand will go up in the room nowadays. Whereas back in 1980 that wasn’t the case.

So, if you like, divorce was still something that the Church believed that the priority was to defend the Church from. In other words, in a context where particularly there isn’t divorce in civil law, the Church believes it’s important to reinforce the juridical status preventing or disallowing divorce. In society, we have to strongly discourage this, and so if you like this juridical or punitive approach to the law taken in 1980, reflects the fact that the Church, on the whole—there are obviously many different contexts—but on the whole, divorce is still outside the sheepfold rather than inside the sheepfold. Whereas in 2014 it’s definitely inside the sheepfold.

So, in other words, people’s lives have been already affected and shattered by divorce. That is the pastoral reality that bishops need to face and that I think explains the very, very different context in which these two synods meet, which I think to a large extent, explains why Amoris Laetitia needs to move the conclusions of Familiaris Consortio, the pastoral, as it were, remedies on offer, it needs to develop them. Because of this new circumstance.

Pedro Gabriel:

Correct. And it was not the only thing that changed, actually. You also explained that—returning to the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family—they were the first attempt by Pope Francis to implement this concept that is so dear to his heart that is synodality. What we see is that this Synod was different.

It was divided into two parts, one in 2014, an extraordinary general assembly that lasted 2 weeks, and in 2015, an ordinary general assembly that lasted 3 weeks. And in your book, you also say that the environment in these Synods was also completely different.

So, what were the main differences between these Synods on the Family under Pope Francis, and the synods that preceded them in previous pontificates?

Austen Ivereigh:

So, one of the questions that Pope Francis had to deal with when he became pope was the very strong critique among bishops and cardinals of the Synod of Bishops as it had developed under John Paul II and Benedict. The reason they were so critical was that the Synod, which had been intended by Pope Paul VI as an organism of episcopal collegiality—that’s to say, a means by which the bishops exercise their mission, which is to rule and to govern the Universal Church cum et sub Petro, “with and under Peter,” always with the Pope, never without the Pope. You know, Peter with the Eleven, never the Eleven without Peter. Yet, in practice what had happened was that the Roman Curia ran the Synod and kept very, very tight control of it so that the Synod had ceased to be—if it ever was, I don’t know enough about the 1970s—but it had ceased to become an instrument of free discussion and honesty and discernment.

So, rather than being a place where major questions were honestly faced and solutions discerned and debated, it had become a way of reformulating existing Church teaching. So, there were quite a few jokes about this, but you know, I should describe you—I’m talking about the synods under John Paul II, under Benedict—you know as being like a sort of transatlantic flight but without the movies. Yeah, you were stuck in the same seat for listening to pre-prepared speeches that just repeated the same old points.

The way I would express this sort of theologically is to say that the Synod had ceased to be or had not become a genuine mechanism of ecclesial discernment. I think the bishops understood very well that their role as successors of the apostles is a very important one. That they were the successors of the disciples who gathered in that room in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles. The whole people was assembled on that occasion, but the leaders who decided things were the leaders of the time, who are now the bishops.

So, I think they understood that things had to change. And it was very interesting to me to see that the call for a reform of the Synod was there. Both, as it were, on the right and on the left, if we want to use those terms. Among, you know, reformists, as well as, if you like, the more rigorist or conservative bishops and cardinals,

So, what Francis did when he became Pope, was he made clear that he wanted to introduce synodality as an authentic mechanism of ecclesial discernment just Jesus had intended, when He told the disciples that He would send His Spirit and the Spirit would lead them into the truth. So, he introduced from the very beginning a series of reforms to the Synod, which would allow the bishops to understand that they could, first of all, speak freely. The first thing he says in 2014, he surprises the bishops by saying there are really two key rules here. One is speak freely. Speak with Parrhesia, speak with Apostolic courage. And the second rule is: listen humbly. So yeah, speak boldly, listen humbly. These are the primary rules. Say what you think. Say the reality as you see it. He said there is nothing you cannot say.

In another speech he gave later—in fact, at the end of the 2014 Synod—he said: look, you can be free because Peter is here with you. You know the Pope is here, unity is guaranteed. You don’t need to worry. So, freedom.

In order to enable that, he also introduced some reforms which bothered the number of the journalists because actually it curbed, in a way, it made the Synod a bit less accessible. But on the other hand, the reason for that was to allow, to create a space in which bishops, for example, could change their mind. That was very important for Francis that people should be able to discuss and move and develop their positions as the Spirit moved them. And that is how, in fact, the Spirit works in processes of apostolic, communal discernment. The way over time. The body comes often to a view which transcends the different individual positions. That’s what Francis was seeking to do with the Synod and that’s what effectively he has been doing in the synods in his pontificate.

Pedro Gabriel:

Yes, and it’s a good thing that you mentioned this principle, the cum Petro et sub Petro. I just wanted to highlight it because the reason why the Synod could discuss so freely was because the Pope was there, as the guarantor of unity and orthodoxy. Many people, let us say, conservatives and traditionalists seem to have a lack of faith on the pope’s ability to do so and believe that it’s incumbent on them to save the Church from heresy. But Pope Francis has been very consistent that synodality always happens “with Peter and under Peter,” never without him, and he is there to protect the Church from error.

Now I would like also to go back to the Parrhesia that you mentioned, because I remembered that at the time one of the things that set off alarms among the conservative and traditionalist factions was that Cardinal Walter Kasper was allowed to deliver an address to the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Kasper had tried before to implement a sacramental discipline for the divorced and remarried based on a “penitential path,” in a similar way as the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, Kasper’s proposal had been rejected during Benedict XVI’s pontificate.

Now conservatives thought that Kasper’s address was a way for Francis to resurrect a proposal that had been definitely excluded. They nervously thought that this showed that Francis was siding with the liberals. But in your book, you explicitly say that this was “misreading Francis.” This was not what Francis was intending by giving Kasper the opportunity to speak. So, what was is intention actually in allowing Kasper to deliver this address?

Austen Ivereigh:

So, you’re referring here to the meeting that took place in February 2014, prior to the first of these two Synods. The meeting was a consistory, which means a meeting of the cardinals. So, Francis called together the cardinals in order to listen to Cardinal Kasper’s presentation, and effectively to announce and to prepare for the upcoming Synod. I remember that Kasper gave the address—which was published and a very substantial address it was; it went on, I think, for two hours—and I remember a number of the cardinals came out quite angry because they said, you know, exactly what you’ve just said. They said: “Oh this is something that Cardinal Kasper, he’s been talking about for years. This is an idea or a solution which has been rejected. Why is this being forced on us again?”

And as you say, a number of cardinals came to the conclusion that this was Francis’s strategy, somehow to sort of resurrect this old proposal and ram it through. And it’s interesting that they thought that because they were operating according to the model of the Synod that they had inherited, understandably from the previous papacies. In other words, before Rome decided what the Synod would conclude. That was always the joke in the synods, that people could say what they like discreetly, but actually the document had already been written before they even gathered. I think that people were operating according to that scheme.

Immediately after that February Consistory there was a whole flurry, if you remember, I think 3 books were published by conservative figures like Cardinal Pell, Cardinal Müller and so on, who basically wanted to reinstate in these books the traditional reasons for the sacramental discipline, and how that connects with upholding the Church teaching on indissolubility. So, immediately you have this kind of polarization.

Now what I explained in the book is that actually what Francis was trying to do here was, in a way, not create the polarization but allow for the polarization. Because what happens in an authentic synodal process is that initially there is a kind of polarization. People take up positions, usually defensively or out of fear. They take up positions and they seek to defend them and promote them. Of course, if that carries on, then you can’t have a Synod because it becomes a kind of like a parliamentary battle.

But actually, what happened was that getting this out a few months in advance of the October Synod was in many ways very helpful because it allowed these positions to be expressed and also people, of course, were able to engage with those positions, But Francis was not trying to impose—absolutely not—Walter Kasper’s view. In fact, I think he knew very well what reaction there would be, and incidentally, he himself, by the way, did not want. He did not believe that the so-called Orthodox solution was the right way to go.

But Kasper is a very considerable theologian, and Kasper’s reasons and the whole context which he lays out in this speech was very, very important to help the bishops enter into the Synod of October 2014.

Pedro Gabriel:

Yeah. And since Kasper’s address, not just cardinals and bishops, but many conservative commentators like George Weigel or Ross Douthat advanced the idea that the Synod was “rigged,” or “stacked.” Meaning that the liberal proposal, as you said, would already be pre-approved, and the Synod was just a façade to give credibility to that. But, in your book, you detail the whole process and you show that the Synod was not rigged at all. So, how would you reply to those who make that accusation, that the synod was rigged?

Austen Ivereigh:

Well, as I said, you know, they’re operating on an assumption about the way the Synod works, which was based on what they were familiar with from John Paul II’s time. What they were saying is, under John Paul II and Benedict, the Synod was controlled by the Curia, which ensured that no change would happen. Here we have a “liberal” Pope trying to do the opposite, controlling the Synod to bring about change.

But I think simply, they hadn’t grasped that what Francis was interested in was a Synod, which would be an authentic mechanism of ecclesial discernment. That’s to say, an authentic mechanism of facing pastoral realities. Living in the tension which comes with facing those realities. In other words, you have the pastoral context and realities of today’s world—how we live the indissolubility of marriage in the context of today. You have that on the one hand, and then on the other hand you have the Church, first of all teaching on indissolubility—which is absolutely to be upheld and promoted—and secondly, you have the sacramental law, the law on sacraments, which of course relates to how people can receive or not the sacraments in the context of their marital situation.

So, all these things had to be sort of put together and brought together and then all these different perspectives from across the world needed to be expressed. Everybody needed time to say what was going on. And then you have a process, which then becomes a synodal process: where through honest debate, discussion, discernment, and prayer—because, you know, Francis was always very insistent that the Synod, in a way, it only happens because of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit only happens because we have a contemplative disposition in our hearts—and he introduced, for example, a number of changes even back in 2014, for example, to allow for people to say much shorter speeches, and regular bits of silence so that people could listen to the response in their own hearts to what they had heard.

So really, what Francis was creating was, you know, a proper mechanism of discernment, and the conservatives, in a way, just didn’t understand it. They didn’t get that the Synod was for that process of discernment.

Pedro Gabriel:

Yeah, and it is actually interesting that even if those accusations of a “rigged synod” came mainly from that conservative faction, you seem to point out that they were the ones who attempted to rig the synod in a way. You mention that, during the synodal process, Cardinal George Pell—who himself had said that the Synod was being manipulated—privately handed to the pope a letter signed by 13 cardinals opposing any opening of the communion for divorced and remarried. There were also some bishops that were trying to use some using conservative-leaning media seemingly to pressure the proceedings. Some Polish bishops also published some speeches from other bishops with their names attached, which was against the rules of the Synod. So, what would you say about this kind of interference?

Austen Ivereigh:

As I know, people like Cardinal Pell, you know, he wouldn’t have regarded that as an attempt to interfere with the Synod, because his assumption—he’s dead now—but it was very interesting, wasn’t it, that Cardinal Pell died suddenly and unexpectedly in January, and the day after he died, there was a an article that he had written that was then published in an English magazine called The Spectator blasting this current Synod on Synodality.

Again, the assumption of people like Cardinal Pell is: The Church exists, or the authority of the Church exists to defend the status quo, to uphold constant tradition, and that is its task. Anything else they read as undermining that role. So, they see their role as always trying to defend that, whatever it takes.

Therefore, I think Pell’s actually really quite disgraceful intervention in the 2014 Synod with this letter, where he attempted to get a whole series of signatures of people who then denied that they had signed it. It was all quite chaotic. But I mean, I think Pell was acting in according to his own lights in how he felt he should operate. And you know, even though it was the conservatives who behaved pretty badly in the Family Synod, there were people on the other side as well who were very much using the media as well. You know, going to the media to promote a particular view, which they were keen would triumph.

So, Francis actually did say in relation to the second synod, the 2015 Synod, he actually said to them: “look, please don’t do this.” It’s very important that we have a protected space which gives people the freedom to move and develop. If we’re all going to the media to defend our positions, then we end up having a kind of a parallel synod going on in the media. I think actually in the second of the two synods, there was much less of that.

But yes, I can remember very distinctly in 2014, particularly Cardinal Burke, who made great use of BuzzFeed, and it was an unusual juxtaposition of a traditionalist garment with this very contemporary social media. But yeah, giving endless interviews, warning of, you know, cataclysm and, you know, decline of this. And I think, Pedro, also you know I’ve talked about this: what is the mentality here? Why is it so obsessed with this particular issue? I mean, you think, for example, under Benedict, you know, limbo, for example, was abolished, and some people objected, but there wasn’t this great furore. But I think marriage and family was absolutely the hill on which many, many conservatives have chosen to die because they see it as the litmus test of what they would regard as the capitulation of the Church to modernity.

So, that’s why, the temperature was raised by the conservatives from the very beginning to a point where it became very difficult to have a discussion with them because they were so—if I can use the word—“neurotic,” about any idea of change because they saw any change as surrender, as capitulation.

Pedro Gabriel:

Correct. And even so, even with all those fears, the truth is that the liberal position that was embodied by Cardinal Kasper, if we say so, did not win. In fact, Cardinal Kasper’s proposal did not gain much traction, but neither did the proposal to maintain the status quo, so a new pastoral method was needed, that would uphold the orthodoxy of doctrine, but that it would be a creative approach that would solve this tension.

You write in your book that when Cardinal Kasper understood that his proposal would not be approved, he went to other German cardinals for help. He found that help with Cardinal Marx, but also with a moderate like Cardinal Schönborn, and even a conservative like Cardinal Müller. I was actually quite surprised when I read this, because Müller seems, at least in later years, to have disavowed his position. But they all together crafted this sacramental discipline that would later gather significant support in the Synod and even be approved by the pope.

And they did so by going back to the orthodox and traditional teachings of the Church and bringing the doctrine of mitigating circumstances and applying it to this particular circumstance. Subjective culpability can be so diminished that the sinner is not in mortal sin and can receive communion. This is perfectly orthodox, perfectly traditional. But they went back to it and applied it to this particular circumstance from which it was excluded before.

Is this the synodality that Pope Francis was looking for? Different people with different ideological sensitivities coming together to find creative, orthodox, but pastoral solutions?

Austen Ivereigh:

So, Francis says in the book we did together Let Us Dream that synods don’t debate Church doctrine. They don’t change doctrine. They don’t. Synods don’t have the capacity, the authority to do that. As you’ve just said, Amoris Laetitia doesn’t change Church doctrine, nor does it change, of course, sacramental law. What changes is the way in which it is applied, and you’ve just summarized it very well. And they do this by, as it were, resurrecting the Catholic pastoral tradition, which is attentive to individual circumstances.

But I think it’s important when we’re telling the story of how that conclusion comes in the Synod, it’s not automatic. In fact, it’s painful at times and I can remember, speaking to one cardinal in particular, who said: “I just don’t know how we can do it. I realize that we have to be able to offer a path to the sacraments for people who genuinely find themselves unable to secure an annulment for all sorts of reasons which are perfectly valid, we also have to have to have a way in which we can pastorally accompany the divorced and remarried. But I just don’t quite understand how we can do that without amending sacramental law,” which they realized was there for a good reason, which was to defend, uphold and promote the doctrine of indissolubility. And I was thinking, I found it very moving, as a Catholic, to see these pastors who care deeply about the tradition, they care deeply about Catholic teaching and they want to defend it, they want to promote it, and at the same time, they also realise that a big part of Church teaching is the mercy of God, and we can’t teach the mercy of God if we stay sometimes within the letter of the law.

We have to do these two things. I mean it’s a bit like: Jesus brings together—does He not? —mercy and truth. Jesus always proclaims the truth of God. But He’s always, at the same time, attentive to individual circumstances, and ensures that everybody is included and that you never give up on people, you never exclude people. You never leave people outside.

How do you do those two things? Of course, it’s very, very hard. Jesus does it and the Church is invited to do the same. But what happens in Church history is that the Church will end up, as it were, doing one thing more than another, and generally I’d say the temptation would be to defend the letter of the law because they feel beleaguered, they feel a bit like John Paul II in 1980, feeling that they need to shore up or defend the existing position, faced with a threat. But the problem with that whole approach is that you can then end up sacrificing people for the sake of the law.

So, this is the circumstance, this is the dilemma, the tension which the Synod lived in for those two years. It was very moving to me to see the Church do this, to actually be prepared to live in that tension and to say: “I don’t know.” I remember so many of these people saying to me: “I just don’t see how we can do it.” Back in 2014, they went in saying: “How do we do this?” And then in 2015, you can see that they begin to see how it can be done and they say: “Yes, we can do this, we can accompany individual circumstances within the Catholic pastoral tradition by resurrecting, as we say, this tradition, and at the same time uphold sacramental law and promote indissolubility, we can do it all. It’s OK. The Spirit has shown us how.”

But as I said, I just want to emphasise how tough it is for many people to live through… I think, a genuinely synodal process is to live in that tension and not to see the picture clearly for a lot of the time. Then at the end, the Spirit really does show a new horizon and it’s that new horizon that Amoris Laetitia embraces.

Pedro Gabriel:

Continuing following the Synod, you mentioned in your book that every single one of the 99 paragraphs of the Synod’s final document received the necessary 2/3 majority to pass, even the most controversial paragraphs. This was obviously a success, a successful application of synodality. You even describe that the applause that followed the vote count was prolonged and spontaneous.

After this vote it was up to Pope Francis to accept the synod’s proposals or not. In 2016, he published his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, where he incorporated what the Synod had decided, including on the contentious issue of communion for the divorced and remarried.

A few days after Amoris Laetitia’s publication, Cardinal Burke—who you just mentioned—said that this document was not magisterial in an interview to the National Catholic Register. He based this position on the third paragraph of Amoris Laetitia which said, and I quote:

“I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.  Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.” End quote.

In your book you try to debunk this idea that Amoris was not magisterial. You write that “latitude in implementation isn’t the same as pluralism of interpretation: the Gospel needs to be inculturated, not cherry-picked.”

How can we achieve this inculturation, this “reconciled diversity” as you called it, without jeopardizing doctrine, or without allowing for a relativism in which all interpretations are correct, and where it seems Cardinal Burke is correct, that this is not magisterial because Pope Francis himself says that not everything is magisterial. What would you say about that?

Austen Ivereigh:

Well, Cardinal Burke also famously raised the question of whether Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, which was the Pope’s first major document, the paradigmatic or programmatic vision of his pontificate, and I remember Burke saying after that: “Well, you know, the language seems very strange. Is it magisterial?”

I think Burke has a classically sort of conservative or traditionalist understanding of magisterium, which is to say that the magisterium is true or teaches authentically when it upholds what he would say is the traditional teaching of the Church. Now, of course, what that traditional teaching is very much depends on the person articulating, and I would say Cardinal Burke distorts that traditional teaching when he tries to defend it, as he does, of course, in this instance in trying to declare that Amoris is not magisterial. We go round and round.

Of course, it’s magisterial and in fact, not only is it magisterial, but actually I would argue that Amoris Laetitia is the fruit of the most authoritative, magisterial, conciliar process in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. If the Ecumenical Council of the Church is the highest possible authority in the Church, I would argue that a 2-year—well, really in practice 3 year, if you include Amoris Laetitia—3-year process of involving the world’s bishops in discussing and discerning one of the major questions of our time, which results in a clear consensus, in which there has also been a clear movement from people who, say “hang on, how do we do A+B?” and they’ve come to believe that C embraces both A and B, and the Pope has been there the whole time accompanying the process… How can it not be magisterial? Of course, it’s magisterial!

As Cardinal Schönborn was very quick to point out, even the controversial famous paragraphs in chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia are rooted and based on extremely traditional Thomist understandings of moral behavior, and law, and sacramental law, and so on. So, there’s absolutely there is nothing about Amoris which is not magisterial, and I would argue, it is one of the most important teaching documents of the modern age in the church.

Pedro Gabriel:

There was also another attempt to explain away Amoris Laetitia, if you will. For a while after Amoris Laetitia was published—and before Francis backed up the interpretation from the bishops of Buenos Aires—some people were saying that Amoris Laetitia had not made any changes at all regarding sacramental discipline. Amoris Laetitia was merely a reiteration of Familiaris Consortio.

But that doesn’t seem to reflect what the Synod actually decided, or it doesn’t seem like it reflects the proceedings of the Synod. What would you say to people who make that claim?

Austen Ivereigh:

First of all, Amoris Laetitia obviously moves the Church’s pastoral position in respect to the divorced and remarried. It simply develops it. It moves it on. There’s a clear development from Familiaris Consortio and if anybody doubts that they should read your book, Pedro, which I think explains it brilliantly. There is no simple exclusion from the sacraments now. Now what the Church is called to do is to invite people who seek the sacraments and who belong to a parish on a journey of accompaniment, in which all the circumstances are looked at. And the conclusion of that is not automatically reception of the sacraments at all. In fact, in my book I quote from the Jesuits in Braga, in Portugal, who I think have a superb process of accompaniment as a fruit of Amoris Laetitia, and they said most people decide at the end that they shouldn’t receive communion. So, there’s nothing automatic about it. It’s not a pathway to communion. It is genuinely a process of pastoral discernment.

Now that simply wasn’t there in Familiaris Consortio. So, there’s a clear development of it. Though you’re right about people who tried to say… there were some dioceses who tried to say after Amoris Laetitia came out: “well, you know, we have to look at this in light of Familiaris Consortio.” Familiaris Consortio is the last word in their view on the topic. Therefore, where Amoris Laetitia introduces a development, we can discount that.

Well, as Cardinal Schönborn quickly said, it is a very novel idea that you should interpret a subsequent papal document in the light of the previous one. That’s not how Church development of Church doctrine works at all. Rather, the previous papal teaching is always included, taken up in and developed by subsequent popes, and that’s the way the Church moves through history. That’s part of Jesus’s guaranty to the Church when He says: “I will send you my Spirit and my Spirit will lead you into the truth.” That is happening over time and constantly.

So yeah, people did try to do that. In my experience, if a bishop wants to try to disobey papal teaching, magisterial teaching, they usually will find some justification. I mean, we had it, of course, back at the time of Humanae Vitae, when many bishops refused to accept Paul VI’s ruling, and they tried to claim that he had no authority to make that ruling. Of course, the very conservatives who many years later would be objecting to Amoris Laetitia were the ones who said: “no, this is papal teaching, and it’s the fruit of clear papal teaching and has to be therefore obeyed.”

So, it’s another illustration which we’ve seen so much of in the last 10 years of certain people being loyal to the papal magisterium when the pope agrees with them or when they think they know better.

Pedro Gabriel:

Yeah, and as you said, just like Cardinal Kasper’s proposal did not gain any traction, the proposal to keep the status quo, Familiaris, also did not gain traction. The Synod rejected by a clear majority this conservative attempt to just reiterate the Familiaris ban in the final relatio. So, obviously for a person who followed the Synod, that objection would not hold.

One final question: some of the critics of Pope Francis—who themselves oppose synodality as a process, not just the fruits of the Synod, but the process of synodality itself—have tried to claim that the Holy Father is incoherent in the way he applies concepts like synodality, accompaniment, listening, and dialogue. They think that Pope Francis is much more open do it to people who are outside the Church or who do not follow certain doctrines, but he doesn’t apply it allegedly to the conservatives, to the traditionalists.

You have written an article for Commonweal “The Limits of Dialogue” (which I will link below) that explains this alleged inconsistency. But would you like to just explain it in your own words very briefly here?

Austen Ivereigh:

I’ve never quite understood this critique because synodality is not some sort of permissive relativism in which suddenly everybody’s view is as valid as everybody else’s. Synodality is about the Church developing its understanding of where the Spirit is leading the Church. Church doctrine, Church teaching, the tradition of the Church is all taken for granted and assumed in synodal processes.

I think the problem is that many of the conservatives who make this critique don’t engage and haven’t engaged with the Synod because they regard it as something which it’s not, and that leads them not to engage with it, which of course only deepens their misunderstanding of it.

So no, I don’t think synodality in any way reduces papal authority. In no respect does it reduce the Pope’s solemn duty, which is to safeguard the unity and promote the unity of the Church, and indeed, to defend the constant tradition of the teaching of the Church. Francis is not, as I’ve often said, a liberal pope. He will use authority and has used authority in very decisive and important ways, as for example, in swinging new regulations governing sexual abuse by clergy. One can mention many other things, including Traditionis Custodes, which restores to the bishops the regulation of the pre-conciliar rite and Francis explains very clearly why that was necessary.

I think what synodality does and what synods do when they are properly practised—and I think they have been under Francis, they have become very important dynamic mechanisms within the Church’s governance—what synods do is discover the new horizons that the Spirit has already revealed. The Spirit is always out there in front of us. The Spirit has already poured out His gifts on the Church that allow the Church to perform its mission. The problem is that we’re often prevented from seeing where those new paths are because we’re so focused on this, that or the other. So, synods are a chance for us to recognise those new horizons and those new horizons are going to be new. They’re going to renew us. We’re going to need to change but they are not revolutionary. They are not going to alter Church teaching or indeed the tradition of the Church. They won’t go against the tradition of the Church, and if anybody has any doubt about this, I would actually really strongly recommend a book which was key to John XXIII when he called the Second Vatican Council and is also a formative text for Francis, to understand Francis on synodality, would be Yves Congar’s “True and False Reform in the Church,” in which he comes up with four very important criteria for true authentic reform in the Church. And when you see those four criteria, you realise that this is exactly what Francis’s reinvigorated synod is doing. This is reform in the authentic tradition of the Church, which is there right from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, which we now badly need again for our time in order to discover the new horizons that the Spirit is opening for the Church in our time.

Pedro Gabriel:

OK, so this is all the time that we have for today. I would like to thank Austen once again for accepting my invitation to talk about the Synods on the Family.

To our viewers, please subscribe to be notified about new “Amoris Laetitia talks” in the future. I remind the viewers that a transcript of this video will be made available on the website The City and the World. I will leave a link in the description below, and also a link where you can buy Austen’s book Wounded Shepherd from the publisher Henry Holt and Company.

I would also like to remind the viewers that my book “The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia” from Wipf and Stock is also available in Amazon. My book is, in fact, greatly indebted to Austen’s input and to his bibliographical suggestions. So, thank you very much for that Austen.

And once again, thank you so much for your time.

Austen Ivereigh:

Thank you and thanks for your mission. Thanks for this.

Pedro Gabriel:

Thank you. So, to our viewers, I wish you all a good day and see you soon.

1 thought on “Amoris Laetitia and the Synods on the Family”

  1. Wonderful! Thank you so much for this. I have benefited so much from Mr. Ivereigh’s work over the years and I am grateful to you both.

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