The Vatican’s extraordinary synod on the family heads into its final weekend with a level of drama and political intrigue that seems more appropriate for a medieval royal court than for… oh, wait, the Vatican is basically a medieval royal court, so the level of political maneuvering is just about right.
On Thursday, a clique of English-speaking conservative bishops threw the synod into confusion when they got the secretariat of the synod to release a new English translation of the mid-synod relatio that changed “welcoming homosexual persons” (which had been widely hailed as revolutionary) to “providing for homosexual persons.”
The change was deliberate, not a revision of an incorrect translation, as Father James Martin writes, “The original Italian ‘accogliere,’ according to an Italian I spoke with, means ‘welcome’.” Martin notes that the phrase “partners,” which was also groundbreaking as a reference acknowledging the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, is now “these persons.”
A Vatican spokesperson, confirmed, however, that the Italian translation was still the official translation, so the new version appears to be an attempt by conservatives to spin the coverage of the report in their favor. Conservative bishops had protested that the report had been hijacked by moderates who were added to the drafting committee at the last minute by Pope Francis and that the widespread, positive media coverage of the gay-friendly language made it difficult for the Vatican to retreat on the issue.
Francis’ closest ally at the synod, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, also found himself under attack for comments he reportedly made about African prelates in an interview with Zenit. When asked about reports that Francis had packed the drafting committee to “push things through according to his wishes,” Kasper replied that the “majority of these five people are open people who want to go on with this.” He then added:
The problem, as well, is that there are different problems of different continents and different cultures. Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo.
He then went on to have this exchange with reporter Edward Pentin:
But are African participants listened to in this regard?
No, the majority of them [who hold these views won’t speak about them].
They’re not listened to?
In Africa of course [their views are listened to], where it’s a taboo.
What has changed for you, regarding the methodology of this synod?
I think in the end there must be a general line in the Church, general criteria, but then the questions of Africa we cannot solve. There must be space also for the local bishops’ conferences to solve their problems but I’d say with Africa it’s impossible [for us to solve]. But they should not tell us too much what we have to do.
While Kasper clearly meant that the African bishops wouldn’t or couldn’t discuss homosexuality because of cultural taboos, leaving Western bishops to grapple with the issue in the context of their cultures’ greater acceptance of same-sex partnerships, conservative bloggers were quick to jump on this exchange as evidence of rank colonialism.
At First Things, Matthew Schmitz claimed the synod was purposely ignoring the views of the more conservative bishops to push through Kasper’s liberal agenda:
Kasper has been the main advocate for admitting to communion Catholics who are divorced and remarried—and thus living in what the Church, following the words of Christ himself, considers adultery. This would constitute an act of grave vandalism to Catholic doctrine and a serious failure in the Church’s pastoral outreach.
It would also require the silencing of the voices of Catholic leaders outside of Europe and North America, especially those from Africa, who have a very different way of seeing the tangled issues of divorce, remarriage, and homosexuality.
At Patheos, Elizabeth Scalia called it “[b]reathtaking condescension from a Western Bishop, whose German church is dwindling and headed for financial ruin, toward the African bishops whose pews and seminaries are indisputably overflowing and joyous.” She went on:
In some ways, it’s like a mask coming off. Kasper is an openly progressive Catholic who holds opinions that sometimes skirt along the very thin membrane between authentic Catholic teaching and something not-quite in line. … Most of his admirers run along a similar vein, and yet I just watched a progressive Catholic defend Kasper, and couldn’t help but see the irony: the very people who have inculcated within society the dogma that criticism of any culture (except the Western culture-and-its-traditions) is anathema, when faced with a bit of opposition, are quick to do a complete 180 and suggest that the dissenting culture lacks sufficient enlightenment and need not be listened to, or taken seriously.
While Scalia has a point about the growth of the church in Africa, it’s also true that charges of cultural imperialism are a long-standing way for conservatives in the church to foil progressive agendas. We just passed the twentieth anniversary of the landmark Cairo Conference on Population and Development, where the Vatican launched the strategy of claiming that attempts to expand access to family planning services were really just baby-hating, western feminists attempting to push their values on women in the developing world, who really, really wanted big families despite a widespread unmet need for contraception.
Regardless, Francis apparently heard the criticism—although Kasper has since denied giving the interview (Pentin is standing by his reporting)—and added South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, who has been an outspoken critic of the mid-term report, to the committee charged with drafting the final document this weekend.
The question now is will the committee add so many qualifications and exceptions to the more welcoming language obviously favored by the Francis camp that it becomes meaningless, returning the church to the doctrinal and pastoral stasis favored by conservatives, or will the Francis revolution hold sway and produce a more progressive document to set the stage for next fall’s final family synod, when the drama will resume.