“Without the leadership of the Holy Father this synod would have been fractious and it would have had a real struggle to hold together,” Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster, England, told America the day after the synod approved all 94 paragraphs of its final document on the family.
“What we have lived through is a great reason for every Catholic to rejoice in the charism and the grace that is given to the Bishop of Rome,” he told me in this interview at the Venerable English College, Rome, on Sunday Oct. 25, the day the synod ended with a concelebrated mass in St Peter’s Basilica, presided over by the pope.
Talking about the synod process, Nichols said, “it is beginning to gain maturity” under Pope Francis. And commenting on those who voted against the three paragraphs in the final document relating to the divorced and remarried, he said he believes that to some extent they were “motivated by fear and anxiety.”
He considers the words “accompaniment,” “discernment” and “reverential listening” in the final document as “absolutely essential,” and believes that when they are “worked out and developed” then “we will begin to see the kind of church that Pope Francis wants — a church which has at its heart an absolute priority for the mercy of God in its fullest understanding,” a church in which “the great mercy of God becomes real to people in their lives.”
Nichols studied in Rome at the time of the Second Vatican Council and he told me that he felt at the synod “that sense of vibrancy that I remember from those years.”
How do you read the vote on the synod’s final document, what is the significance of it?
Well my thoughts are centered around the question the pope posed in his closing speech yesterday evening. What does this synod mean for the church? For me there are two main answers to that. One is that it means we are taking a fresh look at the family, and that’s quite a theological thing and I think it leads us to understand in a phrase that isn’t in the report but which I like very much is that “the family is actually the flesh of the church,” so the family and church are inseparable, they are not subject and object, they are like interlocking circles.
And more sophisticated phrases were that the family is the icon of the Trinity so before the family we act in a way of reverence. The family is the way of the church, in a phrase of St. John Paul II. In a way it illustrates what Pope Francis constantly emphasizes: that theology and the doctrine of the church are not properly learned in a university alone, it has to be learned among the People of God, the holy People of God. And I think that’s one of the real contrasts, the real voices that have been in this synod, the Latin American voice is constantly saying that and that’s why think it is a great resource for the church around the world.
So, the first thing is what does this synod mean for the church? It means a fresh look at the theology of the family, a deepening of that look and seeing how inseparable the family and the church are.
The second thing I think it means is that this synod has decisively chosen a way for the church for the next period of refreshing its pastoral stance and saying that we must find specific, detailed ways in which the great mercy of God becomes real to people in their lives through the ministry of the church. And that’s why in the final document words like “accompaniment,” “discernment” and “reverential listening” are absolutely essential. I think when that is worked out and developed then we will begin to see the kind of church that Pope Francis wants.
Do you mean a synodal church?
No, I mean a church which has at its heart an absolute priority for the mercy of God in its fullest understanding, not as opposed to its teaching or as opposed to its doctrine, but it is the full unfolding of what God desires for everybody in their particular situation, which is guided and shaped by its teaching but it’s fueled by the sense of mercy and acceptance so they can start again.
You were here in Rome studying at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Many people say that they see a reflection of that council in this synod. Do you share that view?
Well it’s very noticeable that this is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the synod, and in my mind this synod in particular, even more so than the extraordinary one shows that the synod process is beginning to gain maturity. And that, I think, has a lot to do with the style of Pope Francis and his insistence on welcoming people, making them feel that they are at home in his presence, and then saying speak freely, and speak with passion. And then telling us why we can do it because he is here. So this experience has been very strong in the justification of that position that he takes: at this synod, you can speak freely because I am here, Peter is here, and this synod operates with and under Peter. So there’s a maturity about the synod and I suppose that will go back to the kind of vitality that was felt at the council. But clearly this isn’t a council, it isn’t a council of the church, but it has that sense of vibrancy that I remember from those years.
The synod approved all the paragraphs of the final document by a two-thirds majority, and most of them by an overwhelming majority, almost unanimously. At the same time we saw that the votes were very close on the three paragraphs relating to the divorced and remarried. How did you interpret that?
I think there were a number of things going on. One, I think some people might have felt that there wasn’t enough securing of the doctrinal foundations in those paragraphs when taken separately. Secondly, I think that for some people, and they made it very explicit, they did not want to see any latitude given to bishops or to priests, they see that, for some reason, as a threat to the unity of the church. I think they have forgotten the whole practice of pastoral theology based around Ignatius (of Loyola) and Alphonsus (de Liguori) and discernment. They’ve forgotten that this is a traditional part of the church; it’s part of our life. And I think to be afraid of that as something new, and therefore a weakening of the church, is actually to forget our own history. And thirdly, I think, some people find it very difficult to acknowledge in any way at all that we could point to the evidence and the seeds of goodness in a situation which they wanted to categorize simply as immoral.
I think it is those three things that came together around those paragraphs. To some extent they are motivated by fear and anxiety, and I think that’s why the pope in the homily this morning said, “Courage, stand up. Don’t be afraid.” And the more we bring the light of the Gospel and the gaze of God to concrete circumstances, specific circumstances in people’s lives then I think people will see that that Gospel gives life.
Do you think that all this will give rise to a flowering of theological thought, reflection in moral theology and such like?
I would hope so and I hope it leads most of all to a flowering again of pastoral theology and to some of those great traditions of the church which will probably be directed at the confessor and confession, but which need to be brought out of the strict limits of the confessional and into this whole pathway of accompaniment and discernment.
What will you say to your priests on these issues in the light of the synod, when you get back to Westminster?
I will invite them to really study this and I will talk as best I can and say, we have to prepare ourselves for this. I believe it’s no coincidence that in a month or so we are entering a Year of Mercy.
The pope said this morning, “This is the time for mercy!”
It’s no coincidence, and I hope I would be able to say to our priests that this direction that we have been given by the synod “with and under Peter” is something that we have to be ready to follow in practice, particularly during the graced the Year of Mercy, so we have to prepare ourselves.
Was there one thing that particularly impressed you at the synod and one thing that you felt unhappy about?
I think what impressed me was the ability, certainly in the small group, for all of us, whether we were married people, single people, bishops, priests, to identify ourselves with the family. This synod was not about a topic over there, it was about us, it was about our very lives, and I think that part is what gave it great vitality. I remember Cardinal Schonborn saying, “Please be very careful about how you speak about divorced people because my parents were divorced. Please think about how you would say it, because we are talking about our own lives, our people’s lives.”
I think the thing that disappointed me, and to keep it strictly within the confines of the topic of the synod, one of the things that wasn’t talked about much was again... in our group we worked hard to produce a sentiment about the sexual relationship of husband and wife, and how that relationship was central to marriage and how it was a point of healing, a point of forgiveness, a point in which people are strengthened, and how important it is that husbands and wives, in their sexual relationship are actually witnessing to the true meaning of sexuality in a society in which it’s being degraded and diminished. Now I thought that that was a really good thing (to say in the document) and I am sorry it didn’t see the light of day, because I think it would have enriched what we want to say and to share.
The synod, in its final document, said very little about homosexuals or homosexuality.
That’s true, and I think it’s because a kind of logic emerged that this synod must be about the family, and I think the struggles, the upsets and the challenges that a person faces with the same-sex orientation don’t strictly fall within the parameters of the family, except in as much as they are a member of a family into which they were born. But I’m afraid that it didn’t get the attention that I would have hoped but I understand why.
I understand that some speeches and some group discussions suggested that there is need for a more mature discussion on this whole question.
Yes, that’s true. And I think it is quite difficult because, as was also pointed out, this is more than a pastoral issue, this has become a highly politicized issue and it’s difficult actually to respond purely to the pastoral situation without then getting used in what has become a kind of a very political issue. So it is difficult.
What was the pope’s role in this synod?
What this synod has illustrated to me was the absolute truth of his comment last October when he said to us you can speak clearly without fear because I am here, and without the leadership of the Holy Father this synod would have been fractious and it would have had a real struggle to hold together. So what we have lived through is a great reason for every Catholic to rejoice in the charism and the grace that is given to the Bishop of Rome. It is such a gift and strengthens and enriches the church as we have seen and lived through in the last three weeks.