New Sources Bolster Report that Pope Benedict Played Key Role in Synod Compromise

Preliminary Note: Today, 12 March, Vatican News published a report that Pope emeritus Benedict XVI wrote yet another letter. In this new letter, he praises a set of new books on the theology of Pope Francis which make clear to him “that Pope Francis is a man with profound philosophical and theological formation and [which] are helpful to see the interior continuity between the two pontificates, even with all the differences in style and temperament.” [emphasis added] In light of Benedict’s recurrent support of Pope Francis, the following report might shed some more light in understanding our current Church crisis and the underlying obscuring and deleterious compromises.

During the 2015 Family Synod, Cardinal Gerhard Müller – then the Vatican’s chief of doctrine – was the key person whose approval was needed in order to receive the long-desired compromise which Pope Francis then could use for his future document Amoris Laetitia. As we at the time reported, Marco Ansaldo – Italian journalist for La Repubblica – had a source that told him that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and Pope emeritus Benedict had met in the last week of the synod at the pope’s residence Mater Ecclesiae for a lunch meal at which the Austrian cardinal received Pope Benedict’s encouragement for a sort of compromise between Cardinals Müller and Kasper. Our recent research has given us new sources that seem to confirm this original 26 October 2015 story; but, then, we have also still received some denials. Let us start at the beginning of this new research.

Marco Ansaldo had entitled his original report on this historic meeting with the words: “Compromise on the Synod born after Ratzinger-Schönborn Lunch.” Schönborn was the moderator of the German-speaking group – which had 16 members – and was later praised for his diplomatic role during those German synod discussions. Ansaldo indicates the Austrian cardinal’s meeting with the retired pope, saying:

There is also the detail of a pranzo [lunch] between the two [Benedict and Schönborn], which took place in the monastery Mater Ecclesiae in the Vatican, in the context of the accord reached between the Germanic circle of bishops, which became a model for the other groups, finding a common point of agreement between reformers and conservatives before the final vote.

In the following, Ansaldo reveals what he heard from his source:

The meeting between the young archbishop of Vienna, considered by many to be papabile in a future conclave, and the aged German Pontiff, took place a few days before the Saturday vote, as part of the regular courtesy visits of the so-called Schulerkreis (the circle of former students of Ratzinger) with their former professor. [….]

And everyone knows how much the leader of the conservatives, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and curator of the opera omnia of Joseph Ratzinger, is sensitive to the vision of Benedict. In the hand finally extended by Müller to the progressives Schönborn, Marx, and Kasper, there are some who have seen the desire to not fracture the Synod by rejecting the thrust requested by Francis, but rather to welcome it.

“It was a true surprise,” sources inside the Synod commented today with admiration, while they noted that “the relatio, which passed not without conflicts, found at the last moment a common base of support.” In the breathless hours of the final draft Cardinal Walter Kasper, cited the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, where he speaks about the “principle of prudence.” And in the relatio of the Germanic Circle he proposed the key word “discernment,” a word dear to the Jesuits and to Bergoglio. That evening Müller carried the book of Aquinas home with him. The next morning he accepted the compromise proposed by the progressives. [emphasis added]

Ansaldo, only one day after the end of the synod, saw that this compromise entered into the final report – relatio finalis – of the synod and that the pope now could make use of it for his purposes: “Because by a single vote, 178 against 80, the requested quorum of 2/3 was saved so that Communion for the divorced would pass, landing in the hands of Pope Francis who can now spin it to the faithful as a concrete result of the Synod.” (All translations from the Italian article courtesy Giuseppe Pellegrino)

(Here, I do not further enter into the discussion, as recently raised again by Cardinal Blase Cupich, according to whom the synod did approve of Communion for the remarried – which has been contested, rightly so, by Vatican specialist Edward Pentin.)

At the time of the Ansaldo report, I had reached out, on 30 October 2015, to Cardinal Müller’s office and requested a confirmation or denial of it, but any comment was explicitly declined.

In my recent research, however, I found that the Müller-Benedict-Schönborn camp largely denies this story: Cardinal Schönborn explicitly denied it through his speaker, Dr. Michael Prüller, who wrote to me on 3 February that the Ansaldo report “is completely false.” A 30 January request for information, sent to the Vatican Press Office for Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, has not been answered.

Yet, there are two sources – both participants of the German-speaking group at the 2015 synod – who spoke to us on condition of anonymity and who have confirmed the existence of such a meeting between Schönborn and Benedict. One of the two sources said, in February of this year:

I participated in the work of the German linguistic group. I heard about a meeting of Cardinal Schönborn with Benedict XVI, [but] I do not remember if a lunch was mentioned.

I can not say anything about compromises between Cardinals Kasper and Müller, I remember that Cardinal Kasper’s proposals were not accepted, then there was a vote in favor of the formulations that came from Cardinal Schönborn with the assurance that the formulations that could be ambiguous must be interpreted in the sense of tradition.

Thus, while this first source does confirm having heard about this meeting, he is not able to confirm any such a Benedict-approved compromise; rather, it seems to him that Cardinal Schönborn worked out a compromise with the assurance that it would be read in light of tradition.

Our second source, however, had the following to say, also in light of my question as to whether he heard anything about a direct contact between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Müller during the synod:

The report from Ansaldo is also correct in its details, and that was quite public for the German-speaking group. And the compromise between Kasper and Müller was formed at one specific session. It would be new to me that Müller then later once more spoke with Benedict himself, for we only had Cardinal Schönborn as the messenger.

This second source also describes how the compromise between Müller and the progressivist prelates came to pass when he says that the former “agreed after a longer discussion on Thomas Aquinas and his view of the role of the conscience for which we asked to receive a Latin copy.” Thomas Aquinas was serving here, in his eyes, as “a theological safeguard.” This source put the Benedict intervention in the context of an article which claimed that, at the synod, there was taking place “a boxing match between the old and the new pope.” Then, he says, “Cardinal Schönborn met Pope Benedict and then communicated his request to Müller, Kasper, etc.,” which subsequently “led to the discussion on Thomas Aquinas and to Müller’s approval.” This source added that “the German-speaking group was the theological heavyweight,” also because “here the German pope emeritus could directly intervene.”

When asked to explain a little further the concrete circumstances of the Müller-Kasper-compromise during the synod, the source says: “The day of the compromise were in fact really two. On one day, we, especially Müller and Kasper, mostly discussed Thomas Aquinas – who stood, in Latin, in the middle of the table of the Congregation for the Faith.” Then, there appeared articles in prominent newspapers in different languages where there was used “the image of a boxing match between Francis and Benedict.” The source continues, saying: “Everybody was both indignant that the world media were being instrumentalized in this matter and the synod thus was not any more confidential, as well as concerned that this meant a split [here he indicates that even Pope Francis himself was concerned about this] and whether perhaps Pope emeritus Benedict himself was behind it, which was not true, however.”

Here, our source explains, came in the meeting between Cardinal Schönborn and Pope emeritus Benedict: “This was the occasion and reason why Schönborn went to the pope [Benedict] and why there was a solution needed. Not everybody [in the German-speaking group] perhaps noticed, how it came to pass that in the evening or the next morning (I have it in my files), there was proposed a formulated compromise-paragraph to which both the camp of Kasper, Marx etc., as well as the camp of Müller, Laham III [Patriarch Gregory III Laham ] etc. agreed.”

The second source also added that he himself “never understood” why Cardinal Müller had then later “played the astonished one” with regard to Amoris Laetitia. Moreover, he himself was not at all surprised when Amoris Laetitia itself opened up access to the Sacraments for some of the “remarried” couples.

This kind of understanding can be further underscored by an interview given by Cardinal Kurt Koch immediately at the end of the Synod. Koch – who himself had opposed the German push for liberalization before the 2015 Synod – made the following remark, which indicates that he knew what the consequences of the German final report had been:

With reference to the care for remarried divorcees, Koch calls the result of the Synod a differentiation: “The situations of the remarried divorcees are very different,” and these different situations are to be “taken into account in the realm of the pastoral care.” The text does not say that Communion is to be made possible for these faithful. “But it is also not excluded,” says Koch in the interview. [emphasis added]

Some other participants of the German-speaking group whom I also contacted about this Schönborn-Benedict meeting, either deny having heard about it or had demurred to answer. In a message sent to me on 13 February through his press speaker, Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin wanted “neither to confirm nor to deny” the story; Cardinal Reinhard Marx refused to answer my question altogether (His speaker, Mathias Kopp, insisted I should mention that they prefer not to  participate in a sort of “speculative journalism.”); Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück informed me on 7 February that he does not know anything about such a possible luncheon and conversation. Professor Michael Sievernich, S.J, who was merely an expert, not a voting member of the group, also denied in an e-mail exchange having heard anything about this matter.

As to Marco Ansaldo himself, he wrote to me once more, on 23 February, confirming his story. He had already earlier pointed out to me that his original story had never been officially denied. He now says:

Therefore I reply to you with great pleasure on your request, but on the basis of what I remember. Yes, my source on that agreement was a German one. And he is a religious man working inside the Vatican. He spoke to me right that day, after the German meeting. So, for me, [there are] no doubts as to what he was saying to me, coming also from a clever and an inner source. What he told me, I wrote.

Let us remember first: it was exactly that German-speaking group that had come up with the idea of speaking about an “internal forum” in which a priest should discern the situation of individual “remarried” couples in order to integrate them more fully into “the life of the Church.” While the reference was made in this context to Familiaris Consortio (84), it did not explicitly mention the traditional teaching of the Church, thus leaving an opening for future interpretations. However, the final German report did explicitly mention the possible access to the Sacraments (Eucharist and Penance) for the “remarried” couples. Let us consider here the words of the final report of the German-speaking group which had received Cardinal Müller’s own approval and full consent (translation from a CNA source):

It is well known that in both sessions of the synod there was an intense struggle over the question of whether, and to what extent, remarried divorcees, when they want to take part in the life of the Church, under certain conditions could receive the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The debates have shown that there are no simple and generic solutions. […]

The discussions clearly show that a clarification and deepening is required to more deeply delve into the complexity of these questions in the light of the Gospel, the Magisterium of the Church, and the gift of discernment. That said, we can mention some criteria that help to discern. The first criterion is given by Saint Pope John Paul II in FC 84 [Familiaris Consortio 84], when he invites to the following: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.” It is therefore the responsibility of pastors to walk the path of discernment together with the afflicted. It will be helpful here to collectively, in an honest assessment of conscience, take steps of reflection and penance. The divorced-and-remarried should ask themselves how they treated the children when the marriage community fell into crisis. Where there attempts at reconciliation? […]

Such a path of reflection and penance can, in the internal forum, with a view to the objective situation in conversation with the confessor, contribute to the personal formation of conscience and to a clarification to what extent access to the sacraments is possible. Everyone must assess himself, following the words of the Apostle Paul, which applies to everyone who approaches the table of the Lord: “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged.” (1 Cor 11:28-31)

The modi of the third part of the Instrumentum Laboris were worked on in a good synodal spirit, like the first two parts, and decided upon unanimously.

Archbishop Heiner Koch, Relator of the German Circle, 20 October 2015 [emphasis added]

When now re-reading these words from the final German report, one can only shake one’s head as to why on earth Cardinal Müller ever could have given his approving consent – especially in light of his continuous resistance to this kind of approach that has pervaded Catholic discourse since the promulgation of Amoris Laetitia. This compromise in the German-speaking group then entered the final report (in paragraphs 84-86) – but then it was without explicitly mentioning the possible access to the Sacraments. Nonetheless, the pope had enough opening to use it as a justification to make pastoral and doctrinal changes with regard to these couples while being able to refer back to the final “consensual” report of the 2015 synod. As Sandro Magister himself at the time pointed out, “In the draft of the synod’s final document, in the three paragraphs on the divorced and remarried, the “German” solution is transcribed en bloc.”

At the time, when following the synod closely, several of us journalists immediately knew that Cardinal Müller had made a sort of compromise with Cardinals Kasper and Marx. When I contacted at the time one source who is close to the cardinal, I was told that Cardinal Müller “also wanted to show some mercy.”

Cardinal Marx himself clearly pointed out the possibility of access to the Sacraments when he said at a 21 October 2015 press conference when presenting the third and final German report and its reference to a path of discernment: “That is not a public process, but that is a spiritual way and then you can find a way, if and when it might be possible to make a full reconciliation.” [emphasis added]

Nowhere in the final German report, however, is there talk about the traditional restrictions with regard to the marital act, as prescribed in Familiaris Consortio 84.

Would Cardinal Müller ever have made such a far-reaching compromise without receiving,  one way or another, the moral and theological support from Pope Benedict – whose opera omnia he himself was editing and the man who had brought him to Rome in the first place? It is highly improbable, I believe.

That is why the story as reported by Marco Ansaldo would also still make sense.

At the time of his first reporting of his story, I had asked him for some more information. Here is what I reported him to have openly said to me:

I was able to receive further confirmation from Ansaldo himself, who generously told me about his source, whom he considers to be “very reliable.” According to information provided by a German cleric who spoke with Mr. Ansaldo, Pope Benedict and Cardinal Schönborn spoke about the then-ongoing proceedings when they met for lunch during the last week of the Synod. Cardinal Schönborn presented Pope Benedict with the possible compromise between the Cardinals Müller and Kasper. “Pope Benedict then gave a sort of benediction to this agreement,” said Ansaldo. “Cardinal Müller understood the message, and he and Cardinal Kasper met to find a solution [with regard to the “remarried” divorcees], which was based upon the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas,” he continued. Ansaldo also pointed out that no one has denied this story since he reported it publicly more than ten days ago. When I also then asked him whether he knew if Cardinal Müller and Pope Benedict had had any contact during the Synod concerning these matters, Ansaldo responded:

“I have no information about a possible meeting during the Synod between Cardinal Müller and Benedict XVI. But, of course, we all know the special relationship between the two, and I think that Cardinal Müller understands every single signal that could come from Joseph Ratzinger’s behavior.” [emphasis added]

One possibility, of course, is that Cardinal Schönborn himself did meet the retired pope and then managed to quote him to the other German-speaking bishops, and in a way that would suit his own liberalizing agenda. However, what speaks against this sort of interpretation is that Cardinal Müller certainly would have later found out the truth from Benedict himself, thus putting the Austrian cardinal in the light of a cunning deceiver.

Either way, it would be important that those people involved in this meeting and decisive event would eventually reveal more facts and surrounding information. But, in any case, God knows, and those who supported such a compromise with Cardinal Kasper (with Pope Francis in the background) will have to face their own responsibility here and render an account at last – especially in light of the cumulatively grave consequences of Amoris Laetitia.

And some of the high-ranking prelates here involved might regret not having followed up, in 2016, on the idea of revealing more information about what Sister Lucia had additionally to say about the Third Secret of Fatima, next to the vision itself. Had such an action taken place, our current situation might well look different now. But certainly those additional words will one day come to light, as well.

I wish to thank all my colleagues who, in one way or another, have indispensably contributed to this essay.

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