Is the Ambiguity in Synod Documents Intentional?

Although it is unpleasant to discuss, there is a medical disorder (sometimes called “pica”) in which a person desires to eat non-nutritive, non-food substances like glass, plastic, dirt, wood, and apparently almost anything else one could imagine. Besides their disordered desire to eat harmful things, people with pica otherwise seem to be normal and are able to function in society. Even so, eating sharp or solid objects damages the digestive system, and that invariably leads to serious health problems, possibly even death.

Now, imagine the following scenario. You are a medical school student, and the world’s most renowned physician in gastroenterology is one of your professors. He provides a handout with the following brief discussion:

In relation to the rich content of medical literature over the last century, two principle points emerge regarding the desire for and the eating of non-nutritive, non-food substances like glass. One element is the role of conscience, or the patient’s autonomy and right to choose what the patient eats. The second is objective medical fact, which shows that eating glass causes great harm to multiple systems of the body, especially the soft-tissue lining of the digestive system. Over-emphasizing the patient’s right to choose to eat glass runs the risk of the patient making selfish choices. Over-emphasis on objective medical facts in the glass eater seeing the medical fact as an insupportable burden, and unresponsive to a person’s desires. In patients with pica, combining the two points with the guidance of a competent psychiatrist will help the patient make humanly fulfilling choices.

You, the medical student, are taken aback by the ambiguity of the paragraph. You read and re-read the paragraph many times, ultimately concluding that the paragraph can lead to a selective reception in favor of eating glass, or opposed to eating glass. After asking the physician to clarify, he responds by saying that, historically, the language in medical literature has been overly harsh and divisive, and as a result, those with pica feel abandoned. Additionally, the physician refers to a growing number of “progressive” medical professionals who believe that patient autonomy requires the physician not to interfere with the patient’s right to choose, or the right to desire various objects for food, even if those items are harmful. The physician concludes that the above paragraph is a compromise strategy—it includes both “progressive” and “conservative” medical beliefs, and, ultimately, it will be up to the individual physician and his patient’s conscience to decide what to eat.

Such a proposal seems problematic to you, the student; it just does not seem in line with the overall philosophy of medicine for one physician to promote eating glass while another considers it objectively disordered. In the end, you ultimately realize that such a philosophy of medicine is subjectivism and is contrary to the belief that there are objective scientific truths.

Believe it or not, such a scenario is currently playing out in multiple different ways in the medical profession, and apparently, a similar scenario is occurring within the Catholic Church’s current Synod on the Family.

The document currently being discussed and critiqued by synod fathers is called the Instrumentum Laboris (IL). Some have already openly criticized the ambiguous language found throughout the entire document. Others have focused on paragraph 137 of the IL, which deals with the Church’s teaching on contraception as it relates to married couples. A portion follows:

In relation to the rich content of Humanae Vitae and the issues it treats, two principal points emerge which always need to be brought together. One element is the role of conscience as understood to be God’s voice resounding in the human heart which is trained to listen. The other is an objective moral norm which does not permit considering the act of generation a reality to be decided arbitrarily, irrespective of the divine plan of human procreation. A person’s over-emphasizing the subjective aspect runs the risk of easily making selfish choices. An over-emphasis on the other results in seeing the moral norm as an insupportable burden and unresponsive to a person’s needs and resources. Combining the two, under the regular guidance of a competent spiritual guide, will help married people make choices which are humanly fulfilling and ones which conform to God’s will.

Indeed, the language in the paragraph lacks clarity, and apparently separates subjective “conscience” from objective moral norms (which cannot be done because conscience presupposes objective moral norms). Humanae Vitae dissenters similarly separated objective moral norms from subjective conscience, claiming that “spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the value and sacredness of marriage.” On the other hand, the Church’s official position is that contraception is “intrinsically evil.” It seems that paragraph 137 of the IL intends to include the “progressive” and “conservative” viewpoints on the use of hormonal contraception side by side in the same Church document.

Approximately 60 moral theologians and philosophers called the above paragraph “highly ambiguous” and “problematic,” while they believe the IL itself “appears to stand in direct tension with the magisterial teachings contained in Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor,” and that the “inadequacies and misrepresentations contained in the Instrumentum Laboris may have devastating consequences for the faithful.” Indeed, the ambiguity (and explicit errors) of the IL could mislead priests and the faithful to erroneously conclude that hormonal contraception is permissible. The ambiguity of the paragraph could result in selective reception in favor of the “progressive” viewpoint (“follow your conscience,” personal “autonomy”) or the “conservative” viewpoint (that the use of hormonal contraception is gravely evil and objectively disordered).

The question then becomes: is the ambiguous, contradictory, and potentially misleading language in a Church document intentional, or was it a mistake? Certainly, it is impossible to determine the intentions of the authors. After further investigation, however, one possibility is that the Instrumentum Laboris (and multiple other recent Church documents) includes a “compromise strategy” that involves including often contradictory “progressive” and “conservative” viewpoints side by side in the same document.

Cardinal Walter Kasper apparently proposed such a “compromise strategy” in an interview with Raymond Arroyo. Those familiar with the controversy surrounding the Synod on the Family are aware of Cardinal Kasper’s significant involvement. In the interview with Arroyo, Cardinal Kasper was asked if he thought his idea of “mercy” for divorced-and-“remarried” Catholics in the form of allowing them to receive the Eucharist will be achieved at the 2015 synod. Cardinal Kasper responded that he does not know if that end will be achieved; however, as a means to achieve that end, Cardinal Kasper proposed that Synod participants

prepare a text which can get the agreement of the whole, of the great majority. It’s the same method also we had in the Council… My suggestion is to find now a formula where the great majority can adhere.

What did he mean by “the same method we had in the Council” and “a formula where the great majority can adhere”? Some suggested that Kasper was referring to a formula found in the texts of Vatican II, in which “vague, ambiguous and even apparently conflicting language” was used for compromise.

After reviewing some of Cardinal Kasper’s writings one will find that he describes (and provides tacit approval) of such a “compromise strategy” in Church documents. First, in his 1989 book Theology and Church, Kasper wrote:

It has frequently been pointed out that in the Vatican II texts ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ statements are often found side by side, with no attempt at reconciliation. People talk about purely formal compromises… So some people have talked about a juxtaposition, a double viewpoint, a dialectic, if not actualy [sic] a contradiction between two ecclesiologies, in the conciliar texts—a traditional hierarchical ecclesiology and a new, better communio ecclesiology, renewed in the spirit of the ancient church. So both conservatives and progressives can find support in individual conciliar statements. (Page 170.)

Next, in his 2004 book That They May All Be One: The Call to Unity Today, Cardinal Kasper similarly suggests that

The [Second Vatican] Council understood tradition to be a living reality, full of the Holy Spirit; that is, both as fidelity to ‘depositum fidei’ that we received as our inheritance once and for all, and as an ever-renewed ‘youthfulness’ in eternally new situations… Understanding the tradition as a living reality implies that not only in Unitatis redintegratio but also in many other texts of the Vatican Council (together with Lumen gentium), old and new are often found side by side… This looks like a compromise, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. An intelligent compromise can be an intellectual undertaking of high value and an expression of great wisdom; while it clearly excludes error on the one hand, on the other it permits the existence—for the time being and for love of unity in the essentials—of insurmountable intra-ecclesial differences, deferring their solution to future discussion… The wording of a conciliar pronouncement, despite the absolute certainty that it is exempt from error, is always open-ended; defining it sparks a lively process of reception. (Pages 11-12, emphasis added.)

The paragraph suggests that including “old and new” teachings and “insurmountable intra-ecclesial differences” side by side in a Church document is a compromise that he believes is “not necessarily a bad thing,” implicitly supporting the inclusion of contradictory statements in Church documents.

Finally, a portion of a 2013 article written by Cardinal Kasper in the Italian daily edition of L’ Osservatore Romano is translated in the following way:

[Pope John XIII] spoke of a pastoral objective of the Council, intending an updating, a “becoming today” of the Church. He did not intend a banal adaption to the spirit of the times, but a call to make faith speak in its transmission today… The great majority of the council fathers took up this idea… An influential minority stubbornly resisted this project of the majority. The successor of John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, was fundamentally on the side of the majority, but sought to include the minority and, in line with an ancient conciliar tradition, to reach an approval, insofar as humanly possible, of the 16 conciliar documents. He succeeded, but he paid a price. In many points, compromise formulas had to be found, in which the positions of the majority are often placed immediately next to those of the minority in order to limit them… Thus, the conciliar texts have in themselves an enormous potential for conflict; they open the door to a selective reception in one direction or the other. (“Un Concilio ancora in cammino,” April 12, 2013; Anno CLIII, n. 85, pages 4-5, translated by Father Royce Gregerson; emphasis added.)

The text is a variation of his 1989 and 2004 writings describing the “compromise” strategy of including two (often contradictory) teachings side by side. Additionally, he notes in the 2013 article that the “formula” could result in “selective reception in one direction or the other.”

Thus, in his writings, Cardinal Kasper delineates his understanding of “the method we had in the Council,” a compromise method. The method involves including contradictions or both “conservative” and “progressive” viewpoints side by side in the same document, apparently allowing others (individual bishops or bishops’ conferences?) to decide the right or wrong action.

In the interview with Raymond Arroyo, Cardinal Kasper seems to imply that the writers of the texts of the Synod on the Family use such a compromise strategy. There is more than ample evidence that the “compromise strategy” is already employed in synod documents. Multiple destructive paragraphs that were rejected by the majority at the end of the 2014 synod were still included in the final 2014 document (which was approved by Pope Francis).

Of course, even Cardinal Kasper himself acknowledged that the “compromise strategy” results in selective reception or different interpretations. In other words, contradictory and ambiguous language in Church documents ultimately results in relativism and subjectivism. If one diocese follows the “progressive” viewpoint, and another follows the “conservative” viewpoint, an obvious division has occurred. Bishops will be against bishops, priests against priests, and families against families.

The result, then is contrary to what is supposedly intended; isn’t a compromise supposed to unite rather than cause further division? Is Cardinal Kasper’s supposed “compromise strategy” not a compromise at all but a means for further division? In the end, is it going to cause more strife, suffering, and ultimately the death of bodies and souls?

(Photo credit: Paolo Cocco / AFP)

Robert L. Kinney III


Robert L. Kinney III earned his Pharm.D. in Pharmacy from Purdue University and his M.A. in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville.