(John Thavis*) Two of the College of Cardinals’ most colorful characters, American Timothy Dolan and Australian George Pell, offered somewhat different takes on the Synod of Bishops during an event with English-speaking journalists Tuesday evening.
On marriage and family issues, Dolan the optimist seemed to see the glass half-full, while Pell the “realist” tended toward half-empty.
Asked what had struck him most about the synodal assembly so far, Pell said his answer would probably be seen as “ecclesiastically incorrect,” but he continued: “The thing I’ve taken from the first three days is the level of trouble we’re in, right around the world, with marriage and the family. There are very, very few societies where the trend is running in the direction of strengthened family life.”
Pell spoke, for example, of the “radical disarray in family life” among working class people in countries like the United States.
Pell added that while bishops all want to show understanding and mercy to their people, especially those in difficult and irregular situations, that didn’t mean they could bend the rules or teachings. Referring to divorced and remarried Catholics, he said: “As Christians, we follow Jesus. I might have hoped Jesus would have been a little bit softer on divorce. But he wasn’t, and I’m sticking with him.”
Cardinal Dolan quickly jumped in and quipped to reporters, “There’s your soundbite for tomorrow: ‘Cardinal Pell sticks with Jesus.’”
Pell, of course, is among those who have publicly criticized a proposal by Cardinal Walter Kasper to find a way to re-admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion.
Cardinal Dolan, on the other hand, said he was most impressed with the synod’s new methodology, including a move to listen to a married couple at the start of each session. “That’s very refreshing, and very instructive. The pastors of the world are listening.”
Dolan added that so far, the bishops have shown that they care about their people, especially their “broken people” who are outside the church. It bothers bishops in the United States, he said, that only 50% of young Catholics today even approach the sacrament of marriage.
But while that’s an obvious problem, Dolan said, there’s not much hand-wringing at the synod, and no “doom and gloom.” There is candor, Dolan said, but not a sense of panic.
The two cardinals spoke at a launch of “Crux”, an online project of the Boston Globe that focuses on Catholic news. Both men said interaction with the media was essential for the modern church, and that to communicate well the church has to update its language.
Dolan, for example, said the term “natural law” is still an important philosophical concept in understanding the church’s teachings, but it doesn't have much meaning to contemporary people.
“When (the bishops) talk about some kind of renewal or reform of our vocabulary, they don’t mean to soften it to dilute the teaching. They are trying to find better ways to say it, to make our teaching more credible and cogent. So it’s not a code word for side-stepping tough things,” Dolan said.
Asked if the cardinals knew what they were getting when they elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell said it was clear that the Vatican needed change, and Francis has not disappointed. Pell was appointed by the pope to heads a new Vatican financial organization that’s implementing far-reaching economic reforms.
Dolan said he’s been most surprised by Pope Francis as a captivating public figure. “I thought of him as a very shy, retiring man. In no way did I think of him as charismatic, someone who would electrify the crowds,” Dolan said.