ROME — Much has been said in the past 10 days about divisions within the Oct. 4-25 Synod of Bishops on the family, with some charging that the synod has been rigged for a predetermined — and progressive — outcome, and that changes that Pope Francis introduced to the process will lead to disaster.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan disagrees.

“I think the process is extraordinarily candid,” Dolan said in an interview with Crux Thursday. “I think it is working, and this is from one who likes to complain!”

“I’m almost surprised at myself,” he said.

Dolan said he has come to believe that Pope Francis’ Ignatian spirituality leads him to believe that “a mess, confusion, questions are a good thing.”

As the synod hits its halfway mark, he said he’s inclined to see light beginning to shine through the hubbub, “as much as sometimes I hate to admit it.”

On other matters, Dolan said:

  • He believes a proposal to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion is basically off the table, but that other ways to express care for them need to be found.
  • He described the controversy over a letter to Pope Francis expressing concerns over the synod process, which he acknowledges signing, is a “tempest in a teapot,” saying most of those concerns have already been addressed.
  • He said he’s been impressed by the leadership of the African bishops, saying they’re no longer “rookies on the ball club” but prelates with “immense pastoral experience” which he finds “breathtaking.”

Crux spoke with Dolan about these and other issues on Wednesday during a break in the synod. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: We’re almost at the [synod’s] halfway point. How do you think it’s working?

Dolan: It’s working very well. That’s not to deny that it has its moments of weariness, that it has its moments of fatigue and frustration, but in general, I think it’s working very well. I have found, believe it or not, that it’s tough for a bishop, it’s tough for an American, to sit in a group in due process for hours. It’s especially tough for me, especially the circoli minori [small working groups], but in this synod they have been given more attention and more time, and they’re working.

I said to my group at the end of yesterday’s session, “I have to say to you that I found today to be a day of recollection.” I said, “To listen to you, we’ve prayed together, we have spoken about pastoral challenges, we have shared our understanding of sacred scripture, I have found this very moving.”

So the whole idea of the circoli minori, that was given a lot more expansion and attention in this synod, it’s paid off. Now how is that going to be absorbed and implemented in the final document? Vedremo (We’ll see).

What did you make of the controversy over the letter from several cardinals, including yourself, to Pope Francis about the synod process?

Pardon the use of a cliché, but talk about a tempest in a teapot! This was a number of cardinals who said, ‘We’re looking forward to this, we have such respect for the pope’s invitation to trust, and confidence, and honesty, that let’s share a couple concerns that we have with him,’ and we did. I think that he took them very seriously and responded very sincerely.

We didn’t see that as daring, we didn’t see that as bold or as innovative, we saw it as this is what he’s asked us to do, this is part of our responsibility, let’s do it. And boy, that’s sure the spirit with which he took it. That was sure evident in the respect and attention that he obviously gave it. I was surprised at how much attention that got. I don’t know if people aren’t used to that, or what …

You’re convinced the synod is not rigged?

No, I don’t think [it is]. Once again today we listened to reports of the working groups, and you would say that overwhelmingly, the groups said, “Here’s some of the shortcomings, some of the gaps we have seen in part two [of the working document], things that have to be taken care of.” There’s no way that can be denied, so I think the process is extraordinarily candid. I think it’s working, and this is from one who likes to complain! I’m almost surprised at myself.

It seems to me that [for] Francis, and those who know better tell me so, that this is part of Ignatian spirituality: a mess, confusion, questions are a good thing. Very often our desire for something very tidy, very predictable, something very structured, in itself sometimes can be an obstacle to the work of grace. He seems to believe that. It was very clear at the last synod, and I would have to say that I see that working, as much as at times I hate to admit it. In some of the confusion, some of the questions, some of the messiness, in some weariness, you can see light, and you can come to a set of conclusions.

What light do you see?

First of all, I’m seeing some personal lights. As you know, anyone who comes to the synod personally experiences a wider appreciation of the universal Church. I see that very clearly. I spoke a little earlier [before the interview began] about the dominance of the Catholic Church in Africa. I think that in the past we’ve looked at them as newcomers, we’ve said, “Oh, isn’t it nice that we have them here as a minority.” They’re not a minority anymore, these are not rookies.

They’re not junior partners anymore…

They’re not rookies on the ball club. These are people who have immense pastoral experience, who have a sense of the Church that has been tried by suffering and cultural opposition, and who now have a wisdom and an experience that I find breathtaking.

Secondly, I’m amazed by what I see as some paradoxes or contrasts.

For instance, there’s a contrast between what you might call the wisdom of a suffering Church versus the comfortable Church. I would consider us in the United States a comfortable Church. The things we worry about aren’t the things that the suffering Church worries about. We worry about a couple having difficulties in marriages, and I’m glad we do. In the suffering countries, they worry about whether their husband or wife is going to come home, or whether they’ve been arrested, or captured, or raped or beheaded on their way home from work.

When you see the different emphasis between the suffering and comfortable Church, I say, “Wow, this is good for me.”

There are also many good things coming out from the group corporately.

Over and over again, it’s come out that our forte is not sociology, it’s not demographics, [and] it’s not psychology. Our forte is what God has revealed about marriage and family, and we try to pass that on. It seems very clear that the synod fathers are saying that. There also seems to be a growing sentiment that bishops know the Church is at her best when she insists on the strong, clear teaching of scripture.

You [also] see a paradox between truth and mercy. You see a paradox about what God, what his son Jesus, what St. Paul, expect, and also the remarkable passion they had for those who’re unable to live up to it. I almost sense that the synod fathers are saying that we have to be true to both, but that doesn’t mean that we have to accommodate any dramatic mitigation of what we’ve detected traditionally that God has revealed about marriage and family to his people.

Applying that to the question of the divorced and the remarried, does that suggest the idea of Communion might be off the table, but there still needs to be a message of inclusion and compassion?

Yes, that would be a sound conclusion. I believe Pope Francis did us a big favor when he said, “This synod is not about divorce and remarriage.” I presume he expected that it would come up, [as] it certainly did last time, but it should not distract us from the goal of the synod. He also keeps repeating, over and over again, that “the doctrine of the Church cannot change.”

I think that was a good impulse to the synod fathers to say, “Apart from that almost simplistic way of giving people a sense of inclusion, are there other pastoral ways to do so?” And that is coming up, it’s coming up a lot.

That’s what I meant when I talked about a pastoral wisdom, when I hear the other bishops speak about the things that … this is interesting. We keep thinking about the problems we have in the United States, but what about when I hear one of the African bishops say, “The problem I have is when a couple doesn’t have a baby, the wife is discarded.” There’s a huge social pressure. I hadn’t even thought about that. What a sense of unfairness and injustice to the woman, who is then cast off, all of this is. Or if a woman has a child out of wedlock, there’s no chance for her to ever be married, and she’s going to be excluded from society.

When you hear those pastoral problems, I’m thinking, “My oh my, they tower above some of the ones that we have!”

How do you then nurture a sense of including, welcome to those who might not be able to participate in the sacramental Communion? That’s something you hear a lot of people talking about.