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  • John Thavis

Cardinal Napier has praise for synod process, Pope Francis’ leadership

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier has made himself a protagonist of the Synod on the Family, so his appearance at today’s Vatican press briefing stirred interest among reporters.

Cardinal Napier’s “bottom line” judgment on this session of the synod: it’s been far more pastoral than prophetic. I don’t think he necessarily meant that in a good way.

“When we look at the problems we’ve been studying during these three weeks, there are two possibilities. One is to look at it from the pastoral point of view, when you’re trying to reach out to people and minister to them. The other one, which I would say has been de-emphasized during this time, and even during the synod last year, is the prophetic, where like John the Baptist you say: ‘You’ve got to repent, and these are the sins’ and you name them,” the cardinal said.

“This has certainly been a very much more pastoral synod, looking at how can the church be a servant and minister to those people in difficult situations. There’s been a lot of emphasis on using language that doesn’t offend – politically correct language, if you like. I’m not sure that’s the best way to be prophetic. It’s certainly a way of trying to be more pastoral.”

As for the modified synod process, which had come under fire from several conservative bishops, Cardinal Napier said he was satisfied that diverse points of view had been fairly heard. Napier was reportedly one of 13 cardinals who signed a letter to Pope Francis at the start of the synod, questioning whether the new procedures were aimed at reaching foregone conclusions that would weaken church teaching.

But with the synod drawing to a close, Napier told reporters that the new process was “very helpful,” because it gave participants more discussion time in small groups. In general, he said, African bishops are coming out of the synod with a “sense of optimism” and appreciation for “the witness of Pope Francis and the way he is leading the church.”

Like several other bishops at the synod, Napier said there was a deep need for better preparation for marriage among Catholic laity. Having listened to reports, especially in Western countries, about the many marriages ending in divorce, Napier said African bishops “don’t want the same thing to happen to us.”

Marriage preparation, however, should not merely be a course that lasts a few weeks or months, but a longer process that looks at how marriage should be discerned as a “vocation,” on a par with the priesthood or religious life, he said.

On the issue of cohabitation, however, Napier argued that more leniency should be granted couples in Africa, for whom, he said, living together before marriage is often more a “step” in the marriage process than a rejection of matrimony or a trial marriage. “Cohabitation in our case is pro-marriage, not against marriage,” he said.

“In regard to the traditional African marriage custom, first of all it’s not a marriage between two individuals but between two families. So there’s a whole process of negotiation,” he said.

When a dowry is established by the bride’s family, the cardinal said, often it may take a young man a very long time, perhaps years, to raise the money to cover it. “In the meantime, the families could agree that at a certain point they would start living together as husband and wife, even though the marriage is not yet concluded,” he said.

The cardinal said the term “cohabitation” doesn’t really fit that African experience. In the West, he said, couples may also live together for economic or other reasons, but it’s not the same. He added that it was up to African bishops to make sure that “that particular custom does get incorporated into the sacrament of matrimony.”

That, of course, would be a major change. The same issue was discussed at the African synod, held at the Vatican in 1994, and there’s been no significant action on it since. But Napier said he thought that “with Pope Francis’ lead,” African bishops will have a new impetus for studying the issue.

It sounds to me like Cardinal Napier is eager to explore the opening toward more local decision-making that Pope Francis raised during his speech last weekend, when he spoke of a more “synodal” and collegial exercise of authority in the church.

According to the U.S. bishops, almost half the couples who come in for marriage preparation courses in local parishes are cohabitating. The rates of cohabitation across Africa are generally much lower, but studies indicate they are increasing in some countries, both as a prelude to marriage and an alternative to marriage.

Cardinal Napier said a separate and dramatic problem for African families is the high number of single-parent families and  “child-headed households,” in families where HIV-AIDS has left both parents dead.

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