Report from the Eye of the Storm

REGINA’s Exclusive Interview with Vatican Journalist Edward Pentin on the Rigging of the Synod

By Beverly Stevens, REGINA Editor
Photos by Edward Pentin & Harry Stevens

It’s a prime example of why Catholics today need to be more educated. Last October, dramatic reports emerged from Rome in the global social media of blatant attempts by the managers of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family to rig its outcome.

In the eye of the storm was a veteran British journalist, Edward Pentin, who found himself in the unenviable position of having to prove that a Prince of the Roman Catholic Church, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, had made prejudiced remarks about the African Cardinals.

Speaking to Pentin and two other journalists as he exited the synod hall, Cardinal Kasper urged that on issues such as homosexuality which are a taboo in Africa, the continent’s bishops should not tell the West too much what to do. The cardinal later vehemently denied making the remarks and denounced Pentin in no uncertain terms. Pentin was then forced to post the actual audio recording of Kasper’s comments on his website, for all the world to hear.

The effect was electrifying. The political rigging swiftly collapsed, and Kasper’s full-court press evaporated, seemingly into thin air – at least until October 2015, when the next session of the Synod is scheduled. Now, as that opening date approaches in an atmosphere of significant tension, Ignatius Press has published Pentin’s book on the Synod.

REGINA caught up with Edward Pentin in Rome recently for this candid interview on the fascinating inside story of the infamous Synod.


REGINA: It was an extraordinary Synod, that’s for sure. How did you begin your reporting?

EDWARD PENTIN: The synod rather took me unawares. Usually such meetings are rather low-key, predictable but enjoyable events in which much is discussed that can be very edifying and educational for the faithful. So I was sort of expecting something along those lines, with some added controversy thrown in.

REGINA: And were your expectations met?

EDWARD PENTIN: This one of course turned out very different to the six or so that I covered before, both because of the subject matter discussed and the way it was run. I began to get a sense things were going to be different about halfway through the first week when some trusted sources spoke of manipulation and that it was being engineered to obtain a certain result. These claims corroborated some news reports which had appeared a few weeks before.

REGINA: Almost a year later, how would you characterize the overall criticism that has emerged about how the Synod of the Family was run?

EDWARD PENTIN: I’d say it’s been surprisingly muted on the whole. I can see that many want to see the synod run differently so that it can be perhaps more open to other factors than in the past rather than just rubber stamping what the Church has always done — which is what synods in the past tended to do.

REGINA: Any surprises?

EDWARD PENTIN: But I’ve been surprised that there’s not been more criticism of attempts made to sideline those who upheld Church teaching and tradition. To many, that is the real scandal that took place during the meeting: that the synod managers weren’t sympathetic to those wishing to ensure the Church’s magisterium — including the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II — to have their views made known.

REGINA: Your book attempts to piece together the actual events of the Synod. How did that go?

EDWARD PENTIN: I tried to obtain comments from all sides, although of course the ones who really wanted to speak were those who felt victims of an injustice – i.e. those sidelined because of their orthodoxy. But I did speak to those who were fully behind the agenda being pushed, others who took the middle ground (they felt there was some manipulation but the synod was good on the whole), and those who felt it was a disaster.


“I also tried three times to obtain comments from Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, to answer a list of criticisms made against him. Together with a friend, we approached him after he had presented the Instrumentum Laboris for the 2015 synod. I asked him several times if he’d like to comment, and to guarantee that no manipulation would take place at the next upcoming synod. He denied there was any manipulation last time and took out a news report containing his denial of the infamous ‘book heist’ in which, as I reveal in the book, he delayed the delivery of a book by five cardinals upholding the Church’s teaching on marriage.” – EDWARD PENTIN

REGINA: What did Cardinal Baldissari say then?

EDWARD PENTIN: He preferred to say no more, and asked why he had to answer me. Indeed he seemed quite content not to respond, which made me think that he was fully confident of the support he was receiving from the highest levels of the Church.

REGINA: The Relatio post disceptationem, or interim report, released half-way through the Synod has become notorious. For those who may not have followed events closely, what was the problem with this report?

EDWARD PENTIN: The report contained two key controversial aspects that critics said were contrary to Church teaching: it questioned the indissolubility of marriage and spoke of the positive aspects of same-sex relationships. Both were hardly discussed during the first week and yet were placed in the report which was sent to the media before the Synod fathers had read it.

REGINA: So, the report purported to reflect the Synod discussions, but was actually fraudulent?

EDWARD PENTIN: Many saw this as a blatant attempt to get the media to report that the Church was changing its teaching on these issues even though they had hardly been discussed, let alone agreed upon. The Relatio was a working document, but some officials tried to infer to the press that it was a done deal, and that the teaching was basically up for review.

REGINA: Is it true that many synod fathers were angry that the Relatio did not represent the majority view of the synod’s participants?

EDWARD PENTIN: Many were unhappy with it, and that’s largely why they protested so vehemently when Cardinal Baldisseri tried to not have the summaries of their working groups published during the second week.

REGINA: What was the Synod fathers’ reaction when they met with Cardinal Baldiserri? Is it true that it was alleged that ‘engineering was going on’?

EDWARD PENTIN: They’d had enough of the manipulation, according to sources I spoke to, and were angry when Baldisseri tried to put it to a vote. The protests began with Cardinal George Pell, the prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, who was also backed up by many other synod fathers, some surprisingly on the Church’s “liberal” wing such as Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster.

REGINA: There were allegations that the Relatio did not reflect actual discussions, and instead was, in the words of George Weigel, “…a draft final synod document, highlighting issues that would be of greatest interest to an international media eagerly awaiting the Great Catholic Cave-In to the sexual revolution.” Based on your interviews, do you think this is true?

EDWARD PENTIN: I think there probably was at least an awareness of this and the effect it would have once it reached the press. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi admitted as much to the press when he said that the reaction to the interim report “could have easily been foreseen”, and yet it was put out over the heads of the synod fathers. The Pope, Baldisseri later said, had seen and approved the text before it went out.

Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea

REGINA: Australian Cardinal Pell, South African Cardinal Napier, Guinea Cardinal Sarah, American Cardinal Burke and Polish Archbishop Gadecki all condemned the Relatio publicly. Why? Had they not seen the Relatio before it was released?

EDWARD PENTIN: Right, that was the problem. Only a few had seen it, and although the synod fathers knew it was being prepared (interim reports are usually published at a synod), they probably didn’t pay much attention to it as usually such documents are in Latin and not of much interest.

Cardinal Kelvin Edward Felix of Castries

REGINA: It seems incredible that the Synod managers would attempt to run roughshod over men such as these.

EDWARD PENTIN: I think, though I’m not certain because synod secretariat officials declined to answer my questions, that they felt the only way to overcome the resistance to their position was to ramrod it through. There was a fear of having them fully debated because then it might get thrown out.

REGINA: Did they not anticipate any push-back?

EDWARD PENTIN: I don’t think they did anticipate the push-back they witnessed. One trusted source said the Pope was “staggered” by the resistance.

Cardinal Philippe Nakellentuba Ouédraogo of Ouagadougou

REGINA: So, in the aftermath of all of this, you just happened to be present when German Cardinal Kasper made his disparaging remarks about the African Cardinals. Exactly what did he say?

EDWARD PENTIN: As I explain in the book. I was keen to find out what he felt, given the deep concern many people had voiced about his proposal. He felt happy to talk and said things which me and two accompanying journalists didn’t even really ask him about, such as his perspective on the African bishops’ views on the synod. Cardinal Kasper, who was leaving the synod hall alone at around 7:30 in the evening on the Tuesday of the second week, spoke freely and openly.

REGINA: So, Kasper seemed happy to discuss his views, then?

EDWARD PENTIN: As he answered our questions, and volunteered the now infamous comment about the African bishops, saying that the universal Church “cannot solve” questions pertaining to Africa, but similarly they “should not tell us too much what we have to do”. The cardinal seemed to share freely plenty of important information, which I felt readers should know and, given his obvious enthusiasm in sharing his thoughts with us, that he probably wanted them to know it. I therefore had no qualms of conscience in publishing the remarks.

Disparaging remarks about the African Cardinals by Cardinal Emeritus Walter Kasper (left, pictured here with Belgian Cardinal Daneels) were recorded by Edward Pentin.

REGINA: When you went public with this, is it true that Cardinal Kasper denied what he had said, and that you posted your iPhone audio onto your website to substantiate your claim?

EDWARD PENTIN: I published the transcript on ZENIT and wrote up an article for the (National Catholic) Register, both of which I was working for at the time. I posted the transcript because I felt it was fair on the cardinal to have his comments viewed in context. Later that day, the cardinal denied giving the comments, which left me with the only alternative of publishing the audio of the exchange that I had recorded.

REGINA: What was the Cardinal’s reaction to this?

EDWARD PENTIN: Cardinal Kasper apologized for any offence he might have caused and said he had nothing against Africa and been to the continent many times. Alas, he then complained of being secretly recorded, even though my phone was visible, and the situation was one which is usually understood to be on the record. He further made matters worse when he said that “other journalists” he knew would be taking action against such “undignified machinations”. Nothing, as far as I am aware, came of this, possibly because they later realized that there was no orchestrated plot or dirty tricks at play.

REGINA: There was virtual silence in the German media about these highly embarrassing remarks by a German Cardinal. In fact, to this day most Germans have no idea that Kasper made these statements. Why do you think this is?

EDWARD PENTIN: I think one can be pretty sure there was a concerted effort to keep it quiet because Kasper is promoting a change in the Catholic Church that the secular media wants. Publicity of what happened would only have damaged him and his proposal. I put in the book that soon after the Kasper episode, secular and Catholic journalists met in the Vatican to work out a strategy on how best to “clarify” the cardinal’s comments. I also expect that when they realized it was difficult to spin the story in a positive way, they followed a policy of not reporting on it and just left it to die out.


REGINA: You describe Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdö telling Vatican Radio that the 16 officials who drafted the Relatio struggled to synthesize the positions of 30 to 40 bishops and rushed to finish it on time. Shockingly, he admits there may have been instances when the Relatio reported “many” bishops had proposed a certain position when only “some” had. Has anyone come forward to condemn this?

EDWARD PENTIN: Not as far as I’m aware. He makes an important point in defence of the synod managers: that there was a lot of material to process and so much of the report was probably based on the written interventions submitted in the months before the synod.

REGINA: Was this a mistake?

EDWARD PENTIN: The bigger scandal was that it was sent to the press, with the controversial passages included, before the synod fathers had read it. That, to me, was where the manipulation lies.

Pope Francis greeting March for Life participants in St. Peter’s Square, May 2013

REGINA: Some close observers of the Vatican believe that the pope has appointed to strategic positions men who manipulated the Relatio in order to undermine the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality by creating the impression in the public mind that the Church was preparing to abandon it in fact while maintaining it in theory. These men, particularly Archbishop Bruno Forte and Cardinal Baldisseri were manipulators of the interim report. They have received increasingly vocal support in the months since from such as Cardinal Marx of Munich, Archbishop Koch of Berlin, and Bishop Bonny of Antwerp, who have in fact been running a ‘parallel synod’ in the run-up to this one in Rome. Do you think this is a fair characterization?

EDWARD PENTIN: Yes, or in fact the Synod on the Family itself. I refrain in the book from accusing the Pope directly in any of what went on because it was difficult to know exactly where he stood on the issues.

“But the fact that Cardinal Baldisseri said he (Pope Francis) did see the interim report before it was sent out and, more importantly, appointed Baldisseri as secretary general and made some dubious characters such as Cardinal Godfried Danneels papal delegates to the synod, points to the fact that he was and is sympathetic to the agenda being pushed through. Some believe he’s responsible for it all. Certainly the motu proprio of September 8 reforming the annulments process, and the fact that he’s kept Baldisseri and Forte in position, gives weight to the belief that he’s been in favour of the machinations all along.” EDWARD PENTIN

REGINA: Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki said the Relatio “created an impression that the teaching of the Church has been merciless so far, as if the teaching of mercy were beginning only now…” Interesting that the theme of ‘Mercy’ has been chosen following the Synod. Do you see any significance in this?

EDWARD PENTIN: I think one can only speculate on this. Some feel it is simply building on the Pope’s program for the synod and extending mercy to those most in need of it; others see it more darkly, that it’s a way of taking decentralizing the issues discussed at synod and so allow each bishops conference to practice mercy in their own way, which may not be in line with traditional Church teaching and practice.

By Marek.69 talk (Marek Kośniowski)

[CC BY-SA 3.0 ()], via Wikimedia Commons

REGINA: What’s your takeaway from all of this?

EDWARD PENTIN: What’s important to point out I think is that many didn’t like the fact that scripture, tradition and doctrine were sidelined at the last synod. I put in the book a comment, given on good authority, from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who, when asked in private what he thought of the synod, replied: “Halten Sie sich unbedingt an die Lehre!” (“Strictly adhere to the doctrine!”).

The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation of Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, available now as an e-book from Ignatius Press

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