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A “reforming pope” was the hope of some of us in the long years from 1978, after Paul VI, when the Catholic Church seemed to shelve Vatican II’s progressive prescriptions about governance. Instead of the council’s college of pope and bishops on the pattern of the Apostles around Peter, an absolute monarchy reasserted itself in Rome with the papacy of John Paul II. Centralized rule, the historian Eamon Duffy has regretfully observed, is by now a part of the Catholic Church’s DNA.

As John Paul II’s long reign unfolded, followed by Benedict XVI, none of us actually thought we would see any such reforming pope in our lifetimes. But, we suggested, were he to appear, the place for him to start would be the synod of bishops. He should transform that body from functioning as a rubber stamp on decisions taken in Vatican offices to an active governing structure in its own right. This move, we thought, would surely receive massive support from the worldwide episcopate as its members found themselves restored to being vicars of Christ in their dioceses as well as sharing in the care of all the churches.

Enter Pope Francis and, indeed, he has started with the synod. In a typically shrewd pastoral stroke, he has chosen for its meeting in October a subject that concerns the whole people of God—the family. This synod is not just about bishops meeting in Rome. It is about all of us—at a time when a huge gulf has opened up between the teaching of the church on sex, marriage, and the family and the practice of many Catholics. In the council’s slipstream, the conspiratio or unified breathing that according to John Henry Newman should characterize the relations between pope, bishops, priests, religious, and lay men and women has been disrupted, to the detriment of the flourishing and evangelizing power of the whole church.

But will the bishops stand up, and if so what will they say? Francis has picked out for special attention the exclusion from Communion of Catholics who have remarried after divorce and whose previous spouse is still living. For thirty-five years, however, such matters have been off limits. Bishops have been chosen who will unwaveringly defend the most restrictive Catholic moral teaching. Far from qualifying candidates for episcopal rank, an openness to discussion and debate has ruled them out.

At the previous synod on the family, held by John Paul II in 1980, the two foremost leaders of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Basil Hume and Archbishop Derek Worlock, did their best. They had just come from a National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool masterminded by Worlock and attended by two thousand delegates. They had been mandated to raise questions in the synod about the ban on contraception and the exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics from Communion.

Before the synod met, the two visited John Paul II. Cardinal Hume had with him a copy of the congress report, in which he had marked key sections with stickers. Opening it at his chosen place, he gave it to the pope and asked him to read just the passage about contraception. Yes, yes, said John Paul—and put the booklet aside.

He had long ago made up his mind.

In the synod itself, a handpicked group of lay people extolled the virtues of natural family planning. For his part, Hume told the synod that he had dozed off during the proceedings and had had a dream. The pilgrim church was limping along a road, following weather-beaten signposts on which the paint was fading. He saw that Paul VI’s insight in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae against contraception was right, but the paint on the signposts was misleading.

The dream is susceptible of various interpretations, but at the very least Hume meant what his colleague Cardinal Carlo Martini stated in a 1993 interview, that the teaching of the encyclical should be better explained. Later, having retired from his see of Milan and taken up residence in Jerusalem, Martini was explicit. He was convinced, he said, that “the church leadership can show us a better way than Humanae Vitae has managed to do.” The pope could probably not take the encyclical back, but “he can write a new one.” 

It fell to Archbishop Worlock to address the synod on the subject of divorced and remarried Catholics. Across the years the honesty, clarity, and courage of his presentation still stand out. The breakdown of a marriage was a tragic misfortune, he said, demanding from the church a “special healing ministry of consolation.” Catholics whose first marriage had perished could find themselves in “a second more stable and perhaps more mature union,” which might have “many of the desirable qualities of the Christian family.” Though acknowledging that their union was irregular in the eyes of the church, many nevertheless did not feel that they were “living in a state of sin” but rather “that they love God and may in some mysterious way be living according to his will, even if against, or outside, the church’s legislation.” Many of them “long for full eucharistic communion.”

Worlock dealt with the accusation that a relaxation of the rule would encourage infidelity. That was not the opinion of most married couples, he pointed out. They saw fidelity as a Christian value in its own right that did not need to be bolstered by sanctions. The synod should listen to them.

Hume and Worlock got nowhere. The synodal machine, directed by the Roman Curia, rolled over them. When John Paul II’s reflections on the event appeared in 1981 in the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, most commentators thought the contents would have been the same if the synod had never met.

As the long and historic papacy of John Paul II unfolded, the church’s teaching on sex, marriage, and the family became ever more closely bound up with papal authority. There was speculation that the pope had wished to invoke infallibility with regard to the teaching on sexual ethics. Instead, his right-hand theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, developed a category of “definitive doctrine,” which is not infallible yet is irreformable. The Jesuit canon lawyer, Ladislas Orsy, who entered into a published dialogue with Cardinal Ratzinger on the subject, says today: “Not infallible but can’t be changed? Figure that out!”

This new doctrinal category is above all a defense of the doctrine in Humanae Vitae, though Paul VI made it clear at the time through his spokesman that his encyclical was not infallible. Therefore it can be revised. But that would mean overturning the recently imposed category of definitive teaching.

One could ask by what authority was the existence of “definitive teaching” first asserted? Infallible authority? Definitive authority? Non-definitive authority?

POPE FRANCIS IS INVITING the bishops to come with him on a different route. It is not his mission, he repeats, to change doctrine. “The teaching of the church is clear, and I am a son of the church,” he told Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, in the first of the riveting interviews he was to give. Rather, “the first reform must be the attitude.” From his first moments as pope, he set about this transformation, overturning the general expectation that church news would always be bad news and ushering in the longest media honeymoon on record. His guiding principle was that “the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives,” whereas “today sometimes it seems that the opposite order prevails.”

Here he becomes like an evangelical preacher: “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” He wants the church to reflect the mercy that he himself has experienced. At a book presentation in 2001 while cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, he made a startling assertion. “Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord.... I dare to say that the privileged locus of the encounter with the Lord is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.”

It is obvious how this priority of mercy could bear on the forthcoming synod’s deliberations. If the church is a “field hospital after battle,” in Francis’s words, it must bring healing, as Archbishop Worlock urged back in 1980. Francis wants the bishops to speak up for their people. He likes to use the analogy of Abraham and Moses pleading to God for Israel.

Francis’s approach is not along the line of abstract theorizing. He is a pastor dealing with the realities of human lives. His preferred image of the church is precisely the one that Vatican II also preferred: that of “the People of God,” which virtually disappeared from view after the 1980 synod, since the authorities thought it too democratic.

The pope envisages structural and organizational reform as well, and he has already taken steps to make the synod of bishops more effective. There are to be two linked back-to-back meetings: the first this October (“extraordinary,” comprising mainly the presidents of bishops’ conferences, Vatican officials, some papal appointees, and nearly forty observers, more than half of whom will be married couples), and the second in October 2015 (“ordinary,” gathering a wider representation of the episcopate).

In an interview with Catholic News Service in Rome, the synod general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, has disclosed that the procedures have been reformed. Instead of reading set speeches to each other during the first phase, voting members of the synod will submit papers at least two weeks beforehand. The initial report compiled by Cardinal Péter Erdő, Primate of Hungary, will now be based on those submissions instead of on the preparatory document released earlier this year, the instrumentum laboris.

Bishops will then make brief presentations, picking out one theme from their papers, and perhaps taking into account the contributions of others. Meanwhile, Erdő as rapporteur will adjust his initial summary of the issues accordingly. When the bishops subsequently divide up into small language groups for the second phase, they will not as before hammer out propositions for the pope to take up, but will work on amendments to Erdő’s survey, which may then become the working document for the 2015 synod.

ONE OF FRANCIS'S bombshells in the run-up to the synodal meetings was to launch an unprecedented worldwide survey of Catholic experience of family life today, distributed in October 2013. The questionnaire touched on the whole gamut of sex and marriage, including matters that had previously been regarded as taboo. But its questions were addressed to bishops, asking them to describe the opinions and practices of the people in their dioceses as well as their own catechesis initiatives. (“How successful have you been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture?”) The means of gathering that information was left up to individual bishops, and they were asked to respond on a tight deadline that left little time to develop a version of the survey addressed directly to laypeople. Some dioceses made the original questionnaire available through parishes or solicited responses online. Those who responded knew that at last they were being given a chance to make their views heard and have them count, and they seized it.

In many countries, the findings were kept under wraps, but the German bishops’ conference published a lengthy summary through their press office. It is remarkably exhaustive and frank. According to the press release, the responses showed that most Catholics in Germany accepted marriage as a sacrament that they expected and hoped would be a bond for life. In German society, couples with a family living successfully in a stable relationship continued to be “greatly appreciated.” Perhaps unexpectedly, the church’s offers of counseling services on marriage, the family, and life situations were highly valued.

But people felt alienated from the church by the rules and laws hedging marriage and sexual morality. The church’s statements on premarital sexual relations, on homosexuality, on divorced and remarried people, and on birth control were “virtually never accepted” or were “expressly rejected” even in circles where church teaching was known. Outside the church, Catholic sexual doctrine was seen as being “a morality of prohibition” that was judged to be “incomprehensible and unrealistic.” The natural-law basis of Catholic sexual morality, connecting love, sexuality, and procreation, played almost no role within the church or in the larger society, according to the press release.

The church’s refusal to recognize the legal and social standing of same-sex unions was seen as discrimination. While Catholics in Germany largely rejected “the opening of marriage as such to same-sex couples,” they tended to regard the legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships, and their equal treatment vis-à-vis marriage, as “a commandment of justice.”

Cohabitation before marriage was reported to be “almost universal.” Almost all couples who wished to marry in the church had been living together beforehand, often for some years. Many considered it “irresponsible” not to do so.

Committed members of the church who were divorced and remarried often experienced “considerable suffering,” in the words of the press statement. They felt that they were “discriminated against and marginalized” by being excluded from the sacraments and certain services and offices. Many decided to leave an institution they regarded as “unforgiving.” Few thought that a simplified annulment process would be an answer. Most accepted that their marriages had failed, and thought it would be “dishonest” to pretend otherwise, as though they had never truly been married at all.

The press office’s report underlined the adverse effect on divorced and remarried Catholic couples who were excluded from Communion. There was a “widespread impression” that their treatment was discriminatory and “merciless.” The exclusion became “particularly painful” when their own children made their First Communion. The children frequently discontinued their practice, since “they have no parental example of a living eucharistic community.”

The prohibition of contraception was not observed. The press release acknowledged that the younger generation knew nothing of Humanae Vitae, which split the Catholic Church when it was issued in 1968. Only the older generation remembered the battles of that time. The distinction between “natural” and “artificial” methods of birth control was “rejected by the vast majority of Catholics as incomprehensible” and was “not adhered to.” A minority of fewer than 3 percent favored natural family planning, frequently for medical reasons. In society, the church’s prohibition of condoms as a prophylactic against AIDS was regarded as “blatantly immoral.”

Such findings should concentrate the bishops’ minds as the synod approaches. Not that the European mindset is universal. According to one international poll, it is reflected in varying degrees in the United States and Latin America, whereas in Africa four out of five Catholics agree with the church’s refusal of Communion to remarried divorcées. But the German bishops through their press release make it clear that new approaches in the field of sexuality and marriage are “indispensable.” The church has to find ways to impart “in an appealing manner” its central message of “an unconditional affirmation of life and body.”

POPE FRANCIS'S NEXT MOVE was to convoke a special consistory in Rome. Last February some 160 cardinals heard a two-hour address on “The Gospel of the Family” delivered at the pope’s invitation by Cardinal Walter Kasper (subsequently published by Paulist Press as a booklet). His analysis and pastoral proposals drew lively reactions for and against, though many of the cardinals kept their counsel.

Kasper dwelt on the realities of modern living. The consumer culture and economic pressures were squeezing the family unit, the basic cell of society. He put at the center the family home considered as a “domestic church.” He talked about how the church could help heal wounded families, but he also talked about how the church should treat Catholics whose marriages had failed for one reason or another.

Kasper distinguished between the law, which provides a general rule, and particular cases, each of which is unique. If a woman deserted by her husband remarried outside the church, perhaps for the good of her children, should the church tell her she could never again receive the Eucharist unless she ended her second marriage? Pope Benedict had declared that such persons could receive spiritual communion. But that meant that she was one with Jesus Christ: so why not sacramental communion, Kasper asked? Were they prepared to let human beings starve sacramentally—and for the church to lose their children too—as a sign for others? Was the Eucharist being presented as a reward for good behavior, instead of medicine for sinners on their penitential journey?

In an interview published in Commonweal (“Merciful God, Merciful Church”), Kasper said:

The fathers of the church had a wonderful image: If there is a shipwreck, you don’t get a new ship to save you, but you get a plank so that you can survive. That’s the mercy of God.... I respect those who have a different position, but on the other hand, they must see what the concrete situation is today. How can we help the people who struggle in these situations? I know such people—often women. They are very engaged in parish life; they do all they can for their children. I know a woman who prepared her daughter for First Communion. The parish priest said the girl can go to Holy Communion, but not mama. I told the pope about this, and he said, “No, that’s impossible.” 

Francis was pleased with Kasper’s presentation to the consistory. He confided that he had re-read the text one evening before falling asleep. He had been struck by its “serene theology.” A thought had come to him—this was called “doing theology while kneeling.” He reiterated: “Thank you, thank you.”

His approval was not shared by the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, whose opinion, as so often in this papacy, was the exact opposite. “These theories are radically mistaken,” the German cardinal declared in a long interview he gave in June, where he revisited and developed arguments he had made last year in an article in L’Osservatore Romano. He had witnessed, he said, “with a certain sense of amazement,” the arguments of some that God’s mercy should allow divorced and remarried people to receive the sacraments, as though God were not also inseparably the source of holiness and justice.

Circles in Rome and elsewhere are expecting a huge fight in the synod. As the church historian Massimo Faggioli pointed out in these pages (“The Italian Job”), Francis has entrenched opponents among the bishops, especially “in his own backyard.” Those who feel threatened by his new language and style include “the orphans of Joseph Ratzinger who see the conservative theological pushback against modernity as the only chance to save the West.”

Faggioli compared the challenges facing Francis to the hesitation and opposition that John XXIII encountered in various quarters when he called the Second Vatican Council. Of course, the difference this time, Faggioli pointed out, is that the previous pope is alive and well, wearing white and living in the Vatican. And Benedict’s adherents now have social media at their disposal, where they can all post their opinions contrasting the two popes to Francis’s disadvantage.

Outside the walls of the Vatican, the whole church is involved in this discussion. Francis has seen to that. Accordingly, Kasper issued a warning to his audience. They should not think, he told them, that everything could be decided by cardinals and bishops. All those who will participate in the consistory will be celibates, after all. But most of the faithful lived out their faith in families. Families often faced difficult situations that celibates must try to understand.  Lay people have “something to say to us,” Kasper insisted.

They do indeed. The former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, has been resident in Rome for the past few years, where she has been studying canon law. In a public interview in Dublin, she used language that was remarkably outspoken, coming from such a source. She protested that there was something “profoundly wrong and skewed” in looking to a synod of bishops to rule on Catholic teaching about family life. She pressed home her attack. “The very idea of a hundred and fifty people who have decided they are not going to have any children, not going to have families, not going to be fathers and not going to be spouses—so they have no experience of family life as the rest of us know it—but they are going to advise the pope on family life, it is completely bonkers.” She had replied to the worldwide survey of Catholic opinion with a question of her own for Francis: “How many of the men who will gather to advise you as pope on the family have ever changed a baby’s nappy?”

She thought the chances of change were “very poor.” Where were the women in the Vatican who would “end the old boys’ club”?

It is no answer to protest that the Catholic Church is not a democracy and thus is above public opinion of this sort. It contains deep-rooted traditional democratic elements and it is not a dictatorship either. It is a communion. Therefore it has to take account of the views of Mary McAleese and others, which are part of the sensus fidelium, the instinctive sensitivity in matters of faith exercised by the whole body of believers. Though the church has always insisted that its teaching is made from above, not from below, yet it has always also acknowledged that the broad sensus fidelium, with the more specific doctrine of reception—closely associated with it—plays an indispensable part.

For five years the International Theological Commission (ITC) has been studying the place of the sensus fidelium in the life of the church, and in June it released its report, signed by the CDF prefect, Cardinal Müller. It must be right to see the influence of Pope Francis between the lines of the final text.

The commission highlights the work of Vatican II in “banishing the caricature of an active hierarchy and a passive laity, and in particular the notion of a strict separation between the teaching church and the learning church.” For the council, all the baptized participate in their own proper way in the three offices of Christ as prophet, priest, and king.

BOTH KASPER IN HIS address to the consistory and the ITC refer to John Henry Newman’s essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” Even today, Newman’s bold analysis and brilliant exposition have not lost their capacity to shock. Focusing on the fourth-century Arian heresy, probably the most dangerous the church ever faced, Newman asserts that during this period the divine tradition committed to the infallible church was proclaimed and maintained far more by the faithful than by the episcopate; that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism; and that it was the Christian people who supported great solitary confessors such as Athanasius, who would have failed without them.

Newman’s controversial essay, which put him under a cloud in Rome (“the most dangerous man in England,” said Msgr. George Talbot), is given full credit in the ITC study. Newman demonstrated, the commission says, that the faithful, as distinct from their pastors, have their own active role to play in conserving and transmitting the faith. For Newman, the commission notes, there is something in the shared life (conspiratio) of pastors and faithful “which is not in the pastors alone.” And the commission draws attention also to the often neglected role of the laity in developing “the moral teaching of the church.”

What if the faithful experience “difficulty” in receiving the teaching of the authorities and show “resistance” to it? Then there is an impasse. It can only be broken if both sides realize they have to think again. The authorities need to “reflect on the teaching that has been given and consider whether it needs clarification or reformulation in order to communicate more effectively the essential message.”

The commission is concerned to lay out principles, not to apply them to specific issues such as the bishops will consider in the synod, but many readers of the text will do precisely that—and not only in the context of divorce and remarriage.

Kasper, for his part, was inspired by Newman’s essay to his most eloquent reflections, with which he closed his address to the cardinals. He reminded them that there were “great expectations” in the church—and also, he might have added, in the world. If the church did not take steps but stayed where it was, it would cause “terrible disappointment.” As “witnesses of hope,” they must not be led by fear of change. Let them show “courage” and “above all biblical candor.” He warned: “If we don’t want that, then we should not hold a synod on this topic, because then the situation would be worse afterwards than before.”

Published in the September 26, 2014 issue: 

John Wilkins, former editor of the London Tablet, is a regular contributor.

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