Split Decisions

ROME—Today the Holy See published final suggestions from the small groups before the synod drafting committee submits its summary document for voting this Saturday. On the most contested issue—whether the church should do something about the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried—the synod fathers seem evenly split. (Even while few said they completely rejected to the idea.) Some who favor taking action suggested that Pope Francis appoint a special commission to study the problem. Others proposed addressing the issue on a case-by-case basis through the “internal forum,” that is, a spiritual discernment in concert with a priest, perhaps with guidance from the local bishops conference or even the Holy See itself, which might lead to reconciliation and Communion.

At least that’s what comes through in the reports of the individual language groups. There were four English-language discussions, a diverse group that included people from the Americas, Asia, Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. The only one to definitively call for action on Communion for the remarried was Group B, whose moderator was Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, and whose relator was Archbishop Diarmiud Martin of Dublin. Their group proposed a process of “reverential listening,” that might include: Considering whether the first marriage should be annulled (that’s the external forum), or whether it should be considered in the internal forum, “with recourse to a delegate of the bishop where one is established for this purpose.” This process, it was proposed, might also mean “attending to the wounds caused by divorce,” an account of the second marriage—including “its stability, fruitfulness, and the responsibilities that flow from it,” and focusing on the spiritual growth through repentance.

This group also discussed the possibility of “spiritual communion” for those whose “objective state of life—an irregular union” bars them from receiving the Eucharist but may not be “subjectively culpable of any continuing state of sin.” Something like this was proposed by Pope Benedict XVI back in 1984. In Commonweal’s interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, he addressed the issue: “Spiritual communion is to be one with Christ. But if I am one with Christ, I cannot be in a situation of grave sin. So if they can receive spiritual communion, why not also sacramental Communion?”

The same group also asked Pope Francis to set up a commission to study the situations of Catholic in “irregular unions,” including the divorced and remarried, and those in polygamous relationships.

English Group C—headed by Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Ireland, with Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, as relator—was “evenly divided” on the question of whether there should be further study of the so-called penitential path for the civilly remarried to receive Communion. Members of this group expressed “little support” for the path itself.

As for the two other English-language groups: A, whose moderator was Cardinal George Pell, and whose relator was Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, endorsed Francis’s streamlining of the annulment process. But, when it came to Communion for the remarried, “a majority without full consensus” endorsed current church practice. The same number (the report did not say whether it was a bare majority or more) rejected the idea of allowing local bishops conferences to decide the issue. And the report from English Group D, with  Archbishop Thomas Collins as moderator, and Archbishop Charles Chaput as relator, didn’t provide a strong sense of what the members agreed or disagreed about. Many opinions offered by individual bishops were recorded, including one who thought the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried ought to be taken up by an ecumenical council, not a synod. Another spoke about the Power of the Keys—the pope’s ability to effect change. “He said that the pope can, in effect, twist the hands of God.” The Group D report says there was “a call” for a commission to study Communion for the divorced and remarried, but it doesn’t say how much support it received.

All in all, it seems that the cultural diversity of the English-language groups made it tricky to provide a strong sense of support for this or that issue. That wasn’t quite the case for other language groups.

For example, Spanish Group A strongly called for a “via caritatis,” a way of love. “We have to show that we have listened to the cry of so many who are suffering and who are calling out to us to participate in the life of the church as fully as possible.” Does that mean divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion? Maybe?

Spanish Group B’s members agreed that doctrine must not be modified, but affirmed its “organic development.” Their conversation stressed that the success of the synod does not turn on the question of the divorced and remarried. “Access to the Eucharist shouldn’t be the focal point of the accompaniment of these people.” Still, the group agreed that its members should share their doubts and certainties with the pope so that he can decide.

Of the three French groups, only one ruled out Communion for the divorced and remarried. One apparently discussed the matter extensively, but found that there wasn’t enough time to reach any firm conclusions. Another seems not to have said much about it at all.

All three Italian groups (which included non-Italians) appeared to agree that the matter had to be discerned on a case-by-case basis. While affirming church teaching on marriage, Group A suggested a path of prudential discernment under the authority of the bishop, while calling for local bishops conferences to develop criteria to judge such matters. Another group emphasized the fact that not all cases of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are the same—so general criteria aren’t always helpful. Still another promoted removing barriers to exclusion, traditional church teaching on marriage, and the internal forum with designated priests.

There was only one German-language group (made up of Germans and non-Germans alike), and all its members unanimously agreed to its reports throughout the synod. This univocity was emphasized by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who spoke at today’s Holy See press briefing. He had lots of interesting things to say.

Marx began by emphasizing points of agreement. The “great majority” of people agree with the doctrine of the church, he said, that when a man and a woman choose to marry, they do so forever. “They say yes and they mean yes,” according to Marx. They form a family and they want children. The church, Marx continued, will not say, “Forget your dreams” for lifelong marriage, for children. But Catholics want to know: What will happen if we fail? Will you stay with us if we fail? “We have to say yes,” Marx said. “We will be with you if you fail.”

That is the context in which the German-language group offered its comments for the final synod document. While the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried “is not the only issue” of the synod, Marx stressed, many are interested in this issue. “How we answer the question of young people—will you stay with us when we fail?—must be a way of accompanying people in these situations…with an eye towards bringing them full reconciliation with the church.”

So what did the German-language group have in mind? Marx spoke of the internal forum—“which is not a commission!” Rather, he explained, it is a “spiritual way with a priest,” in which the person discerns the proper way to apply principles to his concrete situation. “This is not possible in a commission,” Marx said. The German group offered some criteria that might be useful in such a discernment process (drawing on John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio). For example: What happened in the first marriage? Does the person have responsibilities—to his family, his children, his ecclesial community? Has he reconciled with those he offended? “This is not a public process,” Marx clarified, “but a spiritual way” that might involve receiving guidelines from local bishops, or even from Rome.

So there you have it: Now that all the small language groups have filed their final suggestions for the synod’s summary document, we can say with total certainty that no one knows with total certainty what’s going to shake out of this thing. It could be more of the same. Yet, throughout the deliberations several bishops have gone out of their way to say that doing nothing isn’t really an option. So I’m sticking with my early bet: Pope Francis announces a special commission to study the issue (or issues) during the Year of Mercy.

A few more notes on today’s amazingly rich presser:

Cardinal Marx was asked what was up with the German-language group’s opening remark criticizing those who divided the synod—without naming names. So Marx named a name: Cardinal George Pell, who recently gave an interview to Le Figaro in which he spoke of a “theological battle” between Cardinal Kasper and Joseph Ratzinger. This was the second interview in which Pell mentioned Kasper. And last week he told George Weigel I that during the synod he “found Cardinal Kasper a bit disappointing.” None of that went over with the German-language group—who, again, unanimously endorsed the text. “That is not acceptable,” Marx said, nor it is “useful for the synod.” He continued: “In a synod we are not in a battle—it’s not Ratzinger against Kasper. That is not OK.” Kasper was “very affected by it,” according to Marx—which is not surprising, because it’s hard to imagine such a dispute erupting into public view under previous pontificates. Marx predicted that Cardinal Christophe Schönborn would speak with Pell about it. Update (Thursday morning): Pell was asked about the dustup on EWTN last night. Here's what he said: “Cardinal Marx has now explained there’s no contrast between the Kasper camp and Benedict XVI, and I find that it's a very pleasant surprise and it's a welcome development.… He explained to us there was no such contrast. So I mean that’s good isn’t it?”

Marx was also asked to respond to Cardinal Wilfrid Napier’s suggestion at yesterday’s briefing that this synod should not take up theological or doctrinal matters. “Are you trying to change theology as well as pastoral practice?” Edward Pentin asked.* “I’m astonished that many people talk about doctrine without knowing what doctrine is,” Marx replied. The church has different levels of doctrine, he continued: revealed truth, doctrine of the church, and so on. “The doctrine of the church is not a closed shop but a living tradition,” he said. “We don’t change the truth but we find the greater truth. The truth owns us. We don’t own the church. The truth is a person who we meet”—that is, Jesus. Doctrine and pastoral application are not opposed, Marx said. And besides, the synod “has no magisterial competence” to decide doctrine.

But a synod can do theology—the German-speakers certainly did. As Marx told it, their group was run like a theology seminar, with participants quoting Aquinas to one another, disagreeing, taking the weekend to read up, and resuming the argument at the next meeting. Made me miss grad school. One of the theological issues Marx mentioned: the church’s “lack of synthesis in the theology of marriage.” When he was a student, Marx recalled, he was surprised to learn that, according to canon law, when two people leave the Protestant church and get married civilly, the Catholic Church holds that they received the sacrament of marriage. According to canon law, every marriage contract between two baptized Christians is automatically a sacrament. “As a student, I asked: How is this possible?” Perhaps it made sense when more or less everyone in a given culture was Catholic, but now? “Cardinal Müller [prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] sees this,” Marx said.

“I hope this synod will be not a synod of closed doors but open doors for the young people who want to marry, because when we say we stay with you in difficult situations, that is not destroying the indissolubility of marriage. It is strengthening it!” Marx said.

He closed with Shakespeare, naturally—a quote from The Merchant of Venice that he came across in an article by a canon lawyer:

The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

* This sentence has been corrected. The original version erroneously had Pentin asking whether Marx was "trying to change theology or doctrine."

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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