Decoding the Vatican

  • Pope's document opens door to pastoral flexibility on family issues

    Pope Francis’ document on the family avoids issuing directives or a “final word” on debatable questions. Instead, it argues for pastoral flexibility and recognition of the complex relationship between the human conscience, sin and the state of grace.

    That alone makes this text remarkable. Rather than announcing new practices or decisions from Rome, the pope is opening a discussion that involves bishops, priests, theologians and lay Catholics.

    Titled “Amoris Laetitia, on Love and the Family,” the 260-page document reflects on the results of the Synod of Bishops, convened in two sessions in 2014 and 2015.

    I won’t attempt to summarize its contents here. In large part, it expands on points that were made in the synod’s final relatio last fall.

    The synod saw unusually sharp debate on a number of issues, including the thorny question of how the church treats people in “irregular” unions. Whether divorced Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion was a particularly divisive matter.

    Pope Francis opened his post-synodal document by stating clearly that he was not going to pronounce a verdict on all these issues. In fact, he added, “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” He suggested that different ways of interpreting church teaching can co-exist in the church, with allowances for local needs and traditions in various countries or regions.

    That appears to reverse an approach that’s dominated at the Vatican for the past forty years or so: that any pastoral innovation needs to be run through Rome.

    When addressing the various problems faced by modern families, the pope pretty much adopted the synod’s laundry list of challenges, from excessive individualism to economic burdens on young couples.

    But in a typical “Francis touch,” he added strong words of self-criticism, saying that the church has “helped contribute to today’s problematic situation.” Church leaders, he said, have “often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.”

    We often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.

    The pope added:

    We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

    The pope expanded on that last point in a chapter intriguingly titled: “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.”

    He argued that when dealing with people in “irregular” unions, pastors need to show careful discernment, and not simply impose a set of rules, recognizing that the degree of individual responsibility varies with circumstances and that “no easy recipes exist.”

    “The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications,” he said:

    One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.” There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid.”

    The pope made it clear that he did not intend to lay down new general rules that would allow Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive Communion. But he appeared to open the door to such a possibility when he said that pastoral accompaniment should include an “examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance,” recognizing that “since the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”

    Significantly, he footnoted that passage and added: “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists.”

    The pope’s framework for all this, of course, is mercy.

    “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves,” he said.

    There is much, much more in this document, including praise for the women's movement and feminism, a call to include women and families in the seminary experience, and a long and fascinating chapter on love in marriage.






















  • Blackstone audio book: The Vatican Prophecies

    The audible version of my new book, The Vatican Prophecies, is available in a 9-CD format from Blackstone. Here's a sample:

    Vatican_Prophecies.m4a

  • Final synod document leaves door open for pastoral changes

    I suppose it’s inevitable that the end of the Synod on the Family brings a “who won?” moment, at least for reporters.

    The better question is probably “what really happened?” However one assesses the outcome, it helps to remember the objectives of this assembly and its limitations.

    -- First of all, Pope Francis wanted a brutally honest debate, and he got that in spades. True, at times this led to open disagreement and even some disagreeableness among the participants (duly noted by the pope in his stunning final speech), but that’s better than the non-engagement of previous synods.

    It’s not necessarily a bad thing for the pope – and for the Catholic faithful and the outside world – to see the fault lines evident in these discussions.

    -- It was also clear that the bishops agree on many fundamentals, including what Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn called “the great ‘yes’ to the family,” despite all the changes and challenges of the modern age. As Schonborn put it, the family’s nucleus remains a man and a woman in a faithful relationship that is open to life, but with recognition that modern families also assume other forms.

    -- The synod was not designed to resolve definitively the many pastoral uncertainties regarding the family. So it’s not surprising that it ended with more ambiguity than answers on certain controversial matters, including the emblematic issue of whether to allow Communion for the divorced and remarried. It must be said that the proposal by Cardinal Walter Kasper for a “penitential path” back to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried found no traction at this synod.

    However, the final report did leave the door open for a case-by-case approach to that question. It did so by adopting a suggestion made by German bishops, which cited Pope John Paul II’s 1981 document on marriage and the family, Familiaris Consortio, on the need for pastors to pay special attention to individual situations:

    Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.

    Cardinal Schonborn referred to this point today and said, “This is not about black and white, or a simple yes or no, it’s about discerning.” The relevant paragraph of the synod document, which obtained the necessary 2/3 majority by the barest of margins, supported that possibility of individual accompaniment, which could look at culpability on a case-by-case basis, and theoretically open the way to Communion for some.

    -- The synod’s final document was distinctly more positive in tone and language than similar documents of previous eras. For example, on the particular point of couples living together outside of marriage, the document preserved the more open approach that was introduced at last year’s assembly. It said there were many reasons for cohabitation and for civil marriage, which should not simply be read as a rejection of sacramental marriage; instead, the church should look for the good elements in these relationships and build on them.

    -- The final document produced little new on the much-debated topics of birth control, homosexuality and sexuality in marriage. That will disappoint those who were hoping for a fresher look at these issues.

    -- There were signs that bishops are beginning to consider how the “healthy decentralization” envisioned by Pope Francis might function. That doesn’t mean simply throwing the hot-button issues to bishops’ conferences, which no one was proposing. But the synod heard a suggestion, for example, for ritual adaptation to accommodate the stages of traditional African marriage – with the African bishops guiding the discussion. After many years of Rome emphasizing the limits of inculturation, this seems to be a time for new exploration of diversity in the church. Pope Francis, in fact, highlighted this possibility in his final synod speech.

    -- This synod was more about process and less about results. Even the final document, with all its amendments and vote tallying, seemed less an ending than a phase in a much longer path – one that began with a global consultation with Catholics, and that will continue under the pope’s guidance.

    Brother Hervé Janson, a synod member, said at today’s press briefing: “As the pope said, the synod is a moment when the church must walk together, not just the bishops, but the people of God…. Everyone needs to listen to each other.”

    -- Relatedly, despite ridiculous assertions of a conspiracy to “rig” the synod, which some bishops initially seem to have believed, by the end of the assembly virtually everyone was praising the new methodology, which allowed for much freer discussion in small groups.

    -- There seemed to be keen recognition, at least by some, that a missing element in the synod’s debate was theological expertise. That’s a shortcoming that is not easily solved. Many participants appeared to approach the church’s teaching from an ideological point of view, with a defensive mentality about doctrine. Several of the questions under debate cried out for deeper reflection and less posturing, and I hope the pope finds a way to make that happen.

    -- There’s no doubt that the pope will keep the “mercy” theme front and center – perhaps in formal study commissions, in initiatives to mark the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy or even in future synods. But he is unlikely to make abrupt pastoral changes on his own. He knows that he needs bishops on board if his vision is going to progress past papal homilies, and begin to transform pastoral policies at the local level.


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John Thavis

John Thavis is a journalist, author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He is known in the trade as a “Vaticanista,” a calling that became clear only after a circuitous career path.

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John Thavis was in Rome during the recent papal resignation and conclave, and is available to media for interviews about the pope and the Vatican.

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