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  • An evening with a 'Pope Francis cardinal'

                                   Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin

    Minnesotans got a glimpse this week of what a “Pope Francis cardinal” looks and sounds like, and it was a refreshing change from the “princes of the church” figure of the past.

    Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis delivered a talk on immigration at the University of St. Thomas Oct. 24. Titled “Welcoming the Stranger While Challenging the Fear,” it pulled no punches when it came to the demands of the Gospel on an issue that has become a political football.

    Archbishop Tobin cited comments by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has denounced refugee resettlement programs, including those sponsored by the Catholic Church, and claimed they raise the threat of terrorism in the United States. Trump recently called efforts to resettle refugees from Syria “the great Trojan horse of all time.”

    Tobin pointed out that three days after Trump’s comments, made Oct. 9, Pope Francis issued a clear call for greater global efforts to welcome refugees and immigrants on the part of states, institutions and church agencies. The same week, the pope said Christians who close their doors to refugees are “hypocrites.”

    “The positions of Mr. Trump and Pope Francis regarding the resettlement of refugees, particularly those fleeing the carnage in Syria, are well-known and diametrically opposed,” Tobin said.

    Two weeks ago, Archbishop Tobin was a surprise choice when Pope Francis announced his list of 17 new cardinals, to be created next month in Rome. This pope has broken the mold when handing out the cardinal’s red hat, skipping over more prominent churchmen and often choosing those who share his pastoral outlook.

    Tobin, like many of Francis’ choices, also shares the pope’s willingness to push social and political policies – even when it might lead to the age-old accusation of the church “meddling in politics.”

    Tobin made headlines late last year when he denied Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s request to put a halt to Catholic Charities’ resettlement of a Syrian refugee family. The family is now living in Indianapolis and Pence, of course, is Trump’s running mate. Just three weeks ago, a federal court blocked Pence’s attempt to block Syrian refugees, saying it was discriminatory.

    In his presentation, Archbishop Tobin reviewed the history of immigration in the United States, which is essentially the history of the country. He noted that Catholic Charities last year resettled about one-third of the 70,000 refugees who came to the United States. That is consistent with a faith that professes to see Jesus in the stranger, he said.

    “This welcome is an essential part of our Catholic identity,” he said.

    At the same time, Tobin examined some of the causes of anti-immigrant sentiment. The actual threats made by terror groups are one factor, he said, even though many refugees are themselves victims of terrorism. He also cited the tendency by for-profit major media to run fear-based stories about refugees, with scrolling headlines like, “Taking refugees could open the door to jihadists.”

    Another cause, Tobin said, was a backlash to globalization among people who fear that the country or their culture is losing its identity. He noted, however, that immigration is the most embodied form of globalization and the most regulated, while financial dealings, the most unembodied aspect, are the least regulated.

    Tobin told a couple of amusing stories about Pope Francis.

    During a meeting of church leaders in Rome, Francis listened as one bishop “got in his face” over the pope’s inclination to ignore security concerns. For example, during a general audience in St. Peter’s Square, a group of Latin American pilgrims handed the pope a gourd full of mate, a traditional tea, and he took a sip – to the alarm of the Vatican gendarmes. (The pope was said to have told his security people, presumably in jest, “But they were Argentinians, they weren’t cardinals.”) When the bishop kept pressing the security issue at the Rome meeting, the pope finally replied: “Giving my life for Jesus and his kingdom wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen to me – or to you.” At that, the bishop let the matter drop.

    On another topic, Archbishop Tobin said that several months after his visit to the United States last fall, Pope Francis told him he had been “amazed” by the country.

    What impressed him?

    “He told me, ‘I never realized how affectionate Americans are. The second thing was, I didn't know they took their faith so seriously.’ So even the Holy Father needs an encounter to do away with stereotypes. Maybe he saw a lot of Rambo movies when he was a kid.”

  • Pope Francis issues norms for removal of bishops for negligence in sex abuse cases

    Pope Francis

     In a landmark move toward accountability, Pope Francis has established new norms that provide for the dismissal of bishops when they demonstrate "lack of diligence" in protecting minors or vulnerable adults from the sexual abuse of priests.

    The norms say a bishop does not need to have "grave morally culpability" in order to be removed; serious negligence by the bishop is enough.

    Current church law provides for removal of bishops for "very grave cause." The new norms state that in the cases of sexual abuse, removal can be for "grave cause." This slight wording change is considered significant. According to Vatican Radio, it effectively lowers the standard needed for a bishop to be removed from office in such cases. It certainly puts bishops on notice that their actions or lack of them will receive greater scrutiny in Rome.

    The pope can decide to remove bishops on his own. But the new norms provide for a college of jurists to assist him in these cases. It will be made up of bishops and cardinals, presumably appointed by the pope.

    Vatican Radio said that according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, the question of retroactivity "does not apply" because the pope's apostolic letter concerns new procedural norms. It will be interesting to see if that holds true. There have been many accusations of negligence against bishops who allegedly failed to protect children and who continue to hold office.

    The pope's apostolic letter in Italian is here. The English-language Vatican Radio report on the new norms is here.




  • 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: 



  • 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 leve

  • Closing synod, pope says church must practice mercy not condemnation

    Pope Francis closed the Synod on the Family with a ringing call for the church to practice mercy toward struggling and broken families, and to avoid using church doctrine as “stones to be hurled at others.”

    In a final address to the more than 300 synod participants, the pope also noted that the discussion during the three-week-long assembly was open but not always charitable. At times, he said, the synod had to rise above “conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints.”

    The pope’s address came shortly after a vote on a final document that backed away from some controversial pastoral proposals, but left the door open for further development of certain questions, including that of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

    It was a remarkable speech, one that left no doubt about Francis' priorities. Rather than touch on specific proposals, the pope gave a broader vision of what, in his view, the synod had highlighted.

    “The church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord,” he said.

    The synod, he said, was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the problems and uncertainties facing families today, but studying them carefully and fearlessly “without burying our heads in the sand.” He reaffirmed the church's teaching of marriage as a permanent union between a man and a woman, calling the family the "fundamental basis of society and human life."

    The pope then said what the synod was about, emphasizing the listening and dialogue of bishops form diverse social and religious situations:

    "It was about showing the vitality of the Catholic Church, which is not afraid to stir dulled consciences or to soil her hands with lively and frank discussions about the family."

    "It was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would 'indoctrinate' it in dead stones to be hurled at others."

    "It was also about laying bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church's teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families."

    The pope said the true defenders of doctrine "are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy."

    The pope emphasized that, apart from defined dogmas, it is difficult to make uniform policies for every church community on every continent, because of the diversity of pastoral situations. What is normal for a bishop on one continent can be “considered strange and almost scandalous” for a bishop from another, he said.

    At that point in his speech, the pope clearly pointed the way to greater appreciation and freedom for local innovation and adaptations, sometimes called inculturation of the faith, which he said “does not weaken true values” and their ability to transform cultures.

    The pope also spoke about the need to update the church’s language when it evangelizes, saying the beauty of Christianity is “at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible.” That was a key theme of the synod deliberations.

    He said the church is committed to defending the family against "all ideological and individualistic assaults." But he said that should be done without "demonizing others."


  • The collegiality paradox facing Pope Francis

    The Synod of Bishops on the Family has highlighted what I call the “paradox of collegiality” for Pope Francis.

    The pope clearly wants to share his governing authority with bishops, giving them a bigger voice in decision-making in Rome and more latitude in their home dioceses. He also wants them on board as he shifts the church’s missionary approach to a more “merciful” and invitational style, less focused on doctrinal rules.

    But the pope is working with a global episcopate largely put in place by his two predecessors, whose emphasis on doctrinal identity-building was very much reflected in their choice of bishops.

    In the Pope John Paul II era, I was told that candidates for bishop nominations were routinely vetted regarding their views on a series of hot-button pastoral and doctrinal issues, including such things as birth control, dissent from the Magisterium, priestly celibacy, women’s ordination and the role of laity, to name a few.

    It was a “litmus test” approach aimed at ensuring orthodoxy at the highest levels of the church. The Catholic Church is diverse, of course, and so are its bishops. But over a 35-year period, this policy made for a more conservative hierarchy.

    The Synod on the Family has shown what happens when such a cautious and doctrinally-focused episcopate encounters a pope’s agenda for change. Many of today’s bishops are afraid that “mercy” without doctrinal backbone is a very slippery slope, especially when it comes to issues like divorce, cohabitation, gay relationships and birth control.

    In a sense, I think the synod’s two sessions have been a place where these bishops can register reservations not only about specific pastoral proposals, but also about the entire “who am I to judge” approach of Pope Francis.

    Pope Francis has been appointing bishops since his election in 2013, of course, and his choices appear to reflect his pastoral outlook. So how long does it take before he can really “shape” the world’s episcopate?

    A long time.

    In his 31 months in office, Francis has appointed 456 bishops, according to the Vatican’s statistics office. That is about 9 percent of the total number of bishops, and about 13 percent of the active (non-retired) bishops in the world.

    Extrapolating those numbers, it will take the pope another seven or eight years before he will have named more than half the active bishops. I’m sure the pope realizes that, for quite some time, he will have to work with an episcopate that may at times act as a check on his innovative pastoral proposals.

    Papal nominations of cardinals are important for different reasons, including an eventual conclave that can preserve a pope’s legacy and carry it forward or shift directions.

    Pope Francis has already named 31 of the current 118 voting members (those under age 80) of the College of Cardinals, or 26 percent. However, because of an unusual age pattern in the college, it will likely take him another four or five years before he will have named a majority of the voting-age cardinals, i.e., more than 60 of the 120 voting-age cardinals allowed under current rules.

    For those reasons, a relatively long pontificate for Francis may be important not only in building consensus on immediate issues, but also in long-term effects. As one bishop recently remarked, when he wishes Pope Francis a long life of “100 years” in the traditional Roman toast, he really means it.

  • German bishops may point way forward as synod draws to close

                               German Cardinal Reinhard Marx

    It’s increasingly clear that the German bishops are leading the way forward from the Synod on the Family, with proposals worthy of reflection and development by Pope Francis.

    Unlike most of the synod’s 13 language groups, the German-speaking participants have approached their task with a fairly clear sense of mission: find a consensus, where possible, and indicate some potential new directions.

    With only three days to go in this second synod assembly, reading through many of the group reports might lead one to despair of any real agreement on the tougher questions being raised: Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, pastoral policies for cohabitating couples, language (less condemnatory vs. denunciation of sin), and outreach to homosexuals.

    The reports indicated a widespread split in positions on these questions – and not much more than that. From the outside, at least, it seems like this synod was a three-week round of infighting and restatement of positions, but with very little openness to reflection and change.

    The Germans, however, managed to deliver two reports that were remarkable in having the unanimous agreement of the entire group. That is significant, because it includes Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has strongly pushed for a way to welcome divorced and remarried Catholics back to the sacraments, and Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation and one of the strongest critics of that proposal.

    They apparently pulled this off not just by negotiating, but by some deeper theological reflection – something that appears to be lacking in other groups.

    Speaking at today’s Vatican press briefing, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich underlined the group’s unanimity and said the Germans were well aware that the eyes of other synod participants were on them. The thinking was that if the Germans, with their diverse views, could come together, “maybe it would be a good sign for the others,” he said.

    Marx told reporters that there was, of course, much fundamental agreement in their group, as well as in the synod hall and in society at large, about the value of marriage.

    “Most of the people agree with the center of the doctrine of the church: that one man and one woman will want to be together forever, they say yes and they mean yes, they found a family and they want children. That is the great majority of the people I know,” the cardinal said.

    “But they want to hear from the church, what will happen when we fail? Will you stay with us when we fail? And we have to say, yes, we will stay with you when you fail,” he said.

    In the case of Catholics who divorce and remarry civilly without an annulment, Cardinal Marx said the German group proposed a pastoral solution that could allow a return to the sacraments after a process in which pastors guide an individual toward a decision of conscience.

    This process of reflection in conscience, sometimes referred to as the “internal forum,” would be personal and private, but would follow certain criteria, perhaps under guidelines established by Rome, Marx said.

    An individual who had divorced and civilly remarried, for example, would be asked to reflect on his or her responsibilities to a first spouse and family, reconciliation with those who have been hurt, relationships with children and reputation in the church community.

    “Then you can find a way (to see) if and when it might be possible to make a full reconciliation,” he said. (It should be noted that debate over such use of the “internal forum,” for this and other difficult pastoral situations, has been simmering in the church for more than 40 years.)

    Cardinal Marx noted that the German group’s discussion of these issues went beyond just “stating an opinion.” Theologians like Saint Thomas Aquinas were often quoted. “And when Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Mueller and Cardinal (Cristophe) Schonborn are talking about Saint Thomas, that is very interesting!” he said.

    As for those who have warned that any move toward allowing divorced Catholics to receive Communion would represent an attack on church doctrine, Cardinal Marx said it was important to remember that doctrine exists on many levels, and that it develops over the centuries.

    “The doctrine of the church is not a closed shop, but a living tradition,” he said. This is clearly seen in the writings of different popes about marriage, or the development of doctrine in various church councils. “We don’t change the truth, but we find the greater truth,” he said.

    The German group report began with an unusual statement criticizing unnamed synod participants for language that was not in line with the spirit of the synod. Asked about this, Cardinal Marx said referred to statements reportedly made by Australian George Pell in an interview with a French newspaper, in which Cardinal Pell spoke of a synod battle between “Kasperians” and “Ratzingerians.”

    Marx said: “We thought that is not acceptable language and not useful for the synod to speak in this way.”

    Several of the other language groups reported mixed views on the issues listed above. Most of the reports fell into a “some said … while others said” category. On the question of Communion for divorced and remarried, more than one group asked for further reflection by a commission named by Pope Francis, which at this point seems a likely outcome.

    The impression left after reading through the reports is that synod participants will be glad to go home. In recent days, many of the participants have sounded like passengers on a white-knuckle flight that is preparing for a tricky landing – perhaps hoping that the pope is in the pilot’s seat.

  • Cardinal Napier has praise for synod process, Pope Francis' leadership

              Cardinal Wilfrid Napier

    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.


  • Synod's lack of consensus may still leave doors open for Pope Francis

           Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge

    It’s apparent from today’s Vatican briefing that the Synod of Bishops on the Family is not going to resolve many of the hotly debated issues taken up in the course of the two sessions last year and this year.

    The synod participants told reporters that it was unrealistic to think the assembly could reach a consensus on questions like divorced and remarried Catholics, or proposed changes in language on moral issues.

    That effectively means that the follow-up will largely be left to Pope Francis, who can proceed in specific directions and at his own pace. The synod will not give the pope a mandate on the tougher questions, but it will give him an idea of where the world’s episcopate stands on his “mercy” agenda of pastoral outreach.

    I expect the language of the synod’s final document to reflect the disagreements, but also to leave the doors open for development – and I don’t expect Pope Francis to shy away from that task, especially during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

    Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane summed up the situation today when asked about where the synod was going on three issues: Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation and homosexuality.

    “The indications are that there will be no substantial change on church teaching on those three issues that you first mentioned. I have no crystal ball, but on the basis of the discussions we had in the small group this morning and on Friday afternoon, there is no groundswell of support for the change of church teaching.,” Coleridge said. “But my hope is that we will move toward, without actually accomplishing at this synod, a genuinely new pastoral approach. At the heart of this I think there has to be a whole new language.”

    There may be no change in church teaching, but more and more, the synod seems to be focusing on case-by-case treatment of some pastoral situations. Frequently, the role of the individual conscience comes into play. That’s also a perennial area of debate, of course, and a word from the pope on this subject might be helpful. Instead of giving the church another summing-up document on the family in the wake of the synod, perhaps Pope Francis should consider issuing a magisterial document on the relationship between the judgment of conscience, the church’s teaching authority and pastoral realities.

    As the synod entered its final week, there were some other interesting developments:

    -- Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, one of 10 papally appointed members of a commission that will write the synod’s final document, was sharply critical of bishops who have suggested the assembly has somehow been manipulated.

    In an interview with America magazine, Wuerl was asked about cardinals and bishops who have expressed anxiety over the synod’s process. Others have warned about the direction of the debate on issues including Communion for divorced Catholics.

    Here is a key part of Cardinal Wuerl’s interview:

    Cardinal Wuerl: Now there are some bishops whose position is that we shouldn’t be discussing any of this anyway. They were the ones at the last synod that were giving interviews, and denouncing and claiming there were intrigues and manipulation. That, I think, falls on them. I don’t see it with a foundation in reality. I just think that these are people who have their own position and they just want to articulate that, and they have taken to saying that somehow the Holy Father and the synod structure are trying to manipulate all of the bishops. I just find that does not correspond to what I see, to what I experience, and what I’ve experienced over the years in dealing with synods.

    Q: How do you interpret these people who seem to imply that the pope is somehow manipulating the synod? It seems almost like a vote of no-confidence in Pope Francis.

    Cardinal Wuerl: I don’t know what would bring people to say the things that they are saying because we are all hearing the pope, and the pope is saying nothing that contradicts the teaching of the church. He’s encouraging us to be open, to be merciful, to be kind, to be compassionate, but he keeps saying that you cannot change the teaching of the church.

    I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope. I wonder if that isn’t part of it.

    -- Meanwhile, German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who had been one of the strongest voices against a proposals to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, appeared to indicate a measure of openness to that possibility in “extreme individual cases.”

    According to Vatican Radio, the cardinal reportedly spoke in an interview with a German magazine, and cited the 1981 papal document Familiaris Consortio, which said divorced and remarried Catholics could not receive Communion but also referred to possible exceptions in the “realm of conscience.”

    “It is possible to think further in this direction,” Cardinal Mueller said.

    Familiaris Consortio said in part:

    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 Walter Kasper, who last year outlined a possible “penitential path” to reception of the sacraments by divorced Catholics, said he still hoped that a majority at this synod would approve such an approach. He spoke in an interview published today by the Italian church agency SIR:

    "I hope in an opening, in a majority in favor of Communion for divorced, with a process of integration in parishes and in the life of the church. We see many families in irregular situations, but they too are children of God. They too need the bread of life, because the Eucharist is not for the ‘excellent’ but for sinners, and we are all sinners: we say this every time at the consecration. It’s probable that for a final document a little more time is needed, but I hope that the pope may say something already at the end of the (synod’s) work, after having received all the reports."

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