Synod kicks off with a papal call for candor

Synod kicks off with a papal call for candor

     Pope Francis at the Synod of Bishops

Pope Francis convened the working phase of the Synod of Bishops on the family with a strong call for frank discussion, saying bishops should not feel afraid to disagree openly but respectfully – even with the pope.

His brief talk Monday was followed by the reading of a revised synod working document that downplayed a topic at the center of fierce debate in recent weeks: the possibility of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

The pope sat at a dais in the Vatican’s synod hall before about 180 bishops and some 70 other participants at the start of the two-week-long assembly. He said “synodality” means talking clearly and listening with humility.

Francis recalled that after last February’s meeting of cardinals on synod themes, one participant wrote to him and lamented that some cardinals were afraid to say what they thought, because they disagreed with the pope.

“That’s no good. That’s not synodality. We need to say what we feel and at the same time listen and welcome with an open heart what our brothers are saying,” the pope told the assembly.

But if Francis seemed to be calling for candor, the text of the revised working document or relatio, prepared by Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, went out of its way to defuse a growing and public disagreement over the situation of Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, invoking Pope Francis’ theme of pastoral mercy, has said the church needs to search for a way to give Communion to such Catholics. Other cardinals, including the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, have pounced on Kasper’s suggestion, saying it would be tantamount to disavowing the indissolubility of marriage.

Cardinal Erdo’s relatio treated the situation of divorced Catholics at length, but without explicitly mentioning the issue of Communion. Indeed, he said, "it would be misleading to concentrate only on the reception of the sacraments" in discussing the issue.

Erdo emphasized that the synod was not in any sense challenging the permanence of marriage. He mentioned, as a matter needing further study, the practice of some Orthodox Churches in recognizing second marriages, but said this study needs to avoid “any questionable interpretations and conclusions.”

In another section of his text, Erdo said that pastoral mercy cannot go against the remands of the marriage bond, and that “a second marriage recognized by the church is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive.”

It remains to be seen whether Cardinal Kasper’s proposal receives more attention from this synod. But judging by today’s opening summary text, which is supposed to set directions for the discussion, the synod planners clearly do not want this very controversial issue to take over the assembly. I think they also wanted to reassure the doctrinal conservatives who have spoken out against Kasper’s ideas that what’s up for discussion are pastoral policies, and not established church teaching.

What was striking about Cardinal Erdo’s text was that it took almost for granted that streamlining the annulment process would go forward. He said there was a “broad consensus” for simplifying annulment procedures, and even suggested the church might institute an administrative, “extra-judicial” process in which a local bishop could annul a marriage. That in itself would be a remarkable change, and the pope has already named a commission to study these possibilities.

What Erdo had to say about cohabitation was also interesting, and unusually positive by Vatican standards. Some couples, he said, choose to live together without marriage in relationships that are marked by stability, deep affection and parental responsibility. He said the church should see these relationship as an opportunity and “a seed to be nurtured” toward the sacrament of marriage.

The opening relatio made two points about homosexuality. It said gay men and women should not be discriminated against. But it said most Catholics still reject the idea of gay marriage. What most Catholics appear to want, it said, was a change in culturally conditioned traditional roles and discrimination against women, but without denying the differences between the sexes and their “complementarity.”

In general, the relatio tried to strike a balance between alarm at the erosion of marriage and traditional family values, and confidence that the family “is not an outdated model.”

“The family is fast becoming the last welcoming human reality in a world determined almost exclusively by finance and technology. A new culture of the family can be the starting point for a renewed human civilization,” it said.

3 comments (Add your own)

1. Deacon John M. Bresnahan wrote:
Having been involved in helping some couples receive annulments I think that the procedure should be "reformed" to help those who really deserve an annulment receive a declaration of nullity.
I wonder how many people do not even consider seeking an annulment because of the very widely believed untrue fable about annulments being very, very expensive. One possible solution to undercut this fable would be for the Church to announce that it will bear all administrative costs for an annulment.

Mon, October 6, 2014 @ 11:57 AM

2. Paul Harrison wrote:
Deacon Bresnaham is suggesting that declarations of nullity should be easier to obtain. This is because, unfortunately, it is the only mechanism available to the Church for regularising the situation of remarried divorcees. This is wrong. As Cardinal Kasper has pointed out, it's absurd to try to find a fault with a marriage which lasted ten years or more, and produced children. It may have started happy and gone wrong. Using the annulment procedure in such cases, which often happens, is simply a corrupt back up to the civil divorce system. What is needed is to think outside the box. I'm not suggesting an exact copy of Orthodox oikonomia, but some recognition of past failure followed by a period of penance seems much fairer and more honest than pretending that a failed marriage didn't happen.

Tue, October 7, 2014 @ 9:17 AM

3. susan d wrote:
Dear Paul Harrison, the German church, I have read, has a hard time recognizing null marriages. It is not all that unusual for flaws present at the beginning of the marriage do not surface for years, or are not dealt with for even more years. The Catholic Church recognizes non-Catholic marriages as valid, yet many of our Protestant brethren marry with no firm resolve against divorce. Or if one partner has a lover, and no intention of letting that lover go. Or if one spouse does not want to have children, and the other waits for years, thinking that the other did not mean "never".

Sun, October 19, 2014 @ 5:25 PM

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