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  • John Thavis

A top Vatican canonist argues for pastoral flexibility

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

It sounds like the Synod of Bishops on the family has let loose with some of the “frank and open” talk encouraged by Pope Francis. Over the last two days, reports from the inside speak of spirited, impassioned at even at times confrontational discussion, with bishops answering bishops directly on the synod floor.

In its discussion of “irregular” and difficult family situations, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said there were two general lines of argument: one emphasizing a need to defend the church’s traditional teachings, and the other focusing more on finding pastoral solutions for estranged Catholics.

That’s not surprising, and Lombardi said it was impossible to say which group held the upper hand at this point in the assembly. We may have a better sense of where this is going at the end of next week, when concluding documents are issued at the close of the synod’s first phase.

But meantime, some very interesting comments came today from an unlikely source. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, reviewed with reporters some of the pastoral options that are being proposed for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.

He noted the suggestion that the church should look into the Orthodox Church practice of accepting, to some degree, second and third marriages, and said it deserved study. But he foresaw problems, and did not appear at all convinced that the Catholic Church would go down that road.

Instead Coccopalmerio favored streamlining the annulment process. He is a key member of a commission recently named by Pope Francis to study that very issue.

Coccopalmerio said one of more intriguing ideas was to establish an “administrative” procedure whereby a local bishop, after careful consideration based largely on the credibility of the couple, could simply declare a marriage annulled – thus avoiding the sometimes lengthy and costly treatment by marriage tribunals. Care would be needed to ensure this procedure did not become superficial, but he said he was “very much in favor” of this approach. It was significant that such an endorsement came from the Vatican’s top canon law official.

Then Coccopalmerio explained why he thought something had to be done to address the needs of Catholics in irregular unions. He said he agreed with Pope Francis’ view – that “yes we have to protect the doctrine, but we also have to begin with the situations of real people, and give them a response. These are people with urgent problems, and they need our help.”

Coccopalmerio cited the Scripture accounts of what Jesus said about the law of the Sabbath, and why doing good in urgent situations was sometimes more important than abiding by the rules. In modern situations, too, pastors are faced with either doing nothing – because we have our rules – or finding a creative response, he said.

The cardinal said he had expressed his view on this issue during the synod. He described the situation of a woman who married a man who had been unjustly abandoned by his first wife, helping him raise his three children and sharing a life together.

“And now we say: ‘Abandon this union or we won’t give you Communion.’ But she thinks, ‘I cannot abandon this union, or abandon this man, or leave these children without a mother,’” Coccopalmerio said. He said that in these types of situations, the church’s pastors cannot simply throw their hands up and cite the rules – they have to do something.

“If the synod is thinking along those lines, it’s already a big result,” he said.

A more severe argument was reportedly made by U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican’s highest tribunal. Burke has been a strong critic of proposals to find a less rigorous way to readmit divorced and remarried to the sacraments.

According to the Italian magazine Il Regno, Burke gave a talk at last night’s session that offered three “no’s”: no to any doctrinal change; no to any change in church law; and no to any change in pastoral practice. The magazine said his brief talk was met in the synod hall with icy silence. Apparently the bishops recognized that these three “no’s” were, in essence, a “no” to Pope Francis and his calls for pastoral mercy.

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