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  • John Thavis

Church doctrine on family can develop, papal advisor says

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

When Pope Francis called for frank and open talk at the Synod of Bishops, he was encouraging bishops to speak up “without fear that Cardinal Mueller will come after you,” one of the pope’s closest associates said today.

The humorous aside – well, I think it was humorous – came from Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, who is reputedly one of the pope’s top theological advisors.

Archbishop Fernandez was addressing reporters on the synod’s third day, and he said the pope’s call for an honest exchange was necessary if the assembly wanted to be productive.

The reference to Cardinal Gerhard Mueller prompted chuckles in the press room. Mueller, head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, has been among those sharply criticizing a proposal by Cardinal Walter Kasper that the synod find a way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

Fernandez also addressed what has become a common refrain at the synod – that the assembly had no intention of changing doctrine, but simply looking at pastoral practices.

“When it’s said that this is a ‘pastoral’ synod, it doesn’t at all mean that one cannot deepen the doctrine,” he said. “We need to develop the doctrine on the family much more. If we came here only to repeat what we’ve always said, the church wouldn’t grow.”

He pointed to the issue of slavery, which was accepted in past centuries by the church, as an example of where teaching changed “because there was a development in doctrine – and that continues to happen.” You can’t say doctrine developed in the past, but no longer does, he added.

Fernandez said the synod needs to proceed by looking not only at the truths of its faith, which should be defended, but also at the pastoral realities, which can sometimes be messy.

As pastors, he said, bishops need to reach out and help people even when they do not fully accept church teaching – when “perfection is not possible,” as Pope Francis put it in his document Evangelii Gaudium.

Archbishop Fernandez is said to have worked closely with Pope Francis on that document, and his briefing in the press room today certainly seemed to reflect the pope’s point of view.

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