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  • John Thavis

German bishops may point way forward as synod draws to close

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

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.

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