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  • John Thavis

Next synod will take a new look at family issues

Francis and his advisory council discussed the synod’s future

Pope Francis has decided to devote the next Synod of Bishops to family pastoral issues, setting the stage for a far-ranging discussion that is likely to touch on questions concerning divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation and annulments.

The synod will take place in October of 2014, and by then we may see other changes in the synod’s format that give its deliberations more weight.

The Vatican announcement today was accompanied by an unusual statement by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, that seemed to be a clear signal to German bishops to hold off on pastoral innovations for divorced Catholics until the synod is held.

Yesterday, the German Archdiocese of Freiburg outlined a new pastoral plan, involving prayer and conversation with pastors, that could allow some divorced and    remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

The church’s longstanding policy is that Catholics who divorced and remarried without obtaining an annulment may not receive Communion because they are not in harmony with the indissolubility of marriage.

Father Lombardi said today that family pastoral questions should be discussed “under the guidance of the pope and the bishops.”

“In this context, for local persons and offices to propose particular pastoral solutions could risk generating confusion. It is good to underline the importance of conducting a journey in the full communion of the ecclesial community,” the spokesman said.

It appears the Vatican is putting the brakes on the German bishops. And it’s not the first time. In 1994, three German bishops allowed Communion to Catholics who were divorced and remarried civilly, until the Vatican intervened to stop the practice. Following a dialogue with the bishops, the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation eventually sent a letter to the world’s bishops confirming that such Catholics may not receive the sacrament.

I spoke today with Father Lombardi, who said it made little sense for a single archdiocese to stake out a new policy on such an important issue when the universal church was preparing to discuss it at length. He also said that after the 2014 synod, technically an “extraordinary” session, there could be a follow-up ordinary session of the synod on the same theme.

Extraordinary synodal assemblies are called to discuss matters that require a “speedy solution.” This one will take place in Rome Oct. 5-19, 2014, and the full theme will be “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”

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