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  • John Thavis

‘Penitential path’ for divorced and remarried gets synod hearing

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Last February, at Pope Francis’ invitation, Cardinal Walter Kasper outlined a possible way for the church to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion. He called it a “penitential path” that would, in effect, recognize the Eucharist as a healing sacrament for those most in need.

During the current Synod of Bishops, the proposal seemed to have disappeared – until last night, when several bishops expressed support for the idea and outlined how it might work. It was envisioned as an in-depth examination of conscience, with guided reflection on how the person’s divorce may have harmed others, including the original spouse and children.

Repentance and the sacrament of reconciliation is presumed, and some proposed that the church might design a detailed procedure, an ordo penitentium, to structure the process. Others compared it to a jubilee year of penitence, which would culminate in re-admission to Communion in a formal service with the local church community.

Among those who spoke strongly in favor of such an approach was Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, whose parents divorced when he was a teenager.

Those defending the church’s current policy, which prohibits divorced and civilly remarried Catholics from receiving Communion (unless they live in sexual abstinence), also weighed in last night. But sources told me they were not in the majority.

We shall see how the synod’s revised relatio, a summary document to be released on Monday, treats the topic. That document is supposed to reflect the synod’s closed-door discussion so far. At the end of next week, the bishops will pull together a working document for the next phase of this synod, a year-long period of reflection followed by another assembly in Rome in October 2015. It will also issue a message to the world.

As the synod moved toward the end of its first week, it was easy to get lost in the details: possible canon law modifications on annulments, fine-tuning church language on irregular unions, back and forth over the doctrinal dimensions of church teaching on marriage and the limits of reform.

These details are important, and are being carefully sifted as the final statements are being written. But sometimes the tone of synod interventions are just as important as the debating points.

This morning’s session began with an opening reflection from Bishop Arnold Orowae of Papua New Guinea, a talk that, in its simplicity and elegance, captured the spirit of Pope Francis’ pastoral agenda and his hopes for the synod itself.

Bishop Orowae said the rediscovery of the “joy of the Gospel,” the title of Pope Francis’ major document, was the key to family well-being and evangelization today. He credited the pope with “igniting a flame that is spreading throughout the world” with the fundamental message that faith in God and imitation of Christ leads to acts of charity.

The healthy Christian home, the bishop said, is marked above all by happiness. He acknowledged challenges for modern families, but said families are at their best when tackling problems. It helps, he said, when families read Scripture and try to make it part of their daily life.

Bishop Orowae spoke not of what the church tells families and expects them to do, but about how grateful the church is for the many Catholic families who teach their children well and set examples that other families can imitate. This is evangelization, he said.

Here’s an idea for the synod: Just take Orowae’s one-page sermon and issued it as the assembly’s final “message” to the world.

On the other hand, we also continue to see at this synod the “report card” approach, an attempt to gauge how families are measuring up – or falling short – of the church’s teachings. French Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, introducing the debate last night, spoke about how ill-prepared many families feel in educating their children in Gospel values.

Given that families teach best by witness, he identified three elements that make education of children more difficult today: same-sex unions, single-parent families and the phenomenon of street children. Parents in other “irregular” situations pose particular difficulties for Christian education, especially when they don’t agree with some church teachings, he said.

Although Cardinal Vingt-Trois said such couples must be approached with respect, he framed the issue as a problem that is essentially solved by adhesion to the Magisterium.

That is also the approach reflected in many of the “testimonies” delivered by married Catholic couples at the synod. Last night, Olivier and Xristilla Roussy, a French couple with seven children, told the synod that living according to the church’s teaching on birth control was not only possible, but had made their marriage stronger and happier.

The couple said Xristilla had tried the birth control pill for a while, but found it left her in a bad mood. They practiced natural family planning with mixed results – on one occasion, “unable to contain our desire” during a fertile period, they had a child nine months later. But they welcomed that child with joy, they said.

For the most part, the couples chosen to address the synod have been from Catholic lay movements, often involved directly in marriage spirituality programs. They have endorsed church teachings, saying sexuality should reflect the “plan of God” and not the consumerist and selfish model of the world. No one doubts their sincerity, but perhaps the synod might have invited some other voices as well.

An Australian couple, Ran and Mavis Pirola, were the exception to the rule when they told the synod the story of friends who had welcomed a son’s gay partner to a Christmas gathering, and suggested the church should show the same welcoming attitude.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, the head of the Apostolic Signature who has become the “Dr. No” of this synod, has now voiced his objections to that approach in an interview with the U.S.-based Lifesite News.

“If homosexual relations are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are … then what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living in a disordered relationship with another person?” Burke said.

Burke said Catholics should not give children the impression that such relationships are alright, “by seeming to condone gravely sinful acts on the part of a family member.”

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