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  • John Thavis

War of words heats up as Vatican counts down to synod

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Journalists often exaggerate conflict at the Vatican. But it’s no exaggeration to say that sharp battle lines are being drawn for the October Synod of Bishops, in particular on the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

This week saw several leading cardinals and Vatican officials weigh in on the “No” side, with the imminent publication of two new books on the topic. Among them were two leading Roman Curia officials – German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Australian Cardinal George Pell, head of the Vatican’s new Secretariat for the Economy.

Specifically, they took issue with Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was selected by Pope Francis to address the world’s cardinals last February. Kasper proposed that the church find ways to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, arguing that the Eucharist should be a spiritual “life raft” for those who need it most.

There are two ways of looking at these developments. For some, it’s part of the open and lively debate that Pope Francis desired when he chose the synod’s theme (the family) and called for a more merciful and pastoral approach on the issue of divorced Catholics.

Others see it as pre-emptive strike by doctrinal hardliners, an attempt to mark certain options as off-limits even before the bishops arrive in Rome to begin deliberations. Their argument is not that the church shouldn’t admit divorced and remarried to Communion, but that it cannot do so without breaking with the teachings of Christ and the church.

As Cardinal Müller put it, a sacramental marriage is indissoluble, and Catholics whose “state of life contradicts the indissolubility of sacramental marriage” cannot be admitted to the Eucharist.

Pre-emptive strikes are not new for the Synod of Bishops. In 1985, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger came out with a book-length interview on the state of the church that framed much of the discussion for that year’s extraordinary on the aftermath of Vatican II.

But by Vatican standards, this kind of open verbal warfare is unprecedented. Two comments by Cardinal Kasper, reported today in the Italian press, take it to a whole new level.

In an interview with the newspaper La Stampa, Kasper said he was blindsided by publication of the new books. “I was surprised. I learned about it only today from journalists – they were sent the text, not me. In all my academic life I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

And in an interview with another newspaper, Il Mattino, Kasper went farther, saying his critics appeared to want a “doctrinal war” at the synod, and that the target was not himself but “probably” Pope Francis.

“They claim to know on their own what the truth is. But Catholic doctrine is not a closed system, it is a living system that develops, as Vatican II taught us. They want to crystalize the truth in certain formulas,” Kasper was quoted as saying.

He added: “None of my cardinal brothers have spoken with me. I, on the other hand, have spoken twice with the Holy Father. I arranged everything with him. He was in agreement. What else can a cardinal do, other than stand with the pope? I am not the target, the target is someone else.”

Asked if the target was Pope Francis, Cardinal Kasper replied: “Probably yes.”

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