Family exhortation expected soon

In an answer to a question about divorced and remarried couples, Pope Francis during his return flight from Mexico hinted at his upcoming post-synodal apostolic exhortation, saying, “All doors are open, but we cannot say that these people can take Communion.”

The remarks suggest that the pope’s imminent teaching in response to the twin synods on the family will focus on ways of integrating those who remarried without an annulment, while upholding the general rule (reiterated in Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 Familiaris Consortio) that they may not receive Communion.

What will not be clear until the exhortation comes out, however, is how Pope Francis will manage the call at the conclusion of the October 2015 synod for an internal forum “discernment pathway.”

After intense discussion and disagreement, the synod fathers left the wording of that proposal deliberately open. The final synod report does not say either way whether Communion lies at the end of the pathway, leaving it to Pope Francis to determine whether it could be.

Divorced and remarried

The pope has said the document will be out “before the end of March.” Vatican sources told Our Sunday Visitor that the signature date — although not necessarily the date of its release — is the solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19, which will mark the third anniversary of the pope’s inauguration Mass.

The exhortation has been drafted, as was Evangelii Gaudium, by the pope’s longtime amanuensis, the rector of Buenos Aires’ Catholic University, Archbishop Victor Fernández. It could well be called, as some in the synod urged, “The Joy of the Family,” echoing his earlier apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

His remarks on the papal plane suggest that he has ruled out the possibility of Communion at the end of an Orthodox-style process for recognizing second civil marriages, such as that mooted in early 2014 by Cardinal Walter Kasper, based on the Orthodox tradition. The idea was rejected by the synod.

The same remarks suggest that Pope Francis views the pastoral objective of integrating a divorced-and-remarried couple as being undermined, rather than enabled, by allowing them eventually to receive Communion.

“Integration into the Church does not mean allowing people to take Communion,” the pope said firmly, before citing a remarried couple’s testimony in southern Mexico three days earlier (see sidebar). On the papal plane, he commended the couple’s example to reporters as a case of integration into the life of the Church, before citing with disapproval the example of other divorced and remarried couples “who go to church once or twice a year and say, ‘I want to receive Communion,’ as if it were some prize.”

Francis told reporters that such responses would not achieve the objective of “integration” but leave the wound unhealed.

However, the pope’s embrace of synodality — the principle of the pope listening carefully to the views of the bishops gathered in synod — is likely to lead him to endorse the pastoral “internal forum” discernment pathway put forward by the German and Austrian bishops. The proposal was narrowly adopted by the synod as a whole.

If so, this may not be the end of the controversy, because a number of German and Austrian dioceses already allow couples to return to Communion on a case-by-case basis, and many will ask whether the endorsement of an internal-forum pathway will allow this to continue.

Addressing other issues

Although the Communion issue will be the part that receives most media attention, most of the document will be a heavily pastoral lights-and-shadows discernment of the age, mobilizing the Church worldwide to give better attention to wounded families.

The document will identify the current stresses on family life from poverty, migration and war, as well as the hostile legal and cultural framework of contemporary Western society, which Francis calls “ideological colonization.” The media image of the pope as a liberalizing figure is likely to be dented by his robust reaffirmation of the family “founded upon an indissoluble, unitive and procreative marriage” as part of God’s dream for humanity, as he put it in January during a speech to Vatican lawyers.

But while issuing an SOS against what he called in Tuxtla Gutiérrez “destructive ideologies ... into the nucleus of the family” by proposing “a model based on isolation,” the exhortation will be an uplifting tribute to the enduring power and beauty of family life, offering support and consolation to those struggling against fierce contemporary headwinds to hold families together.

At a conference for priests in Portugal, the head of the Vatican’s family council, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, said recently that the document was “a hymn to love, a love that wants to take care of children, which is able to be close to wounded families to give them strength, which wants to be close to children as well as to the whole of needy humanity.” Much of the material will be culled from the pope’s yearlong catechesis on the family.

Marriage prep

The other focus will be on better marriage preparation, calling for the Church to develop catechetical programs that educate Catholics in marriage’s meaning at a time when that meaning has collapsed in the law and culture of the Western world. Pope Francis has often contrasted the years of preparation the Church offers clergy and religious entering their lifelong vocation with the “two or three talks” marrying couples are given in most parishes.

In calling for rigorous catechetical preparation for marriage, Francis may well be opening various cans of worms. One is practical: the Church is ill equipped, at present, to offer such preparation as the norm. And if thorough marriage preparation comes to be linked to validity, for example, it could widen the basis on which annulments are granted.

Catholics should prepare, therefore, for the paradox that while — according to the media narrative — Francis has “retreated” on the Communion issue, his document could gently unleash far-reaching changes that transform the way the Church approaches marriage and family in the 21st century.

Austen Ivereigh is the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).

A version of this story appears in the March 13, 2016, issue of OSV Newsweekly on page 6.