When a pope praises another pope’s encyclical, that usually isn’t news. But when the pope is Pope Francis and the encyclical is Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) — that’s news. Calling Pope Paul VI’s 1968 condemnation of contraception “prophetic,” Pope Francis said: “He had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural brake, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism.”
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the pope then added something hardly less significant. The challenge, he said, isn’t “changing doctrine” but applying it to “take into account people’s situations, and that which is possible for people to do.”
Fidelity to doctrine, plus pastoral compassion — here, it seems, is the key to understanding Pope Francis’ sometimes controversial comments about several sensitive moral issues, including one now being debated: giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled.
Supporters say doing that would be pastoral compassion; opponents say it would undercut the doctrine that sacramental marriage is indissoluble.
For months, since he announced plans for not just one but two assemblies of the world Synod of Bishops devoted to marriage — the first next October, the second in October 2015 — sometimes heated public discussion has focused on that question, with German bishops and German theologians dominating the argument.
In February, as part of the runup to the October assembly, the bishops’ conferences of Germany, Austria and Switzerland made public — without authorization — the results of consultations on marriage. To no one’s surprise, the self-selected respondents were highly critical of Church teaching and practice. Progressive Catholic media said this showed the need for change.
But other survey results present a different picture. A poll sponsored by the Hispanic television network Univision found that while in Europe 75 percent of Catholics disagree with the Church’s practice of denying Communion to the divorced and remarried and only 19 percent agree, the percentages were the other way around among Catholics in Africa. The results in the U.S. were 59 percent disagreeing and 32 percent agreeing, while in the Philippines 46 percent disagreed and half agreed.
Against this background, the College of Cardinals met for two days in Rome on Feb. 21-22 in preparation for the fall synod. Delivering a two-hour opening address was Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian and former head of the Vatican office for ecumenical relations. As far back as the early 1990s, when he was a diocesan bishop in Germany, Cardinal Kasper argued for giving Communion to the divorced and remarried.
In his address to the cardinals, he stopped short of advocacy, but he did sketch two ways in which he maintained it could be done without conflicting with the teaching on indissolubility.
One way, he said, would be to streamline the process of issuing annulments — official declarations that apparent marriages were invalid — by turning over the task of judging cases to one priest rather than a church court.
The other way, which he said was present in the Church of early centuries, would be to have people who have divorced and then remarried in a civil ceremony confess to having sinned and receive absolution, but then remain in the relationship while receiving Communion. Cardinal Kasper described this as an approach tailored to the “smaller segment” of the divorced and remarried population composed of Catholics who are “sincerely interested in the sacraments.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., said 43 cardinals spoke during the first day of the closed consistory and many more indicated a desire to speak. He said there was “neither tension nor anxiety” on the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried but an attempt to “combine fidelity to the words of Jesus with divine mercy and attention to specific situations.”
At the close, Pope Francis thanked Cardinal Kasper warmly for his remarks, calling them “serene theology.” The cardinal’s text later was leaked to media. Later, too, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, another German theologian who is prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reiterated his previously declared opposition to giving Communion to the divorced and remarried without an annulment.
Cardinal Müller told journalists that this was “not about my opinion,” but instead reflected the practice and teaching of the Church for many centuries. And pastoral practice contrary to doctrine is not allowable, he added. “Doctrine and pastoral care are the same thing. Jesus Christ as pastor and Jesus Christ as teacher with his word are not two different people,” the CDF prefect said.
It seems likely there will be more of this jockeying in the months ahead as preparations go forward for the two synod assemblies. The first will be an “extraordinary” session charged with evaluating input and identifying practical options for consideration. The second, an “ordinary” synod assembly a year later, will make specific recommendations. As always with the Synod of Bishops, the last word will be up to the pope, who is expected to issue his own document in 2016.
The Church’s position on marriage was last discussed at this level by an ordinary assembly of the synod in October 1980. In November 1981, Pope John Paul II published his response, an apostolic exhortation titled Familiaris Consortio on “the role of the Christian family in the modern world.”
There Pope John Paul acknowledged significantly different cases among the divorced and remarried — on the one hand “those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriages and been unjustly abandoned” and on the other “those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage.” Also, he said, some have remarried for the sake of their children and sometimes are “subjectively certain in conscience” that their first marriages were invalid.
Urging pastors and other Catholics to “help the divorced” and not let them think of themselves as “separated from the Church,” he said they should attend Mass, raise their children as Catholics, and take part in the good works of the Church.
But he reaffirmed the practice of not giving them Communion, citing two reasons. First, because their situation is contrary to matrimony’s sacramental meaning as a sign of Christ’s union with the Church; second, because by giving them Communion, others would be “led into error and confusion about the indissolubility of marriage.”
Reconciliation in the sacrament of penance “which would open the way to the Eucharist” is open to divorced and remarried Catholics, John Paul said, only if they separate from their second partners or, if that cannot be done, undertake to practice “abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.