Remarks made by a key official at the opening of the current Synod of Bishops seem cool to the idea that there will be a change in the Church’s doctrine and practice regarding the divorced and civilly remarried.

This comes as heartening news to supporters of the Church’s historic doctrine and discipline.

Here are 9 things to know and share . . .

 

1) What is at issue here?

Jesus Christ taught that marriage is indissoluble. Consequently, a civil divorce does not free one from the commitments one made to be faithful to one’s spouse.

To obtain a civil divorce and then marry someone else, without establishing that the first marriage was null, is thus to enter a state of ongoing adultery.

As Jesus pointedly teaches in the readings for Sunday, October 4 (notably, the readings for the very day the Synod began):

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11-12).

The Church also teaches that adultery is a gravely sinful act that prevents one from receiving the sacraments.

Therefore, people living in such situations cannot receive Holy Communion unless they rectify their situation (e.g., by obtaining and annulment and marrying their current partner, by living chastely with their current partner and avoiding scandal, or by separating).

 

2) Who has been proposing a change in this practice?

According to a proposal advanced by the German Cardinal Walter Kasper, people who have divorced and civilly remarried could be given Holy Communion under certain circumstances.

This proposal has been picked up by a number of churchmen, particularly from Europe and especially by other German bishops.

It has met with stiff opposition from other churchmen, who point out that it is inconsistent with the Church’s teachings as described above.

 

3) What is the Synod of Bishops?

The Synod of Bishops is an advisory body that meets to consider questions and then make recommendations to the pope. It does not have authority on its own. It merely advises.

The current Synod of Bishops is devoted to the theme of how to offer pastoral care to the family.

It follows and is meant to complete the work of another synod, also on the family, which was held in 2014.

 

4) What has happened that gives hope to supporters of the Church’s historic teaching and practice?

Several things. Among them:

a) Before the present synod began, Pope Francis revised the Code of Canon Law to include a streamlined annulment process, making it easier for people living in irregular situations to pursue an annulment.

He did not change the grounds on which annulments are granted, but he introduced procedural changes to make it easier to have one’s case heard in a timely fashion (in some countries, processing the case could take a decade, resulting in some people refusing to use the process and simply getting civilly remarried after a divorce).

This action would take some of the pressure off the question, and it was widely interpreted as making a change in the Church’s historic practice less likely.

b) Various officials have downplayed the idea of there being a change in the Church’s doctrine.

At a press conference on Monday, Msgr. Bruno Forte, special secretary to the Synod, stated: “It will not lead to doctrinal changes, because it is about pastoral attention, pastoral care. We are about resonating pastorally.”

Similarly, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, a delegate president to the synod, said that if one is looking “for a spectacular change in the Church's doctrine you will be disappointed.”

However, advocates of the Kasper proposal have often said that the Church’s doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage is not in question and have claimed that giving Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried would not represent a doctrinal change (though this appears false).

c) Consequently, affirmations that the Church’s doctrine will not change may not address the issue in question. This means that the most significant development is found in remarks made at the synod by Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo.

 

5) Who is Cardinal Erdo?

Cardinal Peter Erdo is the Primate of Hungary. You can read more about him here.

For our purposes, the important thing is that he is the relator general of the synod.

This makes his remarks particularly significant, because his job as relator is not to express his personal opinions.

The relator general’s function is to make certain official reports, each known as a relatio.

Consequently, though Cardinal Erdo has personally expressed opposition to the Kasper proposal, what he says in his official reports is not simply an expression of his personal opinion. He is speaking in an official capacity.

 

6) When did he make his recent remarks?

He made them on Monday, October 5, in the course of his first report—the Relatio ante Disceptationem (i.e., the Report Before the Discussion)—whose function is to summarize the “working document” (Latin, Instrumentum laboris) which was prepared as a basis for the bishops to use during the synod.

The function of the Relatio ante Desceptationem is to inform the discussion that will take place at the synod, based on information received from bishops around the world in preparation for the synod.

This year’s relatio was titled “The Vocation of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World.”

According to Vatican Radio:

Cardinal Erdö explained [at Monday’s press conference] that his introductory address had followed the structure of [the] Instrumentum Laboris. “I tried to systematize all the data which was received from the Church around the world, including families and individuals who wrote to us, following the themes already in [the] Instrumentum Laboris.”

You can read the Instrumenum Laboris here.

 

7) What did Cardinal Erdo say?

At the time of this writing, an English translation of the full speech is not available, though one should be soon. However, according to the National Catholic Reporter:

Erdő said a “merciful pastoral accompaniment is due” to such persons [i.e., the divorced and civilly remarried], but that it cannot leave in doubt “the truth of indissolubility of marriage, taught by Jesus Christ himself.”

“The mercy of God offers the sinner forgiveness, but requires conversion,” said the cardinal.

The affirmation of Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is good, as is the affirmation of the need of conversion for forgiveness.

Yet, by themselves, these could be interpreted in a way consistent with the Kasper proposal, since advocates of it have claimed that they do not deny the former and they have urged a “penitential path” (and thus conversion) regarding the failure of the first marriage.

What Cardinal Erdo went on to say, however, was not consistent with the Kasper proposal:

“It is not the failing of the first marriage but the living in a second relationship that impedes access to the Eucharist.”

This hits the nail on the head.

First, not all divorced people are at fault for the failure of their marriage, much less are they guilty of mortal sin that would keep them from Communion. Second, even if they were guilty of mortal sin, simply repenting and going to confession would take care of the problem.

The reason people who are divorced and civilly remarried are not able to receive Communion is that, unless they are living chastely, they are engaging in an ongoing adulterous relationship.

As one wag put it, paraphrasing the 1992 Clinton campaign, “It’s the adultery, stupid.”

Having the fact pointed out that it is the second relationship, not the failure of the first, that impedes access to Holy Communion is a very good and clear-headed sign.

Cardinal Erdo then went on to critique some of the arguments used in favor of the Kasper proposal.

 

8) What arguments for the Kasper proposal did he critique?

One was the suggestion that, unless they are given Communion, the divorced and civilly remarried are cut off from the life of the Church:

Referencing Pope John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Erdő said “integration of divorced and remarried persons in the life of the ecclesial community can be realized in various ways, apart from admission to the Eucharist.”

It is to be noted that Familiaris Consortio was issued in response to the 1980 Synod of Bishops, which was also on the topic of the family. In this document, John Paul II rejected prior proposals to give Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried who had not rectified their situation in one manner or another (see section 84 of the document), so Cardinal Erdo was calling attention to a proposal that had already been discussed and rejected.

He also critiqued the proposal that Communion could be given on the basis of certain “positive aspects” in adulterous unions:

“In the search for pastoral solutions for the difficulties of certain civilly divorced and remarried persons, it is presently held that the fidelity to the indissolubility of marriage cannot be joined to the practical recognizing of the goodness of concrete situations that stand opposed and are therefore incompatible,” said the cardinal.

And he critiqued the idea that an appeal to the “law of gradualism” could justify a change in the Church’s teaching and practice (see also section 34 of Familiaris Consortio):

“Indeed, between true and false, between good and evil, there is not a graduality,” he continued. “Even if some forms of living together bring in themselves certain positive aspects, this does not mean that they can be presented as good things.”

 

9) What does this mean going forward?

It does not mean that there will be no further discussion of the Kasper proposal. In fact, there is certain to be further discussion of it. Cardinal Erdo acknowledged as much. According to Vatican Insider:

In his speech, he mentioned “the need for further reflection on the penitential path. . . .”

However, to have the relator general of the synod frame the discussion in this way at the outset is a good sign.

Cardinal Erdo was not meant to be speaking for himself in these remarks but to be summarizing the feedback from bishops around the world in preparation for the current synod.

For purposes of comparison, see the relatio that Cardinal Erdo gave at the beginning of the 2014 synod. It does not contain anything like the present remarks rejecting the Kasper proposal. This represents a shift in the discussion of the question.

According to Vatican Insider, at the Monday press conference, Cardinal Erdo based his relatio on the feedback that came to the Vatican between the two synods:

“I was trying to bring together all the elements of the Church’s voice,” Erdö said. He added that “most of the responses reflected a wish” for the magisterium’s existing documents on this issue to be “taken into consideration.”

It is also unlikely that Cardinal Erdo included these remarks in his presentation without them being approved first. Barring explosive backlash and overt clarification, we may conclude that he did have approval.

Failing such clarification, it is less likely than it might have been otherwise that the present synod will recommend the Kasper proposal for Pope Francis’s consideration.

This, in turn, means it is less likely that Pope Francis would implement the Kasper proposal following the synod.

So Cardinal Erdo’s remarks are positive news for supporters of the Church’s historic doctrine and discipline on this point, though they by no means settle the matter.

As a result, supporters should not slack off in pressing their case. Upon hearing this news, a wise response would be, “Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.”

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