VATICAN CITY – At the Holy See Press Office today, Cardinal Reinhard Marx from Munich and Freising in Germany held court as he fielded questions from journalists and offered personal commentary on some of this month’s most controverted issues. During the fourteenth briefing on the Synod, he took center stage alongside Cardinal Daniel Sturla Berhouet from Montevideo in Uruguay and Archbishop Eamon Martin from Armagh in Ireland.
Cardinal Sturla introduced himself as a “baby cardinal.” He has been a bishop since March 4, 2012 and a cardinal since the consistory of February 14, 2015. Back home in his native Uruguay, he heads his episcopal conference’s departments for laity and the missions. Archbishop Martin has been the ordinary of Armagh in Ireland since September 8, 2014. There, he heads the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church.
However, attention focused on Cardinal Marx, a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal Advisers, Coordinator of the Secretariat for the Economy, and the President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community. Since November 30, 2007, he has been the Metropolitan Archbishop of Munich and Freising, an office once held by Pope Benedict XVI between 1977 and 1981. He addressed accredited journalists as a member of the only German language small group meeting this month at the Synod. The so-called Circulus Germanicus is moderated by the current President of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference and the editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. Archbishop Heiner Koch from Berlin in Germany serves as that group’s rapporteur or relator. The group also includes the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, and the Prefect Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, among others.
False Accusations about Pope Francis’ Health
Ahead of this afternoon’s briefing, the Director of the Sala Stampa, Fr. Federico Lombardi, issued a ‘Declaration’ (or, ‘Dichiarazione’), responding to erroneous reports from the Italian media about Pope Francis’ health. Before the three cardinals offered their comments and answered questions, Fr. Lombardi led the press conference with what papal biographer Austen Ivereigh described as an “enjoyably thorough denial of bizarre stories of papal tumors.”
In his statement, the press director said “No Japanese doctor has visited the Pope in the Vatican and there have been no examinations of the type indicated [by the Italian media].” He added that “The competent offices have confirmed that there have been no arrivals of external parties in the Vatican by helicopter; similarly, there were no arrivals of this type during the month of January.” The press director said he was “able to confirm that the Pope is in good health” and he concluded by saying that “the publication of this false information is a grave act of irresponsibility, absolutely inexcusable and unconscionable. … It is hoped, therefore, that this matter be closed immediately.”
Having lowered that boom, the press conference continued.
Other False Accusations, the Case of the German Small Group
For his part, Cardinal Marx wanted to respond to allegations about disunity among the German-speaking participants in the Synod. He emphasized the common spirit and purpose motivating members of his small group, claiming they had been intentionally working toward unanimous positions on all proposals to be made to Pope Francis.
Such unanimity was sought despite the presence of distinct – and sometimes discordant – viewpoints. As Vatican Radio later reported, the cardinal “pointed out that the proposals his group made were agreed upon unanimously” and “he said it was hard work, but that they had to discuss difficult issues and find a common way which was ‘acceptable to everyone.’”
Among the points of agreement, the members maintained that the Synod does not conclude the conversation, but only marks its beginning. It remains for Pope Francis to decide the next step, however. Regardless, it will be necessary for pastors to journey along with young people, even those in irregular situations, affirming their dream of life-long love in the context of marriage. And, the small group expressed concern about divisive narratives that pit one side against another in the synodal aula.
According to Cardinal Marx, St. Thomas Aquinas constituted one of the convergence points for his small group. The members engaged one another in discussions about the theology of the Church’s Common Doctor, noting with him and the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council that the Church’s tradition is alive and develops across history, that doctrine and theology are not identical, and that both pastoral sensitivity and sound doctrine must come together.
As Vatican Radio reported, Cardinal Marx “said that truth does not change but we gain greater understanding of the truth as we grow.” He noted that “We don’t own the truth,” since it is a person we encounter, not something we possess. The cardinal referred to the differences between Pope Pius XI’s encyclical letter Casti Connubi and Pope St. John Paul II’s 1980 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio as evidence of the Church’s living tradition.
The Road Forward after the Synod
Presumably, Circulus Germanicus was unable to find agreement on all questions. The admission of the divorced and civilly remarried to sacramental communion might have been one area admitting of differing opinions. In this connection, the cardinal wanted to underscore that it is “a complicated matter and that his group had spoken about a number of things,” including “a few criteria that might help in considering a way forward: look at individual situations, discern the circumstances, help them notice what they have done in their first marriage, look at the responsibilities they might still have in that relationship, towards children, other persons and the ecclesial community,” according to Vatican Radio.
As far as concrete possibilities for the resolution of this problem are concerned, there was some discussion about the so-called internal forum – a concept discussed in the 1983 Code of Canon Law promulgated after the Second Vatican Council by Pope St. John Paul II.
That notion surfaces in the first book of that code, which treats of General Norms. The eighth title of that book, on the Power of Governance, deals with the concept in canon 130. It legislates that “power of governance is exercised for the external forum,” but it notes that “sometimes, however, it is exercised for the internal forum alone.” When this happens, “the effects which its exercise is meant to have for the external forum are not recognized there, except insofar as the law establishes it in determined cases.”
Commenting on that canon, Fr. James Coriden writes in the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law that “The major difference between the internal and external forums is the absence of publicity in the internal forum. The external forum is the place in which public and verifiable decisions are made.” He further notes that “The internal forum is divided into the internal sacramental forum and the internal non-sacramental forum.” With respect to the first of these two, he says that “The internal sacramental forum refers to matters decided within the sacrament of penance and therefore additionally protected by the seal of confession.”
Perhaps, the suggestion of Cardinal Marx is that the nullity of a marriage could be discerned in some cases in the internal sacramental forum, apart from the public canonical process that takes place in the external forum. This might involve pastors journeying more closely with couples in order to discern the status of a marriage in the light of certain criteria, some of them provided by Rome, according to Cardinal Marx. Some of this was broached in Pope Francis' two recent Apostolic Letters, issued motu proprio: Mitis et misericors Iesus and Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, both dated August 15, 2015.
Whether this proposal will meet with any support remains to be seen, but previous Synod briefings have made it clear that there is no broad-based majority support for the admission of the divorced and civilly remarried to sacramental communion. Instead, one thing does remain clear. As Archbishop Eamon Martin commented, “The Pope himself is the convergence of unity.”