VATICAN CITY — Next month’s synod on the family has undergone an attempted hijacking by some media sources, which are fueling expectations that impossible changes will be made to Church doctrine, said the head of the Church’s highest court.
“I don’t think you have to be brilliant to see that the media has, for months, been trying to hijack this synod,” said Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura — the office which, among other things, handles annulment cases in the Church.
In particular, he told CNA in a recent interview, the media has been presenting Pope Francis as being in favor of allowing holy Communion to be distributed to those who are divorced and remarried and other such propositions, even though this is not the case.
The danger, Cardinal Burke continued, is that “the media has created a situation in which people expect that there are going to be these major changes which would, in fact, constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible.”
“That’s why it’s very important for those who are in charge to be very clear,” he said.
The synod, set to take place Oct. 5-19, has become the center of a debate over whether the Church ought to modify its pastoral practice to permit divorced-and-remarried persons to be readmitted to holy Communion in cases where an annulment has not been obtained.
The call to engage in open discussion on whether to broaden scenarios in which divorced-and-remarried persons can receive the sacrament of the Eucharist was made earlier this year in a speech given by Cardinal Walter Kasper to a consistory of bishops.
Cardinal Burke and several other cardinals and scholars have responded to this call in a book entitled Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. The book, set to be released in October, is a compilation of essays that provide scholarly answers to the claim that some divorced-and-remarried persons can be admitted to Communion without having obtained an annulment, a Church recognition that the marriage had never been valid.
The Church’s teaching on the matter, the cardinal said, is merciful, “because it respects the truth that the person is indeed bound by a prior union which the person, for whatever reason, is no longer living.”
“The Church holds the person to the truth of that marriage,” Cardinal Burke continued, “while at the same time being compassionate, understanding the situation of the person, welcoming them into the parish community in ways that are appropriate and trying to help them to lead as holy a life as they can, but without betraying the truth about their marriage.”
This, he said, is mercy.
“It simply makes no sense to talk about mercy which doesn’t respect truth. How can that be merciful?”
Cardinal Burke said the book seeks to defend marriage at a time when there is a “tremendous amount of confusion and even error,” both from outside and within the Church.
“Certainly, the culture is extremely confused and in great error,” he said. However, this extends also to the interior of the Church, where there are those who question the application of Matthew 19. In the passage, Jesus says that a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; this is the basis for Catholic practice prohibiting the reception of the Eucharist in such circumstances.
“It’s very important at this time,” the U.S.-born cardinal continued, “to show the splendor of the truth of the Church’s teaching about marriage, which is foundational, obviously, for society and for the Church itself.
“If we don’t get it correct about marriage, there’s very little else that we’re going to be clear about.”
Cardinal Burke added that while requests for annulments increased exponentially following the Second Vatican Council, they have been in decline in recent years.
“Bishops who regularly visit us at the Apostolic Signatura say that [regarding] many couples today who are divorced, they don’t care anymore about the question of nullity,” he said. “They simply make a decision to live with another person, if that’s in fact what they are doing.
“We try to, as much as we can, to help people to understand that it’s gravely wrong to live as if married to someone when in fact you’re not free to marry.”
Regarding the question of whether the process of offering nullities of marriage is merely judicial and possibly unnecessary, the cardinal stressed that the process pertains to “the very foundation of the life of the Church: the matrimonial union.”
For those seeking to claim nullity of their marriages, he said, “The Church has to have an apt process to arrive at the truth about that claim,” whereby it can be established whether or not a marriage has been null. “But to simply have people come before what’s called an administrative process or a so-called ‘pastoral process,’” one in which “people simply tell their story to a priest,” who then makes the decision with regard to their reception of the sacraments — “how does that respect the truth of Our Lord’s teaching about marriage?”
“The marriage-nullity process is the fruit of centuries of development and by various expert canonists, one of the great ones being Pope Benedict XIV,” the cardinal said. “For us now simply to say we don’t need that anymore is the height of pride and therefore foolishness.”
Looking ahead to October’s synod, Cardinal Burke expressed his hope that “it will set forth the beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage, in all its aspects, as a union between one man and one woman, faithful, indissoluble for life and procreative.” Stressing this last aspect, he noted how the “pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world said that children are the crown of marital love.”
“I’m hoping that will be the occasion, especially highlighted by the beatification of Pope Paul VI at the conclusion of this synod, to underline the teaching in his courageous and very wise encyclical, Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth),” the cardinal said.
As current prelate of the Apostolic Signatura, Cardinal Burke’s role at the synod will particularly pertain to the marriage-nullity process, specifically in light of the suggestion to streamline the process of annulments, making it faster and easier.
“I wouldn’t be at all opposed to any changes,” he said, “except that a certain amount of complexity is required by the complexity of a claim that a marriage is null. And you cannot simply deal with these kinds of questions by some kind of easy and lighthearted process.”
All things considered, Cardinal Burke told CNA that the synod can be a good thing, “as long as it’s firmly grounded in the Church’s doctrine and discipline regarding marriage. But it cannot simply be a kind of sentimental or personal approach that doesn’t respect the objective reality of marriage.”
He said, “To the degree that all of it is solidly grounded in the Church’s teaching and her discipline, I believe it will be very positive.”