VATICAN CITY — The first full day of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family was dominated by the introductory address of the synod’s general relator, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdö, who reasserted much of the Church’s traditional teaching and cast doubt on the prospect of a controversial proposal to readmit civilly remarried divorcees to holy Communion.
The proposal, first raised by German Cardinal Walter Kasper at a consistory in February 2014 and which uses the practice of Eastern Orthodox Churches as a template, was one of the most controversial issues at last year’s extraordinary synod on the family. The current gathering, which runs until Oct. 25 and is being attended by 279 bishops and priests from around the world, is to discuss the theme “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.”
In his 2014 proposal, Cardinal Kasper said divorced-and-remarried Catholics could be readmitted to the sacraments after a period of penitence for their first marriage. Critics said it undermined the indissolubility of marriage, amounted to an attack on the sacrament of the Eucharist and would precipitate many other abuses of Church teaching.
Cardinal Erdö, whose position as general relator makes him responsible for underlining the goals of the synod at the beginning of the three-week meeting, stressed that civilly remarried Catholics “must be given merciful pastoral guidance,” but this “does not call into question the indissolubility of marriage as taught by Jesus Christ himself.”
He added that “God’s mercy offers forgiveness to sinners but requires conversion,” and, in this case, “a couple’s sin does not lie first and foremost in whatever behavior may have led to the breakup of the first marriage.” The reason they cannot receive the Eucharist “is not because of the failure of their first marriage, but because of the cohabitation in their second relationship,” he said.
He said not admitting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to holy Communion is not an “arbitrary ban” and requires “careful reflection,” but stressed Pope St. John Paul II’s approach, specifically Article 84 of his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), which underlined the indissolubility of marriage. It also allowed for some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion if they live as brother and sister, in “continence,” and can access the sacraments “whilst avoiding scandal.” Cardinal Erdö also said the Orthodox Church’s model cannot be feasibly applied to the West where there is “great institutional difference.”
The cardinal’s comments were given added weight by the fact that his assertion was reflective of wishes and concerns received by the synod secretariat in the time between the two synods. “I was trying to bring together all the elements of the Church’s voice,” Cardinal Erdö told reporters afterward, adding that “most of the responses reflected a wish” for the magisterium’s existing documents on this issue to be “taken into consideration.” He also noted that the Gospel reading on Sunday, at the opening Mass of the synod, was providentially from Mark Chapter 10, in which Jesus says, “What God has united man must not divide.”
Pope Francis also referenced the Gospel reading for the day in his homily at the Mass that opened the synod, calling the marital union of a man and a woman the foundation for God’s plan for the family.
“This is God’s dream for his beloved creation,” the Holy Father said, “to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self.”
Setting the Course
Although the words from the cardinal and the Pope do not completely put an end to Cardinal Kasper’s proposal (the Hungarian cardinal said the penitential path needs “further reflection”), one synod father told the Register on condition of anonymity that his speech “probably changes the direction of the synod.” Cardinal Kasper, he observed, was “stony-faced and didn’t applaud when it was read out.”
According to sources, a lively discussion reportedly followed in the synod hall in the afternoon.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, told reporters Monday in Rome that he uttered his displeasure about Cardinal Erdö’s address during the afternoon session.
Asked if the Church is essentially back to the discussion before the consistory, in February 2014, when Cardinal Kasper first raised his proposal, Cardinal Marx replied, “Yes,” but that in terms of synodality, he felt the Church had moved forward. He said expectations have never been so high before a synod and that Pope Francis had contributed to that; but he stressed one should go with openness into the meeting and with preparedness to learn.
Cardinal Erdö’s speech contrasts with the one he gave last year, when Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, pressured him into changing up to 40% of its content.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, told the Register he wasn’t sure Cardinal Erdö’s address changed the synod’s course, but he thought it was “a good summary and gave a good, substantial direction.” Other synod fathers, speaking anonymously, said they thought the speech was very well executed.
Cardinal Erdö began his presentation, which he said “systemizes” the instrumentum laboris (working document) for the synod, by quoting Pope Francis’ Angelus from July 19. The Pope said the compassionate attitude of Jesus is “not the look of a sociologist or a photojournalist, because he always looks with ‘the eyes of the heart,’” Cardinal Erdö reiterated.
Observers said his words could be taken as a warning not to reduce theology to sociology, a common trait of many Western bishops and theologians, particularly in Germany, leading up to the synod.
He devoted the whole of the second part of his speech to spotlighting healthy families and upholding the ideal of the family before turning to irregular situations. He then discussed the challenge of listening to the family, warned of individualism and subjectivism and discussed the various challenges of the family vocation.
The cardinal underlined the importance of “openness to life,” called for the message of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) — which reaffirmed Church teaching with regard to responsible parenthood, married love and the rejection of artificial contraception — to be “rediscovered” and spoke about reasons for low birth rates and the threat of euthanasia, among other threats to the family. Also mentioned was the missionary dimension of the family and the need to couple mercy with truth, such as in the case of cohabitation, a controversial topic of the last synod. He quoted in this context Article 67 of the instrumentum laboris, which states: “Conscious that the most merciful thing is to tell the truth in love, we go beyond compassion. Merciful love, as it attracts and unites, transforms and elevates. It is an invitation to conversion.”
On the subject of same-sex relationships, Cardinal Erdö pointed out that they have nothing to do with marriage, but that such people need to be treated “with respect and sensitivity.”
In his homily at the Mass that opened the synod, Pope Francis exhorted participants to “assume apostolic courage of evangelical humility and of confident prayer” in order to give the Holy Spirit space to carry out his actions.
Pope Francis went on to say that unless the bishops open themselves to guidance by the Holy Spirit, their decisions will become mere “decorations” that serve to “cover and hide” the Gospel, rather than glorify it.
In his opening speech to the synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, explained a new methodology of the synod, unveiled last Friday. He said the small-group dicsussions would help “foster more intense debate.”
But some synod fathers still have expressed concerns about some of the new rules. Archbishop Kurtz said “there are a lot of questions” on the new methodology, specifically regarding the 13 small language groups that will present reports at the end of each of the three weeks. Archbishop Kurtz wondered how they will “lead up to votes.”
“I still don’t have a lot of those answers. I don’t think any of the synod fathers have those,” he said, “but I think we’re going to have those at the end of the first week.” He also said details about whether a post-synodal apostolic exhortation would be published were also not ascertained.
“It didn’t come up today, and I’m eager to find that out,” said Archbishop Kurtz.
It’s still early in the process, but the Louisville, Ky., archbishop is confident that the synod fathers will avoid the ideological agenda that threatened the 2014 synodal process and focus on strengthening Church teaching on marriage and the family.
“I’m entering the synod with a very spiritual mindset,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “The Holy Father is basically saying to all of us: ‘Speak frankly, but seek what God might be inspiring us to say for the sake of the Church and the family. Listen to one another, and be open to the Holy Spirit.’”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
He is author of The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? (Ignatius Press, 2015).