VATICAN CITY — As cardinals publicly line up on opposing sides of the debate of Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics ahead of next month’s Synod and the Family, “wishful” speculation is mounting in Rome that the issue might be cast aside before the meeting begins.

Family life will be the focus of the third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that will meet at the Vatican Oct. 5-19. The 150 synod fathers taking part will discuss “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”

But although the scope of the two-week meeting is wide, the controversial issue of changing the Church’s discipline with regards to holy Communion for Catholics divorced and remarried has threatened to eclipse the discussions, prompted by a keynote speech by Cardinal Walter Kasper earlier this year.

In a long address that opened a consistory on the synod, the German cardinal ended his speech by considering arguments for a possible change in pastoral practice that would in some instances allow such Catholics to receive the Eucharist. His arguments were roundly criticized by both cardinals and scholars, leading Cardinal Kasper to complain of a “doctrinal war.”

A central concern is that, despite unanimity that the Church’s teaching on this matter cannot be changed, discussions will result in changes to pastoral practice, thus making it appear that a relaxation of Church teaching has effectively taken place.


Foreword March

Mainly for this reason, an intense and very public debate followed Cardinal Kasper’s speech, unsettling both laity and Church leaders. This week, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat on the Economy, both weighed in with their opposition to any changes on this issue in forewords for two new books.

“When we are in the presence of a valid marriage, there is no way to sever that bond,” Cardinal Müller writes in Remaining in the Truth of Christ. “Neither the pope nor any other bishop has the authority to do so, because it touches on a reality that belongs to God, not to them.”

Writing in The Gospel of the Family — a book-length riposte to Cardinal Kasper’s address — Cardinal Pell says that doctrine and pastoral practice “cannot be contradictory,” and he adds that “one cannot maintain the indissolubility of marriage by allowing the ‘remarried’ to receive Communion.”

He warns of a repeat of protests that surrounded Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) and says that focusing on this issue is a “counterproductive and futile search for short-term consolations.” Pressure to change rules regarding Communion for the divorced and remarried are centered mainly in Europe and places where the faith is failing, he argues. “Healthy communities do not spend most of their energies on peripheral issues,” he adds, and says the group affected by this particular one “is very small indeed.”


Pope: ‘Issue Is Bigger and Wider’

Pope Francis, who initiated the debate to have a full and open debate on the issue, has also expressed his disapproval of the attention it’s now receiving. Speaking to reporters in May, the Holy Father said: “I have not been happy that so many people — even Church people, priests — have said: ‘Ah, the synod will be about giving Communion to the divorced.’”

“No, the issue is bigger and wider,” he said, and explained that the family and marriage as a whole are in crisis. “I don’t want us to fall into this casuistry of ‘Can we?’ or ‘can’t we?’”

Particularly unsightly for many is the public jousting between cardinals in this debate. Although this is not a particularly new phenomenon, the polarization of this debate and the depth of disagreement appear to be unique.

Cardinal Kasper has said such overt criticism of his thesis is “a first” and that he has never before witnessed such public attacks in his academic career. The German cardinal believes the criticisms were really aimed at Pope Francis, who encouraged him to explore possible changes in pastoral practice on the issue.

For all of these reasons, influential Vatican officials are hoping the issue will be shut down before the synod begins. This is believed to be especially true among prelates from the developing world, for whom this issue is minor, compared to the other challenges they face concerning the family and evangelization.


Distracted Focus

One official told the Register on condition of anonymity that there is “certainly” a wish among senior officials to put a halt to the discussion, as it’s “distracting” from the focus of the synod. But he said such a possibility is “wishful thinking,” as the decision ultimately rests with Pope Francis.

For Cardinal Pell, the debate is being seen as a symbol of polarization in the Church. And the issue of Communion to the divorced and remarried has become “a prize in the clash between what remains of Christendom in Europe and an aggressive neo-paganism,” he writes in the book foreword. “Every opponent of Christianity wants the Church to capitulate on this issue.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.