VATICAN CITY — What should the faithful be aware of when the Vatican publishes Pope Francis’ highly anticipated summary document on the synods on the family on Friday?
Various figures have already tried to spin the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) and speculate on its contents, largely based on the text of the final report of last year’s Ordinary Synod on the Family.
Although such speculation mostly appears to be wishful thinking, rather than based on advance knowledge of what the Pope has actually written in the document that he signed on March 19, what is public knowledge is that paragraphs about the pastoral care of civilly remarried divorcees, and whether or not the apostolic exhortation will “open the door” to them receiving holy Communion, will be the most potentially controversial element.
Other possible contentious passages will concern the pastoral care of cohabiting couples and, despite the subject being largely omitted in the final report of the second synod, possibly a reference to the Church’s approach to same-sex relationships. In the media coverage, one or all of these controversial areas are unfortunately expected to eclipse what the document might say on other pressing issues related to marriage and the family, at least initially.
The first key aspect to look out for in the apostolic exhortation will be whether the language on these hot-button issues might be ambiguous enough to radically alter pastoral practice. The Register has learned that having already studied a final draft of the document, one Vatican cardinal and a junior official both consider some of the key passages to be “elastic” and therefore read in a variety of ways.
This could amount to considerable changes in pastoral practice that, critics argue, could be inconsistent with Church teaching and so effectively make it appear as if doctrine has been changed. One such change could be to allow remarried divorcees to teach catechesis as part of their road to integration into the life of the Church. Such a change in practice is favored in Germany, where the majority of bishops support giving holy Communion to civilly remarried divorcees and some priests already do so. Polish bishops have already voiced their opposition to such a move.
A second aspect to note will be how much prominence the document gives to the “internal forum” (the formation, along with a priest, of a divorced and remarried person’s conscience), and whether it is balanced with a reaffirmation that divorced and remarried couples, living in a state of de facto adultery, cannot receive holy Communion no matter what they may have concluded about the matter in the internal forum. The prohibition was explicitly stated (No. 84.4) in Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio but left out of the final report of last October’s Ordinary Synod.
If Amoris Laetitia similarly leaves the option open, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, and others who are pushing for some exceptions to allow holy Communion, will view the document as “opening the door” to the possibility.
In such a circumstance, according to some concerned Church leaders, no matter how much doctrine is reaffirmed elsewhere in the papal document — for example, with statements that the indissolubility of marriage remains intact — such affirmations could ultimately be negated by utilizing ambiguous language, omissions of key teachings, and appeals to the primacy of conscience, with the “internal forum” as the central mechanism to justify allowing some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
Variations of such an approach have tended to be used since the Second Vatican Council as a means of pushing through contentious changes. It was also witnessed in the final document of the 2015 Synod on the Family when aspects of Pope John Paul II’s teaching on pastoral care for civilly remarried divorcees in Familiaris Consortio were reasserted, followed by an emphasis on the importance of the “internal forum.” Some critics, most notably U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, said the relevant paragraphs (Nos. 84-86) lacked clarity, while others exploited the ambiguity to proclaim this opening a way forward to eventually allowing Communion for the divorced and remarried.
A third possible feature of the apostolic exhortation to be alert to is how much emphasis will be given to decentralization, a key part of Pope Francis’ reform. Many have speculated that these contentious issues will be left for bishops’ conferences to decide, something already witnessed in Germany. As well as some dioceses tacitly allowing holy Communion for remarried divorcees, last year the country’s bishops passed a labor law allowing remarried divorcees and same-sex couples to work for Church institutions. The Holy See made no public objection to the development.
However, Pope Francis has recently given some encouragement that approval of reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics won’t happen, whether through a combination of decentralization and recourse to the internal forum, or by any other means. He has said that allowing holy Communion for remarried divorcees would be a “simplistic” solution, and “not the only [one].”
Instead, he has highlighted couples who have sought to integrate themselves into the Church’s life through volunteering to help the sick, needy and vulnerable but have not sought to receive the sacrament. He has also affirmed divorced and remarried couples who live within the present rules, rather than advocating for change in the Church’s practice and teaching.
A fourth factor to consider will be how much the apostolic exhortation ties mercy with repentance, correcting the sinner, and conversion, a point raised recently by Polish synod father, Archbishop Henryk Hoser. Will it be accepting of irregular unions and leave out the Church’s corrective teaching, or will both receive equal play? And as in the synods themselves, which appeared concerned about finding non-offensive, inclusive language, will the document avoid mention of such terms as adultery, or will sin even be mentioned?
In addition to the attention that the document will pay to Familiaris Consortio and St. John Paul II’s teachings on the family generally, a fifth point to note will be how much of the contents of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae and the importance of joining the unitive and the procreative will be upheld — an aspect many see as fundamental to understanding the breakdown of the family in the West. Also of interest will be how much attention the document will devote to pre-conciliar teaching, as well as drawing on what developed following the Second Vatican Council.
Vatican Official: ‘No Fundamental Changes’
Apart from these concerns, though, the large majority of the document is not expected to be controversial. In fact, according to another senior Vatican official who has seen the document — which apparently is a long text, divided into nine chapters — it contains “no fundamental changes to be worried about.”
And the contentious passages aside, it is expected to have many sections that will be helpful to the pastoral care of families today. If the final report is taken as a guide, it is likely to include covering the problems of domestic violence; ways of encouraging young people to marry; proposing better marriage preparation; helping families living in poverty; responding to today’s epidemic of pornography; assisting men, women and children facing persecution and war; and dealing with polygamy.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.