‘Not the Slightest Respect’ For Those Striving to Uphold Jesus’ Teachings

Moral theologian responds firmly and extensively to Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro’s assertions that the final report of the Ordinary Synod on the Family “opened a door” to holy Communion for remarried divorcees

(photo: Screenshot)

An English moral theologian has given a considered and forthright response to a controversial reflection on the Ordinary Synod on the Family by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the influential journal La Civilta Cattolica.

Writing in response to a request for comment from the Register, Father George Woodall, professor of moral theology and bioethics at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university, lists a series of criticisms of Father Spadaro’s article in which the Jesuit claimed the synod offered an opening to allowing holy Communion for remarried divorcees. 

Father Spadaro, a close adviser to Pope Francis and whose publication is screened by the Secretariat of State, wrote in his November article he believed that, according to the synod’s final report, remarried divorcees could discern their admission to the sacraments, guided by a priest in the “internal forum” (in the confessional), and that in this sense, the ordinary synod had therefore effectively laid the foundations for this, “opening a door” that had been “closed” at the “previous synod”.

By contrast, Cardinal George Pell told the Register Oct. 26 there is “no mention anywhere” in the final report of Communion for the divorced and remarried and it was “not one of the possibilities that was floated.”

In his comments, published in full below, Father Woodall highlights what he sees as serious weaknesses in Father Spadaro’s arguments and assertions. Among his criticisms are that the Jesuit ignores both the Lord's teachings and those of St. Paul, overlooks a decades-long debate over “seriously problematic interpretations” of the passage in Gaudium et spes on conscience, and hasn’t “the slightest trace of respect” for those striving to abide by the teaching of Jesus whom he reduces to “caricature”.

Father Woodall is one of a number of experts and Church leaders including Cardinal Wilfrid Napier and Cardinal Raymond Burke who have come forward to criticize the La Civilta Cattolica article.

Many believe Father Spadaro's reflection was a "trial balloon" to see what sort of reaction such a perspective on the synod would receive. So far, published responses have been largely negative.

The Synod of Bishops of 2015 and A. Spadaro, S.J.

The assessment of the Synod of Bishops by the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, Rev. Fr. A. Spadaro, S.J., raises many questions. For reasons of time, I limit my remarks here to the following points.

1. The different opinions expressed in the recent Synod of Bishops on key matters concerning marriage and pastoral practice are not very fairly reflected in Spadaro's comments in the prestigious journal of theology which he now edits. The final report, or Relatio finalis, contains language which he interprets consistently in one particular direction, which, therefore, must fall into question the meaning of the dialogue which he claims to espouse. The view of theology and of pastoral practice, of doctrine and of the role of conscience, which comes to expression in his text reflects the kind of writing regularly to be found in the 1970s and 1980s.

2. He applauds the use of terms such as 'journey', 'dialogue', 'openness', 'collegiality', 'diversity'. Nor are the terms as such to be eschewed. The synod's sincere attempt to discover anew and to address in a pastorally sensitive fashion the complex and varied situations of people in various types of relationship and difficulty is rightly welcomed. He quotes, with approval, the affirmation that what is seen as openness in one continent is perceived as wrong in another. The suggestions that there be discernment of people's specific reality and needs, following the indication already given by John Paul II in Familiaris consortio, is endorsed without qualification. Pope Francis' comments on those who wish to throw stones rather than to offer bread to those whose situations do not match the ideals set forth by the Church and on those who wish to see anathemas are cited, as is the emphasis given to being prepared to 'welcome' people in need of healing and of reconciliation, since they are part of the Church and deserve to be helped pastorally to move forward rather than to feel excluded. In all of this, Spadaro considers the synod's open language to be pointed towards openness, to allowing the divorced and remarried to have access to the sacraments and in particular to holy Communion, since, he judges, it is hard to see that they are in communion with the Church if they are not admitted to Eucharistic communion. He favors the idea of pastors in the confessional discerning the different situations of penitents and perhaps using the internal forum to allow them such access, since they may not be subjectively guilty of whatever failure may have afflicted their marriage. He welcomes the emphasis of the Synod fathers on conscience, where man is alone with God in that inner sanctuary where the voice of God is to be heard (cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, n. 16).

3. Welcoming, discerning, accompanying or journeying with people in difficult situations with a focus on proclaiming the Gospel joy of redemption are all positive pastoral approaches, which no genuine pastor would wish to reject. The question is how they are to be interpreted and what they may imply. The mercy of Jesus towards Bartimaeus or towards the woman taken in adultery is at the heart of the gospel, but Mark's gospel, which contains the pericope about Bartimaeus, not there but elsewhere repeatedly associates the call to faith with the demand for deep inner conversion to the truth in Jesus Christ (e.g. Mk. 1,14-15) and it is also the gospel in which one of the clearest presentations of Jesus' teaching on divorce and remarriage, on indissolubility, is to be found (Mk. 10, 3-10). In John's gospel, Jesus does not cast any stone at the adulterous, but not only does he implicitly confirm the immorality of adultery, but he requires her not to sin any more (Jn. 8,1-11). Of course, there the text says nothing about whether or not she was divorced. Where Jesus is faced with that direct question by the rabbis, he rejects the compromise allegedly sanctioned by Moses even in cases where adultery has occurred, hence even in the more restricted interpretation of the Mosaic law favored by one of the rabbinical schools (Mt. 19, 3ff).

4. When St. Paul applies Jesus' teaching on indissolubility to circumstances which Jesus had not faced, in another culture where people saw things in a very different manner, he applied Jesus' teaching to those new circumstances without qualification in the first instance, in that different land and culture as a whole (1 Cor 7,10-11), saying this was “from the Lord” and “not from me”, such that he was bound by this doctrine in his pastoral directives on this matter. He also applied it in exactly the same way once more, when addressing a situation Jesus had not directly confronted, namely of a marriage of two pagans where one had been baptized in the meantime, but on this occasion there was a condition, that the pagan allowed the Christian to live in peace or practice their new faith (1 Cor 7, 12-14). Only where the pagan refused to allow the newly baptized spouse to live in peace or to practice their faith did he allow separation (1 Cor 7, 15-16), but not divorce and much less remarriage and much less admission to the sacraments, since, as he says later in the same letter, those not in a suitable state to receive the Lord bring condemnation on themselves by doing so (1 Cor. 11, 26-34). It is this same letter that he also includes adultery among those sins which exclude from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6, 9-10).

5. Spadaro takes no account of St. Paul's refusal either to dilute the teaching received from the Lord or to sanction a pastoral practice which would seem to call into question or appear to undermine that dominical teaching. This is very important because St. Paul was a great theologian with considerable pastoral acumen, discernment and experience, full of compassion and mercy, who preached the gospel of forgiveness, but without undermining what he had received from the Lord or even appearing to do so.

6. The focus on personal conscience evoked by Spadaro recalls Gaudium et spes, but completely ignores the seriously problematic interpretations of that text by some pastors and theologians over the decades following the Council. The idea that conscience is to be followed merely because of personal conviction is false. The attention given by this theologian to the fact of a good intention, even in pressing circumstances, is never sufficient to approve of some moral act, until the object of that act, what a person deliberately chooses to do to give effect to such an intention in those circumstances, is carefully and properly assessed, is entirely inadequate. Nor does he pay any heed at all to the fact that conscience can err and can do so culpably or to the fact that, even when it errs invincibly, it can never be equated to a good conscience that is also correct. No attention at all is paid to the fact that, while conscience is the sanctuary where we find ourselves alone with God, this does not mean that we are alone or isolated in this search to discern the truth by which we should live, as if what is good or bad, right or wrong, varied from one person to the next. The clarifications of the last decades on these matters are left aside by this author, whose observations are thus unreliable.

7. The presentation of the opinions of the group of bishops with whom, it seems, Spadaro has little time, as if they were interested only in condemnations, anathemas, rigid and static doctrine, is largely reduced to a caricature. There is not the slightest trace of respect for them or for the people who think as they do in the Church, many of them married couples who struggle with the pressures of life, but who strive to abide by the teaching of Jesus, which the Catholic Church has always upheld. To suggest or to imply that all or most bishops or people of this opinion are pharisaic is grossly unjust to them and to the Church. There is not the slightest trace of understanding, much less of compassion or mercy, towards those who are genuinely and seriously worried that the teaching of Jesus on marriage may be at risk of being undermined. There is no effort on his part to open up ways to convince them that their anxieties may be exaggerated or misplaced, none of the much vaunted dialogue.

8. A very serious error in Spadaro's analysis occurs when he fails completely to distinguish between the act of separation, or of divorce on the one hand and the act of 'remarrying' on the other. It is true that sometimes, but by no means always, one of the spouses is 'innocent' of causing the separation or the divorce and may not be subjectively imputable in its regard. It is also true that, where there are children, especially of a second relationship, there are what Familiaris consortio called objective requirements of justice to be observed and hence a divorced person may judge that they should enter a second union for the sake of these children, in which case there may be elements of reduced culpability here. Yet, he ignores the point that entering upon such a second union objectively constitutes placing themselves in a position contrary to the teaching of Jesus on remarriage, which Jesus, for all his mercy and compassion, judged to be adulterous. It is this second action and not (just) the first which is directly at issue, since the divorced and remarried person and/or the one who 'marries' such a person, place themselves by their deliberate act here in an objectively problematic situation, in contradiction to the teaching of Jesus. Even if subjective culpability may be reduced in some cases for the reason given, this does not mean that this act is not imputable to those concerned; this is the nub of the problem here, something to which Spadaro does not advert.

9. The Catholic who is in such a situation is not excommunicated; no-one has suggested that they are. The Synod fathers quoted sections of Famililaris consortio, n. 84, in which John Paul II had applied with great care the discernment in regard to what he called varying situations in response to the implications of the gospel of Christ on marriage. One key phrase of that section they did not quote, namely that which stated that the divorced and remarried, being in an objectively contradictory situation to the teaching of Jesus on indissolubility, could not be admitted to the sacraments as long as that situation perdured. This omission cannot have been accidental. Spadaro interprets it to mean that the obstacle to the divorced and remarried receiving holy communion is no longer there and he asks rhetorically how someone can be in communion with the Church and not be able to join in the Eucharistic communion. Apart from the question of objective wrongdoing in 'remarrying' when divorced or in 'marrying' a divorced person and of acceding to the sacraments in such a state, which certainly goes against the centuries-long tradition of the Catholic Church, Spadaro short-circuits the whole issue here. The Synod fathers spoke about the Church's need to welcome people in such delicate situations, to make them feel part of the Church and to participate in different ways in its life, without specifying what they might be. As many of us pastors know from years of experience also with such delicate situations, welcoming such persons involves speaking to them in a friendly and kind manner, making sure their children are not disadvantaged but are able to be baptized and brought up as Catholics, encouraging all to pray, to come to Mass each week and to participate in the liturgy as fully as their situation allows them to do, not receiving the Eucharist. There may be another pastoral action which is appropriate, in relation to possible nullity enquiries into a 'first marriage'. A great deal can be done along these lines for such persons and they can be integrated into the life of the parish in these ways and to this extent; it is something good pastors have seen and have encouraged actively and it has beneficial effects in their lives. Spadaro would do well to remember that, prior to the Second Vatican Council, partly in the light of the fasting laws of the time, many Catholics came to Mass and did not receive holy Communion; it cannot be thought that such people were for centuries not truly and fully part of the Church. He would do well to read what Cardinal [Marc] Ouellet has written about spiritual Communion.

10. Marriage and other structures of family are mentioned in his article. Once again most caring pastors are very well aware of delicate situations, in which single mothers, abandoned fathers, care for children, in which those who cohabit are increasingly numerous, in which there are mixtures of parents and/or of children of differing relationships. If he intends to imply that these are all to be welcomed as such as structures by the Church, that would be problematic. The family, rooted in marriage, namely in a true union of alone specific man with one specific woman until one of them dies, is not a mere sociological fact, but is the cell of society and of the Church. Sanctioning or endorsing as if they were in some way equivalent to marriage other such relationships cannot but further weaken marriage, which the Church until now has always defended. No evidence of critical reflection on the implications of what he seems to be proposing appears to temper what Spadaro has to say on these points. A pastoral approach of not condemning those living in such realities, of seeking to help them to remedy their situation, if possible, has to be distinguished from approving of what is not right. Otherwise, the relativism long evident in society will be propounded by the pastors of the Church.

11. Spadaro is correct to note the many images employed by the synod fathers. They are important and can be helpful up to a point. However, the joy of transmitting the gospel of Christ, the parraesis, the image of being on a journey together, of welcoming all and of accompanying all of such a journey, all of this can be useful only provided that there is clarity about that journey, not just in terms of its destination, but also about the 'way' to be followed, that of Jesus Christ, which cannot be reduced to mercy, but must be anchored in truth, not just directly salvific truth as to the content of Christian revelation of the mysteries of the faith as such, but also about the moral truth as to how we are all to live if we wish to follow the Lord. The great Tradition of the Church involves this as well; it is this which we see being 'transmitted' or 'handed on' by St. Paul on marriage and indissolubility. These key elements have been observed in the Church in all times and in all places and, in their regard, the Church in one continent does not teach or require anything different from what it does in another continent. The pastors of the Church are bound by this deposit and are responsible for safeguarding and transmitting this deposit. This is very far from being a case of rigidity or a question of desiring to throw stones or to hurl anathemas at anyone; it is a question of fidelity to Jesus Christ, fidelity to truth, fidelity to his gospel, including his gospel on marriage and family life. This is a concern that is more than legitimate, but it is one that Spadaro signally fails to comprehend or to acknowledge in those with whom he disagrees. If it is true, as has been intimated, that this Jesuit pens some of the speeches of the Pope, it is to be hoped that Pope Francis finds another scribe without delay.

Father G.J. Woodall

13th November, 2015