Cardinal Napier: African Bishops Have Higher Priorities Than Communion for Divorced and Remarried

The South-African cardinal discounted a recent report in Crux that suggested African support for allowing such couples to receive the Eucharist.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier speaks at the Vatican Press Office on Oct. 14, 2014.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier speaks at the Vatican Press Office on Oct. 14, 2014. (photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

ROME — A leading African cardinal says the continent’s bishops want the upcoming Vatican synod to zero in on strengthening the Church with good families — before getting sidetracked on other issues, such as the contentious debate over allowing Communion for divorced-and-remarried couples.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban was in Rome last week for a meeting of African bishops — known as the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, or SECAM — with Pope Francis.

In a Feb. 13 interview, he told CNA that he’d gotten together with a group of cardinals the previous evening to discuss what issues they should bring to the table come October, when the synod on the family meets in Rome.

“And the first thing we said was: We have to emphasize that we have good marriages; we have good families. Let’s be positive, first and foremost,” he said.

“Secondly, how can we ensure that the next generation is also going to have good families and good marriages? So the preparation and the accompaniment are two things that we really have concentrated on.”

Cardinal Napier’s comments emphasizing good families — and the preparation of good families in the future — were his answer to a question about a fellow African bishop’s supposed openness to admitting the divorced and remarried to Communion.

Crux’s John Allen wrote Feb. 11 that Ghanaian Archbishop Gabriel Palmer-Buckle of Accra said “he’s open to allowing divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics to receive Communion, belying impressions of a uniformly hostile African stance toward change on such matters.”

Allen did not quote Archbishop Palmer-Buckle, but wrote that the prelate says he is disposed to “vote Yes” on the “Kasper proposal.”

The term hearkens back to retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has suggested that Communion might be given in certain cases to those who have divorced and subsequently remarried without having obtained a decree of nullity of their first marriage.

After discussing the need for strengthening families now and in the future, Cardinal Napier turned directly to the issue of the Ghanaian archbishop’s comments:

“One of the cardinals had the presence of mind to call the man concerned [Archbishop Palmer-Buckle], and he said, ‘Look, I was talking in a very general way, and, yes, it did come up, and my answer was [that] in cases like this you have to look at it on a case-by-case basis; you can’t make a general statement that you can give Communion to people who are [divorced and] remarried, and so on.’“


Avoid Getting ‘Sidetracked’

“So it was one of the things we looked at as an issue that has to be faced,” Cardinal Napier said.

“I’m sure it’s going to come up again, but we would like, as a group of African Church leaders, not to get sidetracked onto issues, problems, without first looking at the good things that are there; and how we can strengthen the Church through good marriages and good families.”

Archbishop Palmer-Buckle has been elected by the Ghanaian bishops’ conference to be its delegate at the 2015 Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, which is to build upon the foundation of last year’s family synod.

The same bishops’ conference adopted a statement on Nov. 15, at the conclusion of its plenary assembly, which drew attention to “the Church’s perennial and unchanging teaching on the family” and that “God determined marriage to be indissoluble, as Jesus affirmed, ‘What therefore God has put together, let no man put asunder.’”

In the same communiqué, the Ghanaian bishops — including Archbishop Palmer-Buckle — stated, “The Church will also continue to teach that divorce from a living and lawful spouse is not permitted by the Church because it separates what God has joined together.

“She suffers with those who are not admitted to Communion due to their marital status and will continue to journey with them in the faith to encourage them not to despair.”

After Ghana’s bishops’ statement on marriage last fall, bishops from the whole continent now look ahead to October’s gathering in Rome.


Handling the Questionnaire

When asked about the African bishops’ preparation for the upcoming synod, Cardinal Napier said the bishops’ conferences have already examined a questionnaire prepared by the synod.

“Following my advice, the bishops decided they would simplify the questionnaire and focus it around five areas, which come out in the final document.”

The first of these is “the key question of preparation and accompaniment of marriage.”

Alluding to Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation concluding the 1980 synod on the family, the cardinal said, “We are not just talking about preparation for the wedding day, but the whole catechetical program, from the time of confirmation through marriage, and accompaniment, then, for the first four or five years: having couples in the parish accompanying the newly married couple.”

The second area of questions the African bishops will ask involve ministry “when a marriage breaks down,” and the third concern is cohabitation, the cardinal noted. “Many couples are living together before they come forward [for marriage]. What is it that is making them do that? What difference does getting married make to them? All these kinds of questions: We’ve got to find out what the cause of it is.”

“The fourth one is the question of when a marriage breaks down: How accessible are the tribunals for getting that marriage investigated and declared null and void if that was the case?”

The fifth area “is the extraordinary situations that some families have to live in,” such as single parents and child-headed households.

Cardinal Napier also said it is “absolutely” of importance that the faithful pray for the synod and for the bishops participating in it.


Eucharistic Adoration Novena

He mentioned in particular a novena of Eucharistic adoration organized by Christine McCarthy and Diane Montagna of the Eucharistic Adoration Society. When the organizers told him of their initiative, he presented it to SECAM, “and, immediately, it got into the standing committee meeting, and I know the archbishop of Accra, in Ghana, said, ‘This is going straight into my diocese.’”

Cardinal Napier reflected that prayer for the synod fathers really will matter: “I never had such an experience of prayer being a support you could feel, as when we had that program running before the last conclave called ‘Adopt a Cardinal’; oh, it was fantastic [to] get an SMS or tweet from somebody saying, ‘I’ve been given your name, and I’m praying for you. I want you to know that.’ I could certainly feel that we were supported by those prayers.

“And I think for this synod, especially because it’s on a vital thing like the family and marriage, we need as many prayers as we can get: So this idea of Eucharistic adoration is one of the best, I think.”