Synod Debates Tough Issues as Week Two Nears an End

Reception of Communion for divorced-remarried Catholics, the role of bishops’ conferences and whether the synod will result in a final document are central concerns.

Pope Francis leads prayer inside the hall of the Synod of Bishops.
Pope Francis leads prayer inside the hall of the Synod of Bishops. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — As the controversial issue of holy Communion for civilly remarried divorcees takes center stage at the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, synod fathers are increasingly calling on Pope Francis to produce a clear and definitive text at the end of the three-week meeting.

Despite the Holy Father’s sweeping reforms to streamline the annulment process last month — a development that many felt would remove the divorce-remarriage issue from dominating the synod — the issue figured highly at the most recent general congregations that met on Wednesday and Thursday morning.  

Although affecting relatively very few people, the issue is perceived as a nexus to a wide variety of other pastoral changes that threaten to undermine doctrine. If, as the argument goes, the Eucharist is allowed to be given to remarried divorcees — that is, those living in what the Church has always considered to be adulterous relationships — then it could similarly be given to those living in other extramarital unions that the Church has always taught were sinful. The Church would then essentially be publicly validating fornication, same-sex unions and other immoral situations.

Romilda Ferrauto, the French-language relator, told reporters Oct. 15 that the issue of access to the sacraments for the divorced and civilly remarried was “repeated over and over again.”

One synod father remarked that the goal “is not to ensure indiscriminate access to the Eucharist, but to propose a customized, personalized approach across dioceses.” The debate was “particularly nuanced,” Ferrauto said, with one synod father saying that “love and friendship of the couple is at the core of the indissolubility of marriage,” and they are “inherent” to the relationship, but that does “not necessarily” apply to the sacrament. This means, he said, that “depriving them of the Eucharist is unjustified.”

Another bishop said that as “divorce is a tragedy” for the family, he wondered how the Church can “punish such people.” But a third French-speaking bishop argued in a different direction, commenting: “We mustn’t cling too much to the sacraments as if they were the only tools for grace.”

Spanish-speaking synod fathers also spoke at length about the divorce-remarriage issue. One voiced his concern about a spouse who has had to endure a divorce “without being the real culprit” and yet cannot receive Communion if he or she remarries.

One even made what was described as a “passionate contribution,” when he retold a story of how the child of a divorced-and-civilly-remarried couple gave “parts of the Eucharist” as a gift to his parents who were unable to receive the sacrament. Although synod fathers reportedly found the story “very moving,” it raised the question of why the priest allowed such a sacrilege.

German synod fathers — the majority of whom wish to admit remarried divorcees to Communion — also focused on the issue, stressing the need to do more to better integrate these faithful into the life of the Church in a “credible and genuine way,” as they remain full members and are not excommunicated. The German-speaking synod fathers also looked at “assessing situations on case-by-case basis.”


Bishops’ Conference Debate

As the general congregations have moved onto the third part of the instrumentum laboris (working document), and controversial issues such as Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried are being more widely discussed, so has the issue of giving more decisionmaking powers on these issues to national and regional bishops’ conferences.

Benedictine Abbot Jeremias Schröder, president of the Sankt Ottilien Benedictine congregation in Germany, told reporters Tuesday that the divorce-remarriage issue is “very strongly and widely felt in Germany” and that, along with dealing with the understanding of homosexuality, which “varies from culture to culture,” it could be given to “national bishops conferences’ to search for pastoral solutions that are in tune with their specific cultural context.” He told the Register after the press conference that he did not see either of those issues as doctrinal.

But the majority of synod fathers do. Polish bishops, for example, are standing firm that the divorce-remarriage issue shouldn’t even be up for debate. Asked about the grave implications to the soul of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist without the minimum requirements for doing so, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops, simply told reporters Thursday that the Polish bishops’ conference “excludes the possibility” of Communion for remarried divorcees.

Instead, he reiterated Paragraph 84 of Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), in which such Catholics are invited to take a greater part in ecclesial life as full members of the Church, but cannot receive Communion, as it is “based upon sacred Scripture.” Archbishop Gadecki said there are “multiple possibilities” for them to participate more fully in the life of the Church.

In his synod intervention, the Polish prelate said the Church “cannot let herself be led by feelings of false compassion for people or by modes of thought that — despite their worldwide popularity — are mistaken.”


Alternative Approach for Remarried Divorcees

Some remarried divorcees can receive the Eucharist as long as they fulfill a number of conditions, namely live in continence as “brother and sister” and ensure their receiving the sacrament doesn’t cause scandal among those who know they live together. Once such couple is Carlos José Carabias Anzorena and his wife, Angeles, from Mexico.

Speaking to the Register Oct. 15, they explained that they organize retreats for remarried divorcees in which they underline the reasons why most such people cannot receive Communion, while also insisting they can receive spiritual communion as long as they strive for “perfect contrition.”

“If they do that with all their hearts, they receive the grace of Christ to work with love, because salvation is also in connection with loving your neighbor,” said Carabias, a retired attorney. “We’re not outside the Church; we are sons and daughters of God because we are baptized,” he added. He stressed it is “absolutely vital” Catholics in this situation know this, but also that they understand why they cannot receive the sacraments (he said around 99% of those who take part in their retreats are not living as “brother and sister”).

Carabias doesn’t agree with the Cardinal Kasper proposal to allow some remarried divorcees to receive holy Communion after a “penitential period.”

“It’s against the word of God,” he said. “Jesus said let no man put asunder what God has joined together.” He compared the proposal to offering sugar to someone who has diabetes. “He wants to eat that piece of chocolate, but if I give it to him, he will die. Well, a remarried divorcee may like to receive the sacrament. He thinks he will be very happy, but he’s killing himself.” He said this also applies to the priests and bishops allowing it.


Uncertain Outcome

Given the diversity of opinion regarding pastoral practice on this crucial issue, and others being hotly debated at the synod, many would like the Holy Father to publish a definitive text at the end of the meeting, stating clearly what should and should not be pastorally allowed. Of greatest concern to many is that pastoral practice should remain fully consistent with doctrine and, in this case, uphold the indissolubility of marriage.

So far, although a relatio finalis (final report) will be produced, the Pope has yet to decide if he wants to publish it or if he will produce a post-synodal apostolic exhortation (a teaching document the pope traditionally produces soon after a synod).

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, England, told reporters Wednesday that a request for a “post-synodal apostolic exhortation or magisterial document” at the end of the meeting is “beginning to come through” in the debates.

The cardinal said it was “certainly” his hope that the Pope “will complete this process, because it seems to me that it will need bringing to a conclusion, and there’s only one person who can do that.”

Cardinal Cardinal Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas, Venezuela, told the Register any such document is up to the Pope to decide, but he hopes and wants the synod “to give a very clear word on the Christian message or on the message on Christian marriage and family.”

Four synod fathers from Eastern Europe, South America and Asia have stressed that the Pope is the one to decide. Speaking anonymously and generally to the Register Oct. 14, they all said they were less interested in a common word from the synod fathers but more in a papal statement, trusting that he’s guided by the Holy Spirit.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.