Synod’s ‘Way of Accompaniment’ Is Actually a Path of Problems

COMMENTARY: The ordinary synod’s ‘internal forum’ proposal destructively pits the Church as mother against the Church as teacher. First of four parts.

Cardinals and bishops listen inside the Vatican's Synod Hall during an Oct. 12 meeting of the 2015 synod on the family.
Cardinals and bishops listen inside the Vatican's Synod Hall during an Oct. 12 meeting of the 2015 synod on the family. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

The synod on the family released its final report on Oct. 24 to very mixed reviews: Although it contains many true insights and offers some important proposals for supporting the family, three sections towards the end of the text — Paragraphs 84-86 — set forth a problematic solution for dealing with baptized Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried (hereafter “remarried divorcees”).

This essay summarizes that flawed solution and offers what I hope are some useful criticisms.

Paragraph 84 begins by introducing what it refers to as the “logic of integration” for remarried divorces. It says that the remarried “should be more fully integrated into the Christian community in diverse possible ways”; that “the logic of integration is the key to their pastoral accompaniment”; that this integration means “discern[ing] which of the diverse forms of exclusion currently practiced … may be overcome” — the text explicitly mentions “liturgical” exclusions; that remarried divorcees “can live and mature as living members of the Church”; and that, “for the Christian community, taking care of these persons is not a weakening of their [the community’s] proper faith and testimony about the indissolubility of marriage,” but rather an expression of “proper charity” (emphases added). The text refers later to this pathway of deeper integration as a “way of accompaniment and discernment” (86).

The report specifies three steps comprising this “way”: a conversation, an examination of conscience and a judgment. Let’s look at each.

First, the “way” would begin with a “conversation” between a remarried divorcee and a priest conducted in the “internal forum” — that is, with the absolute confidentiality of the sacrament of penance (86).

Second, the conversation would include, or at least reflect upon, an “examination of conscience,” during which remarried divorcees ask themselves several questions: first, how they behaved towards their children during the breakdown of the marriage; second, whether there were attempts at reconciliation; third, about the situation of the abandoned partner; and, finally, about the consequences of the second union on the divorcee’s family and the wider Christian community, especially the example it gives to young people preparing for marriage (85).

Third, this examination, the final report says, should help remarried divorcees assess where they stand before God and so facilitate: a “judgment” of conscience on what blocks them from fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps they should take to make it increase (86).

Remarried divorcees would presumably receive absolution at the end of their “conversations.” The final report does not set as a condition for absolution that they resolve to undertake a way of life consistent with Jesus’ teaching on marriage in the Gospel, which the Church has always understood as requiring the separation of remarried divorcees, or, at the very least, their resolution to “live in complete continence” (Familiaris Consortio, 84).

Admittedly, the report does not propose a general admission of remarried divorcees to the Eucharist. (In fact, Paragraphs 84-86 do not even use the word Communion.) Some have taken this to mean that the new “way of accompaniment and discernment” implicitly maintains the traditional exclusion. Unfortunately, the text can be read, and is widely being read, as implying that this “conversation” could result in remarried divorcees being given the confidence that they may return to holy Communion.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper, for example, said in an interview the day after the synod closed: “I’m satisfied; the door has been opened to the possibility of the divorced and remarried being granted Communion. … All of this is now in the Pope’s hands, who will decide what has to be done.”

And Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and a member of the synod’s German-language group, replied to the question of whether remarried divorcees may be given admission to holy Communion by saying: “This is not written in the text. ... It is also not excluded.”

And Jesuit Father Adolfo Nicolás Pachón, superior general of the Society of Jesus and Pope Francis’ appointee to the commission charged with drafting the final report, stated at the end of the synod: “In everyone’s mind on the [drafting] commission, the idea was to prepare a document that would leave the doors open [for the divorced and civilly remarried to return to holy Communion], so that the Pope could come and go, do as he sees fit.”

And Jesuit Father Anthony Spadaro, editor of the Italian Catholic newspaper La Civiltà Cattolica (recently described by Vatican watcher Sandro Magister as “everything” for Pope Francis (“adviser, interpreter, confidant, scribe”), stated: “Concerning access to the sacraments, the ordinary synod has therefore effectively laid the foundations, opening a door that at the previous synod had instead remained closed.”

And all now are familiar with the words attributed to Pope Francis by his atheist friend and confidante Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, who spoke with the Pope on the telephone: “This is the bottom-line result: The de facto appraisals [of these cases] are entrusted to the confessors, but at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask will be admitted.” The Vatican Press office quickly disregarded the statement as unreliable. But as Catholic journalist Phil Lawler has written, in the light of the many hints the Pope has given revealing his sympathies on the question, “it seems probable that the Holy Father said something to give the Italian journalist that impression.”

Even German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and originally an apparent bitter opponent of the Cardinal Kasper proposal, said that although “no general admission to Communion for [divorced-and-civilly-remarried persons] can be granted,” nevertheless, “in some cases, there may be an admission in the area of ‘conscience.’”

The authors of the final report, therefore, almost certainly meant to propose a path for remarried divorcees to return to the Eucharist on a case-by-case basis without the resolution to live in complete continence in the second union.

E. Christian Brugger, the senior fellow in ethics and director of the fellows’ program

at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, holds the

Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.