Neither rigor nor laxity: Francis gathers cardinals for creative thinking about marriage and family

[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome]

consistory 1Prior to creating new cardinals on Saturday, the Pope has assembled the existing College — including both the newcomers and the non-voting over-80 cardinals — “to deepen the theology of the family and discern the pastoral practices which our present situation requires”, as Francis told them this morning.

The “extraordinary consistory”, as the two-day meeting of 185 cardinals from across the globe is known, is the first time the cardinals have all got together since electing Francis last year. As part of the Pope’s reforms introducing greater collegiality — incorporating the voice of the local Church into decisions taken in Rome  — Francis wants such meetings to happen regularly, possibly (as this first one suggests) every year.

The meeting is also significant in taking forward what is, essentially, a two-year process of eliminating some obstacles to evangelizing the family in modern society. That process began last year with a request from bishops’ conferences to report to the Synod on the pastoral challenges facing the Church in different parts of the world.

LombardiSpeaking to journalists today, Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said Francis’s remarks (here), repaid a close reading. They preceded a two-hour address by Cardinal Walter Kasper, one of the Pope’s favourite theologians, which is not being made public. The lecture was closely linked to the Pope’s message, and coherent with it, said Fr Lombardi, adding that  it was a deeply theologically based presentation which was directed at some of today’s problems but went beyond them.  

Pastoral … but not lax

Pope Francis said the cardinals should keep before them “the beauty of the family and marriage, the greatness of this human reality” while “thoughtfully” considering how to tackle some of the pastoral challenges without falling into casuistry”. (Casuistry is the application of general principles to particular situations in such a way that the general principles are neglected.)

Pope Francis said the family is nowadays “looked down upon and mistreated” yet was “indispensable … for the life of the world and for the future of humanity.” He added that the Church was “called to make known God’s magnificent plan for the family and to help spouses joyfully experience this plan in their lives, as we accompany them amidst so many difficulties.”



Fr Lombardi said that Cardinal Kasper’s address was divided into five sections: the family in the order of creation; the structure of sin in the family and the causes of alienation; the family in the Christian order of redemption; the family as the domestic Church; and finally, issues relating to the divorced and remarried. Although Cardinal Kasper did not want to pre-empt  the deliberations of the synod on the family which has its first meeting in October, Fr Lombardi said this part of the speech dealt with the tension between “rigorism” and “laxism”.

Walter Kasper

Cardinal Kasper, who led the Vatican’s Christian unity council between 2001 and 2010, is a longstanding proponent of greater collegiality in the Church, holding a public but scholarly disagreement in 2001 with the then Cardinal Ratzinger over whether the local or the universal church has primacy. His most recent book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, which will be published in English in March, was plugged  in Francis’s  first Angelus address. Describing Cardinal Kasper as a “superb theologian,” the pope said his book on mercy “has done me so much good.”

41SzHlO850L._Although Fr Lombardi said Kasper’s speech did not include references to other Churches, the German cardinal’s ecumenical background may well be significant: on the flight back from Rio de Janeiro last year the Pope noted that “the Orthodox have a different praxis” when it comes to remarrying. “They follow the theology of economy, as they call it, and they give a second chance, they allow it. But I believe that this problem …. must be studied in the framework of marriage pastoral ministry.”

According to CNS, Kasper’s book directly addresses the issue. “The most serious criticism that can be raised against the church is that its words (about mercy) often are followed by or seem to be followed by few actions, that it speaks of the mercy of God, but many people perceive its actions as rigorous, harsh and cruel,” the cardinal wrote, adding: “These accusations resonate when, among other times, one talks about how the church relates to people who have made serious mistakes or have failed” or in questions relating to “the divorced who have remarried civilly.”



As Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Kasper together with Bishop (now Cardinal) Karl Lehmann of Mainz and Archbishop Oskar Saier of Freiburg published in 1993 a pastoral letter proposing to allow remarried divorcees to receive communion on a case-by-case basis, after careful consultation with a priest or bishop. They argued that Communion should be permitted to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics convinced their first marriages were invalid, even if they had not received annulments. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, asked the three bishops to rescind their policy, saying “the church affirms that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid.”



When, last year, the Archdiocese of Freiburg, Germany, made a similar proposal, this too was criticized by the current CDF prefect, Cardinal-elect Gerhard Müller (see CV Comment here). But Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich (here) and Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez de Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras (here) —  both members of Pope Francis’ advisory council of eight cardinals — have criticised Muller for attempting to close down the discussion before the synod has met.

Today and tomorrow’s meetings of cardinals can be seen as the chance to lay down the parameters of the process, providing a theological framework for future deliberations and demarcating the dangers to avoid.

Future solutions

This process of discernment began last year with a request for information and will be taken forward in two synod meetings, the first of which is 5-19 October in Rome. To prepare for that synod, bishops’ conferences across the world have submitted answers to a questionnaire designed to give the bishops the fullest possible picture. Some bishops’ conferences have revealed the results of their “survey”, which show –as expected — a substantial gap between doctrine and practice (see Europe here, Japan here, and Sandro Magister here.)

Principal among the challenges is the difficulty faced in evangelizing families in ‘irregular’ situations where exclusion from the sacraments results over time in ever greater alienation. In his remarks today, Pope Francis appears to suggest that whatever the bishops eventually discern as a pastoral ‘solution’, it must have the effect of strengthening and supporting the family. The exercise of mercy, in short, must not weaken the indissolubility and permanence of marriage. Or put another way: in ceasing to be ‘rigorist’, it must not fall into ‘laxism’.

Among the possibilities being considered are three main ones:

1. The ‘Orthodox’ solution. According to the eastern Orthodox Bishop Callistos Ware:

Since Christ allowed an exception to His general ruling about the indissolubility of marriage, the Orthodox Church also is willing to allow an exception. Certainly Orthodoxy regards the marriage bond as in principle lifelong and indissoluble, and it condemns the breakdown of marriage as a sin and an evil. But while condemning the sin, the Church still desires to help the sinners and to allow them a second chance. When, therefore, a marriage has entirely ceased to be a reality, the Orthodox Church does not insist on the preservation of a legal fiction. Divorce is seen as an exceptional but necessary concession to human sin; it is an act of oikonomia (‘economy’ or dispensation) and of philanthropia (loving kindness). Yet although assisting men and women to rise again after a fall, the Orthodox Church knows that a second alliance can never be the same as the first; and so in the service for a second marriage several of the joyful ceremonies are omitted, and replaced by penitential prayers.

The justification for this could be found in the early Church. As Cardinal-elect Müller noted in Osservatore Romano, “in patristic times, divorced members of the faithful who had civilly remarried could not even be readmitted to the sacraments after a period of penance.” And Cardinal Ratzinger agreed that “in the Imperial Church after Constantine a greater flexibility and readiness for compromise in difficult marital situations was sought.”

At that time, there was a penitential period preceding readmission to the Eucharist. While in the west this was gradually extended by “rigorists” until it became permanent,  in the East this did not happen. In essence, then, the ‘Orthodox’ solution involves restoring something lost in the western Church.

The objection, however, could be that the western Church developed a rigorist approach for a good reason, and that this would be a step backwards. In his 1998 article in Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Ratzinger said that “today in some of these [eastern] Churches there are numerous grounds for divorce, even a theology of divorce, which is in no way compatible with Jesus’ words regarding the indissolubility of marriage.”

2. The ‘nullity’ solution

The argument in favour of expanding the grounds for annulments centres on the contemporary cultural framework which assumes that relationships are transitory and contingent. Given that it is hard for people entering even a Catholic marriage to be free of this mentality, the annulment process could allow for a greater recognition of this fact. This appears to be the preferred path for Cardinal-elect Müller (see previous CV Comment here).

cardinalsHowever, some cardinals are anxious not to go down the route of the U.S. Church, where annulments are regarded as too easy to obtain, and therefore undermine the permanence of marriage. This in turn highlights the difficulty of marriage tribunals operating with equal effectiveness in different parts of the world. Ecclesiastical tribunals do not exist in some countries, and in some recently-evangelized countries unstable or polygamous unions persist even among Catholics. Not only is there the danger of creating de facto divorce (a laxist approach to annulments) but there is the problem of inequitable access to what is, after all, a human, legal and often costly process, which varies greatly from place to place.

The advantage, however, is that this involves no real change to church doctrine, which can continue to insist on valid marriages being indissoluble.

3. The ‘Freiburg’ solution

Although as prefect of the CDF Cardinal Ratzinger objected to the 1993 solution proposed by Cardinal Kasper, he has more than once considered the hypothesis of allowing access to communion for the divorced and remarried “who have come to a well-founded conviction of conscience concerning the nullity of their first marriage but are unable to prove this nullity by the judicial route” but he also warned that this “is a highly complex problem and ought to be studied further” (see Magister here, and Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1998 article here).

The Freiburg solution differs from the first in that it does not involve a public recognition of the second union, but allows clergy and bishops to deal with painful situations on a case-by-case basis. The principle of indissolubility is upheld, but the Church recognises, in effect, that the annulment system cannot do justice to each human situation.

But there are dangers here too, not just of laxity but, again, of inconsistency. Parish priests who take a more ‘merciful’ approach may find their congregations full, while other more ‘rigorous’ ones find their churches emptying. And then, as Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in 1988, a ‘private’ solution to a ‘public’ institution is a contradiction. “Since marriage has a fundamental public ecclesial character and the axiom applies that nemo iudex in propria causa (no one is judge in his own case), marital cases must be resolved in the external forum,” he wrote, adding: “If divorced and remarried members of the faithful believe that their prior marriage was invalid, they are thereby obligated to appeal to the competent marriage tribunal so that the question will be examined objectively and under all available juridical possibilities.”

Many suggest, one decides

Rodriguez de Maradiaga

Rodriguez de Maradiaga

The deliberations today and tomorrow follow three days of meetings of Francis’s “kitchen-cabinet” of eight cardinals, led by the energetic, communicative Cardinal Rodríguez. Although nothing concrete appears to have been decided, progress is being made on reform of financial institutions and the design of new structures of governance. The C8 will meet again in April and July, suggesting a pattern of meeting about every two months.

As John Thavis writes:

This week and next week … the Vatican is experiencing a virtual gridlock of commissions, councils and consistories. There’s the commission on administrative and economic reforms and a separate commission on the future of the Vatican bank, both of which have reported to the Council of 8. Tomorrow, the “Council of 15,” an advisory body of cardinals established by Pope John Paul II to monitor financial affairs, will meet with the Council of 8. Thursday and Friday, a special consistory of cardinals will discuss themes of the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family, and next week the synod’s secretariat will hold a two-day meeting. The Council of 15 will hold its own session next week, too.

For reporters asking when decision-time might arrive, Father Lombardi was very cautious, noting that all these entities are advisory. Essentially, Pope Francis will decide when to decide.

(See reports on last three days’ meetings by NCR, Vatican Insider, CNS.)

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