Pre-synod jostling points to dynamism of Rome meeting on family

Cardinal Pell

Cardinal Pell

The Australian cardinal whom Pope Francis earlier this year put in charge of Vatican finances has added his voice to a large number of senior church figures warning against expecting changes to come from next month’s historic of bishops in Rome.

The “extraordinary” Synod of bishops on 5-19 October will be the first in a year-long series of meetings focussing on the challenges to the family, concluding with a second, “ordinary” synod of bishops in October 2015 which will make concrete proposals.

George Pell, the former archbishop of Sydney, is one of five cardinals brought together in a book that rejects calls by Cardinal Walter Kasper made in February in his address to the College of Cardinals.

Cardinal Kasper

Cardinal Kasper

Kasper called for the Church to look at ways of allowing Catholics who have divorced and remarried a way of being readmitted to the Eucharist under certain limited conditions which parish priests should consider on a case by case basis, arguing that “there is no human situation absolutely without hope of solution”.

The German cardinal, who believes that the indissolubility of marriage is not threatened by this proposal, did not suggest that second unions should receive public recognition as they are  in the Orthodox Church, but that a period of penitence could be followed by a readmission. His speech was later published as a book called The Gospel of the Family.

The riposte by the five cardinals, to be published on 1 October, is also entitled The Gospel of the Family, but subtitled Going Beyond Cardinal Kasper’s Proposal in the Debate on Marriage, Civil Re-Marriage and Communion in the Church

In it Cardinal Pell writes that the attention given to Cardinal Kasper’s proposal is a “counterproductive and futile search for short-term consolations” over what is essentially a “peripheral” issue.

“Healthy communities do not spend most of their energies on peripheral issues,” he writes, “and unfortunately, the number of divorced and remarried Catholics who feel they should be allowed to receive holy Communion is very small indeed.”

He adds: “The pressures for this change are centered mainly in some European churches, where churchgoing is low and an increasing number of divorcees are choosing not to remarry.”

Cardinal Müller

Cardinal Müller

The other contributors are Walter Brandmüller, a retired Vatican official who is close to Benedict XVI; Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican’s supreme court, the Roman Rota; Carlo Caffarra, Archbishop of Bologna; Velasio De Paolis, president emeritus of the Prefecture for Economic Affairs of the Holy See; and Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Quite a few cardinals have recently been keen to downplay expectations of shifts in church teaching and practice. Cardinal Dolan of New York, said he couldn’t see how there could be a a dramatic change “without running up against the teaching of the Church”.

Cardinal O'Malley

Cardinal O’Malley

Another member (with Pell) of the so-called “C9” council of cardinals close to Francis, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, has also cautioned against expecting too much change. “I think that the Holy Father’s concerns for the Catholics who are divorced and remarried will find a lot of support from the bishops,” he said, adding: “The pastoral practice must always follow our theology and doctrine.”

Similarly Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Vatican’s Council for the Family, said the 5-19 October synod wouldn’t change doctrine, but that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be changes. “I do believe bishops will find real pastoral alternatives: profound human problems deserve profound solutions,” he told Crux.

Many are stressing both that the synod is a year-long discernment that will not make concrete proposals until October 2015, and that the biggest issue was how to bolster marriage in a society which increasingly fails to understand and recognize its nature and significance.

Cardinal Nichols

Cardinal Nichols

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, has picked out the importance of marriage preparation, and the support which the Church can give to families experiencing marital breakdown, as major priorities of the synod.

The French Catholic daily La Croix reports that Pope Francis is said to be “irritated” by the publication of the book on the eve of the synod, and has told Cardinal Müller not to be involved in its promotion.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the synod’s secretary general, has spoken of how this reformed synod process will be dynamic and informal. He says Pope Francis wants it to generate authentic discussion.

Cardinal Baldisseri

Cardinal Baldisseri

If Francis’s disapproval of the book by the five cardinals is true, it suggests not that that he fears disagreement, but that too much of the discussion through the media, with participants staking out positions in advance, will politicize the debate and make an authentic discernment harder.

Some believe that, rather than exploring the so-called “Orthodox” solution to the pastoral challenges presented by the large number of divorced and remarried, the Church should look at reforming the annulment system. One leading  commentator sees annulment reform as one of the synod’s most likely outcome.

At this stage, however, it is only possible to guess at some of the outcomes once the synod agrees what should the principal focus of discussion.

The meeting won’t be short of views and perspectives. In addition to the evidence gathered in last year’s consultation of the local Church, there will be plenty of expertise and testimony present in next month’s meeting.

Among the 253 synod participants (full list here) are 38 observers and 16 experts, who are nonvoting members invited by the Pope. Most are laymen and laywomen, including 14 married couples from across the world.

The voting delegates include 114 presidents of national bishops’ conferences, 13 heads of Eastern Catholic churches and 25 heads of Vatican congregations and councils.

(Join Austen Ivereigh on 1 October in central London for a Catholic Voices briefing on the synod: details here)

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