Pope Francis preparing document on the family

This story appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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Later this year, perhaps as early as March, Pope Francis will issue his much-anticipated document on the family, which will respond to the discussion of the same topic at the synods held in October 2014 and 2015.

Ever since 1975, popes have normally considered recommendations from synods and then issued a document called an apostolic exhortation.

Synods are meeting of bishops, usually in Rome, that make recommendations to the pope on a specific topic. They do not have the authority to make decisions binding on the pope or the church. They can only make recommendations.

During the papacy of John Paul II, these apostolic exhortations were often drafted by a post-synodal council whose episcopal members are elected by the synod and appointed by the pope. Popes take the recommendations of the synodal fathers and the draft by the council and then adapt or rewrite it as they see fit. Sometimes popes give only passing reference to the recommendations and present their own vision in the post-synod document.

What will Pope Francis do?

Judging by what he says about synodality, one would think he will stick closely to the recommendations of the synod. He considers the synodal process to be a very important aspect of collegiality. It is therefore unlikely that he would simply ignore what the synod fathers said.

On the other hand, he has made clear that he is willing to make decisions after he hears from the bishops and these decisions may not always reflect the majority view.

In fact, his first major document as pope was the 2013 apostolic exhortations, Evangelii Gaudium, which pretty much ignored the discussions at the 2012 synod on evangelization. He clearly spoke in his own voice.

If I had to bet, I would predict that his next apostolic exhortation will reflect closely the concerns about the family of bishops from the global south, especially Latin America and Africa. These bishops see their families suffering in poverty, which they often blame on globalization and capitalism. Their families are also torn apart by civil unrest and war, which they blame on political corruption and religious extremism.

It is impossible to foster families in poverty and political chaos. Francis understands this and will speak forcefully.

We will also hear Francis denounce what third world bishops call cultural imperialism, where Western governments and donor agencies attempt to force their values on recipient nations, for example, by insisting on the legalization of abortion and gay marriage. Francis does not support gay marriage, although he would oppose any criminalization of or discrimination against gays.

As far as gays in the church is concerned, he will probably continue saying what he has said in the past. At the synod, an early draft document had more conciliatory language in it, but this was dropped because of strong opposition from some of the bishops.

The most divisive issue at the synod was the treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics. Cardinal Walter Kasper suggested that the Roman Catholic church could learn from the Orthodox churches, which under certain circumstances allow for a second civil marriage after the failure of a valid sacramental marriage. The couples in the second marriage would be admitted to Communion.

For many bishops, this was a bridge too far. At the 2014 synod, they suggested simplifying the annulment process as an alternative. Pope Francis quickly followed up on this recommendation with simplified procedures that went into effect last December.

Many bishops, including Cardinal Kasper, wanted to go further and the 2015 synod appeared to be headed for deadlock until the German speaking bishops proposed an alternative -- the internal forum. The other bishops followed their lead, and the final report stated:

[W]hile supporting a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person's properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases.

Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of Church and Church practice which can foster it and make it grow.

Note that nothing is said in these paragraphs about the possibility of Communion, either for or against. Was this purposeful ambiguity in order to get a text two-thirds of the synod could support? That is my guess. Will Francis continue this ambiguity or clarify it?

Likewise, there are at least two different ways of looking at the subject matter of the internal forum process.

Narrowly speaking, the internal forum is a private method of discernment by an individual with a priest to decide whether or not the first marriage was valid. It can be used when for one reason or another the normal juridical process (external forum) cannot be used. In other words, it is all about the validity of the first marriage. There can be no recognition of that solution in the external (public) forum -- no wedding reception, no reception of Communion where their situation is known.

Another view of the internal forum process would take a wider view and ask whether, despite the death of the first marriage (invalid or not), a person is reconciled and forgiven to the point where he or she can return to Communion even if the first marriage was sacramentally valid. Here the divorced person is asking whether or not he or she is acting in good conscience in taking on a second marriage. This widened view might be considered the Orthodox approach with a different name.

In neither case could the person be married in the church. Since the sacrament of marriage takes place in the external (public) forum, the divorced person would need an annulment in the external forum, which involves the normal juridical process.

I am sure that different bishops had different views of the internal forum in mind when they voted on the final report of the synod.

Again, will Pope Francis clarify this? Will he endorse the Orthodox solution as proposed by Cardinal Kasper, whom he clearly admires, or will the widespread opposition to Orthodox approach mean that he, at least for now, sticks with a narrow vision of the internal forum process? Francis has forcefully spoke of the supremacy of mercy and against legalism, which would indicate an openness to readmission to Communion.

Or perhaps the pope will do something extraordinary and admit that the hierarchy is divided on this question and say that it requires further study and conversation in the church before a definitive answer is given. That would be a first. 

[Correction: An earlier version of the column referred to apostolic constitutions when it should have been apostolic exhortations.]

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