Suggestions made by the co-leaders of the German-speaking group at the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family -- Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna and German Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin -- have made their way into Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.
Schönborn and Koch are delighted and "not a little proud" that certain suggestions their discussion group made in its final synod report appear in the document.
In their final report on Oct. 21, 2015, the German-speaking prelates stated that the synod debates showed that there were no simple or general solutions regarding whether or not remarried divorcees should be allowed to receive the sacraments.
Discernment was called for, they said, naming certain criteria that would help to differentiate: "Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is, in fact, a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grievous fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of their children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage was never valid."
The suggestions the German-speaking prelates made regarding remarried divorcees closely resembled those made by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, but also reflect the long-standing practice of the Vienna archdiocese.
Schönborn told the Austrian Catholic Press Agency Kathpress that he was grateful and "not a little proud" that the Catholic church had now "fully adopted" the pastoral practice regarding remarried divorcees, which has been in use for well over 15 years in the Vienna archdiocese.
The pope read all the questions and aspects raised in the Vienna archdiocese's five-point program for remarried divorcees and discussed them "most attentively and with great closeness to real life," Schönborn said.
The archdiocesan program, entitled "How to Offer Spiritual, Christian and Human Support for Divorced and Remarried Couples," directs pastors to discuss the following questions with divorced and remarried couples who wish to be allowed to receive the sacraments: How did the couple treat their children during the marriage crisis? Were there attempts at reconciliation? What is the situation of the abandoned partner? What consequences have the new partnership had as far as the extended family and the community of the faithful are concerned? What example is it for the younger members considering marriage?
In conversations with the confessor, such a path of reflection and repentance can, in the internal forum, contribute towards the formation of conscience and the clarification of whether the admission to the sacraments is possible, the program points out.
It is important to note, moreover, that in his exhortation the pope almost always put the word "irregular" in quotations, Schönborn said. In so doing, Francis wanted to emphasize something that had often been forgotten by the church up to now.
"Whether someone is in a regular or irregular relationship is only a first external view of the situation. A closer look at the life situation of marriages and families will reveal that we all have difficulties to contend with and above all that we are all in need of God's mercy," Schönborn said.
No married couple and no family should ever say, "We are in order but you are not." For the cardinal, that was a liberating and comforting message "as that is how things are in real life."
In an interview with Katholisch.de, Koch said he was glad that the pope had called on the church to consider whether its teaching had not sometimes been a burden.
"I am most grateful that Francis asks us to reflect whether we as the Catholic church have not sometimes been a burden on the faithful and made their lives difficult instead of being helpful," Koch said, recalling that in their final report the German prelates openly criticized the public statements of individual synod fathers.
"The images and comparisons they used were not only undifferentiated and wrong but hurtful, and we quite decidedly distance ourselves from them," the report stated, Koch said, adding, "Of course one is glad to read that this point has been taken up by the Holy Father."
[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]