Fault lines on family issues emerge among cardinals

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

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The certain: At its highest levels, the Catholic church is discussing, perhaps considering, revamping its pastoral practices for divorced and remarried Catholics.

The sticking point: Just what that revamp will look like -- or even what exactly is under consideration -- depends entirely on who you're speaking with.

Following a mid-February Vatican meeting of some 185 of the church's cardinals on the subject of the church's practices toward family issues, different sketches of the closed-door discussions began to emerge.

Also emerging are the possible fault lines of specific debates -- especially over how the church should treat divorced and remarried persons, who are currently prohibited from receiving the Eucharist unless they are able to procure a Vatican annulment declaring their first union invalid.

One perspective comes from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: "The dogma of the church is not any theory written by some theologians."

"The social doctrine of the church is nothing more than the words of Jesus Christ," Müller told reporters Feb. 25 when asked whether remarried Catholics might in the future be able to receive Communion. "The words of Jesus are very clear. I can't change the social doctrine of the church."

Yet, in a two-hour address to the full group of cardinals, who were meeting at the Vatican Feb. 20-21, German Cardinal Walter Kasper suggested just what Müller seemed to say was impossible.

Francis opened the meeting by asking the group to "deepen the theology of the family and pastoral care we must implement under present conditions."

Kasper, an 80-year-old theologian and former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was asked by Pope Francis to open the cardinals' meetings with a reflection on the church's teachings regarding the family. While the Vatican would not release a copy of the text, the Italian daily Il Foglio March 1 published the cardinal's full remarks, reaching nearly 12,000 words.

Citing numerous other theologians for support, including Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, Kasper directed a number of particularly pointed questions at his fellow cardinals -- at one point even suggesting the church may not have the authority to limit Communion for remarried Catholics.

Kasper rebutted in particular a teaching of the Vatican doctrinal congregation -- made in 1994 and reiterated by Benedict in 2012 -- that although the divorced and remarried cannot receive the Eucharist, they receive a "spiritual communion" from the church.

"Some maintain that non-participation in Communion is itself a sign of the sanctity of the sacrament," Kasper stated. "Is it not perhaps an exploitation of the person who is suffering and asking for help if we make him a sign and a warning for others?" he asked.

"Are we going to let him die of hunger sacramentally in order that others may live?"

The Vatican said there were about 45 responses by other cardinals during their meetings, but spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi did not elaborate on the content of those remarks in press briefings.

Some cardinals downplayed Kasper's emphasis on divorce and remarriage. Houston-Galveston Cardinal Daniel  DiNardo said in an NCR interview Feb. 23 that the discussions focused mainly on the broader issue of how to support new couples, not on hot-button topics.

"When people say this family thing has got to zero in on something about divorce and remarriage -- I'm sure they'll talk about it," said DiNardo, who also serves as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"But there's bigger eggs to fry when you hear the whole church and what's going on," he said. "In Africa, they're still dealing with the very delicate situation of polygamy and the family sense of structure there."

DiNardo was referring to next October's worldwide meeting of bishops, which has been called by Francis for Oct. 5-19. Known as a Synod of Bishops, it is to focus on the theme: "pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization."

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, likewise said in a Feb. 24 press briefing that the cardinals didn't focus so much on allowing remarried people to receive Eucharist, but on the meaning of the Eucharist in Catholic life.

"There must be ways in which people can live a very fruitful life in the church even if for the public reasons we all understand they might not have access to the Eucharist," said Nichols, who was one of 19 prelates made cardinal by Francis Feb. 22.

Kasper, however, questioned the justification of that restriction.

While admitting that the indissolubility of marriage is "part of the tradition of the church's binding faith that cannot be abandoned or undone by appealing to a superficial understanding of cheapened mercy," Kasper also cited the work of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which he said "opened doors" to certain situations "without violating the binding dogmatic tradition."

Basing his arguments on a 1972 text by Ratzinger examining early church practices, Kasper suggests five criteria for allowing a remarried person back to the Eucharist:

  • The person repents of the failure of the first marriage;
  • Has "definitively ruled out" returning to that marriage;
  • "Cannot abandon without further harm" his or her second marriage;
  • Is doing "the best he can" to live in the second marriage "on the basis of the faith";
  • "Has a desire for the sacraments as a source of strength."

If a person meets that criteria, Kasper asks, "should we or can we deny him … the sacrament of penance and then of Communion?"

Writing to families around the world Feb. 25, Francis promised that the October synod would involve "all the people of God" and not just bishops.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR national correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

A version of this story appeared in the March 14-27, 2014 print issue under the headline: Fault lines on family issues emerge among cardinals.

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