Drafting committee cardinal: Synod will not provide Communion path for remarried

This story appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis walks next to Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias as he leaves the morning session of the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2014. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis walks next to Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias as he leaves the morning session of the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2014. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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One of the prelates responsible for drafting the final document from the ongoing Synod of Bishops has said he does not anticipate that it will propose changes in the Catholic church's practices towards the divorced and remarried.

Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias -- one of ten prelates who co-drafted the document after three-weeks of intense deliberations among some 270 bishops at the Oct. 4-25 Synod -- said in particular that one specific proposal that might have allowed the remarried to take Communion would likely not be mentioned.

That proposal would have suggested that the church could use what is called the “internal forum” to allow some remarried persons to take the Eucharist on a private, case-by-case basis after seeking guidance, advice, and then permission from priests or bishops.

"I don't expect that," said Gracias, speaking in an NCR interview Thursday. "I think this has got to be studied."

"I don't think we're ready as yet," said the cardinal. "The matter has not been sufficiently analyzed in depth. We all know, all the bishops know, that this is a possibility. But we've never focused on that."

"Now, with the pope's giving more power to the bishops for annulments I think the next step could be letting bishops take responsibility also for training the consciences of people," he continued. "That is essential in internal forum solutions."

"It's in keeping with church teaching, so it is not something totally new," he said. "Yet, this internal forum solution should not be randomly used by everybody. That's the danger."

"I do think we must study it, certainly," said Gracias. "That's why I don't think the document would have it. I don't think we're ready yet to have a consensus on this matter, and it would be not good to have the Synod divided on this matter at the moment."

The Synod of Bishops is a worldwide meeting of Catholic prelates called by Pope Francis to consider issues of family life. It is addressing a wide range of topics, but much analysis has focused on whether the bishops might decide to change church practice towards the divorced and remarried.

Remarried persons are currently prohibited from taking Communion in the church unless they receive annulments of their first marriages. Gracias referred to changes Francis made to the annulment process in September.

Speculation before the Synod focused on the possibility for a so-called "penitential path" for the divorced and remarried that might allow them to eventually take Communion. At least two of 13 small discussion groups meeting at the Synod suggested use of the internal forum as a way to perhaps provide a concrete method to possibly enact that path.

Catholic teaching says that acts of governance in the church can take place either in an internal or external forum. The internal forum is the forum of conscience, where a decision is made in private counseling with a priest without a formal decree or any sort of publicity.

Gracias' remarks on the matter came during a 20-minute interview Thursday that also saw the cardinal discuss the process for drafting the Synod document, give his view on the possibility that more power will be given to bishops' conferences, and speak about the way church teaching develops.

Speaking about the drafting of the Synod document, the cardinal said he and the other members of the drafting committee wanted to provide a document that could attract wide consensus from the gathered prelates.

"I feel ... that it would be a failure on the part of the drafting committee if we can't get a large consensus, and to get a feel of the House and to say this is what the House wants," said Gracias, referring to the Synod meeting.

The cardinal also said that the effort at consensus might mean the document "won't be as strong" as it may have been otherwise.

"That's why I said we won't have the answers, because the answers won't be acceptable to everybody," said Gracias. "Some bishops would say we have the answer to this problem, others would say no."

"We hope that gradually there will be consensus," he said. "And this way, we fulfill our role in three weeks of presenting the Holy Father the problems and how to go ahead. He's got to decide exactly how he takes it forward."

"We're struggling," said Gracias, speaking of the Synod process. "We're grappling with the situation ... struggling between mercy and justice, and mercy and truth -- and how to combine the two, showing the compassion of Jesus and yet being faithful to the teaching."

The bishops at the Synod were presented with a draft of the final document Thursday afternoon, and discussed it in open session Friday morning. They are expected to submit amendments to the text Friday afternoon before having final votes on the document Saturday.

Asked about the interplay between the church's understanding of mercy and justice -- sometimes seen as opposite approaches to how bishops should handle difficult situations like pastoring to divorced and remarried persons -- Gracias said there is sometimes a fear among Catholics about stressing mercy too much over justice.

"I'm asking myself, 'Is this a reaction to Pope Francis' insisting on mercy?'" said the cardinal. "Maybe it is. He insists on mercy so much, compassion so much, people say, 'Now, put the brakes on because let's not forget that there's justice, also.'"

"I often wonder: Do I have the right to decide how much mercy to give?" said Gracias. "Do I have the right? As a bishop, can I say, 'No, no, you can't do this.' I don't know."

"I keep asking myself, 'What would Jesus do?'" he said. "What would our Lord do in these circumstances?"

Speaking about conversations at the Synod about whether bishops' conferences could play a larger role in handling questions of authority, Gracias widely said he would be in favor of such a move.

"I think the pope wants to decentralize and give bishops' conferences more and more power," said the cardinal, who also leads the pan-Asian regional conference of bishops called the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences.

"There is one basic question being raised every now and then, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith studied it: Do the bishops' conferences have theological status or not?" he continued.

"The answer was no, really, at that time," he said. "But I think that maybe that was not still the last word. We've got to still to see what are the bishops' conferences -- just associations of people who come together to share their problems and their situations? No, I think it's more than that now."

"The Code of Canon Law has given a little authority to the conferences to decide certain decisions," said Gracias. "Perhaps that can be expanded. I think the pope ... certainly is giving his indication with what he said. He would be inclined to give bishops' conferences more power, and that's for the good."

"I think it can be worked out theologically," he said. "I see a way forward."

Gracias gave three examples of work bishops' conferences could be entrusted to do, saying they could perhaps handle marriage tribunals, clergy sexual abuse cases currently referred to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and even help in the selection of bishops.

Regarding sexual abuse cases, the cardinal said: "I think [bishops' conferences] should take more responsibility because that's far too heavy to have one office in Rome handling all the cases in the world. It's practically, logistically, impossible."

"Bishops' conferences could also, I think, in the future -- I'm not saying they would decide -- assist more, have a greater role in the choice of bishops," said Gracias, who is also a member of the Council of Cardinals advising the pope on reforming the Vatican. "That's a very crucial decision for every church and bishops' conference."

Gracias also spoke about the development of church teaching, making a distinction between what he called theological principles and ecclesiastical discipline.

"Ecclesiastical discipline is church law, and these practical things can change and can become flexible to different situations," said the cardinal. "Theology remains. Our Lord taught indissolubility. That will not change. But then ...  does it mean that all people who are divorced and remarried cannot receive Communion?"

Asked about those who have expressed fear over the possibility that the church might change certain teachings, Gracias said some people want "to hang onto something, to feel secure."

"The faith remains the faith," said the cardinal. "Our Lord Jesus Christ remains firm. The faith is firm, the church is firm, and doctrine is firm."

"And yet, there should be nuances to new problems," he said.

"I do understand the anxiety of people," said Gracias. "If you fought for something a long time and all of a sudden you feel that it's not a core value, you say, 'Why did I do all this?' I understand. Yet, we should catechize our people. We should have a deeper understanding."

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

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