German group at synod united: Church doctrine has developed over time

This story appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis presides at a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 15. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis presides at a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 15. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The group of German speaking prelates attending the worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops on family -- which includes a rather diverse range of what might be called progressive and conservative voices -- has called on the gathering to recognize that church doctrine has developed over time.

The group has also said the church’s understanding of Jesus’ mission on Earth means that there cannot always be one universal principle that applies to all concrete situations.

Writing in their report on the discussions taking place in their small group for the ongoing Oct. 4-25 Synod of Bishops, the German bishops say: “It … became clear to us that we are too static and not biographical-historical in many debates and observations.”

“The Church’s doctrine of marriage was developed and deepened in history,” they write.

The group explains how the church’s understanding of marriage has developed over time -- first emphasizing monogamy of marriage, then “the personal dignity of the spouses” before coming to understand the family as the “house church.”

“This historical path of deeper understanding is today also visible in the biography of many people,” the group writes. “They are first touched by the human dimension of marriage, in the environment of the Church they become convinced of the Christian view on marriage and from there they find their way to the celebration of sacramental marriage.”

“As the historical development of the Church’s teaching has taken time, so her pastoral care must also accord the people on their path to sacramental marriage a time of maturing and not act according to the principle of ‘all or nothing,’” states the group.

The German speaking prelates write in one of 13 reports from the different small discussion groups meeting during the Synod, separated by language preference. All 13 of the reports -- the second of three expected to come from the Synod -- were released Wednesday.

There is only one German speaking group at the Synod, which includes an incredible range of intellectual backgrounds.

Among those in the group are: German Cardinals Walter Kasper, who has proposed a “penitential path” for divorced and remarried persons to receive Communion; and Gerhard Muller, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and known to oppose that path.

Co-leading the group are: Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn and German Archbishop Heiner Koch.

The report is written in German and is available in full at the Vatican website. Dutch blogger Mark de Vries has posted an English language translation.

Continuing in their reflection on the development of church teaching, the German group states: “The Church inevitably stands in the conflict between a necessary clarity in teaching about marriage and family on the one hand, and the specific pastoral task to accompany and convince those people whose lives only conform in part with the principles of the Church on the other.”

“It is important to take steps with them on the road to the fullness of life in marriage and family, as the Gospel of the family promises,” they write.

The group begins its report with an exploration of the relationship between mercy and truth, grace and justice -- saying the concepts “are constantly treated as being in opposition to one another.”

“In God they are certainly not in opposition: as God is love, justice and mercy come together in Him,” they write. “The mercy of God is the fundamental truth of revelation, which is not opposed to other truths of revelation.”

“It rather reveals to us the deepest reason, as it tells us why God empties Himself in His Son and why Jesus Christ remains present in His Church through His word and His sacraments,” they state. “The mercy of God reveals to us in this way the reason and the entire purpose of the work of salvation. The justice of God is His mercy, with which He justifies us.”

A consequence of this understanding of salvation, the German speakers write, is that there cannot be one universal principle that accounts for all particular situations.

“It excludes a one-sided deductive hermeneutic which subsumes concrete situations under a general principle,” they state.

Quoting both St. Thomas Aquinas and the 16th century Council of Trent, they say that for both “the implementation of basic principles of prudence and wisdom to the particular and often complicated situations is pending.”

“This is not about exceptions to which the word of God does not apply, but about the question of a fair and reasonable application of the words of Jesus -- such as the words about the indissolubility of marriage -- in prudence and wisdom,” they state.

Using Aquinas’ seminal work Summa Theologiae, they quote the saint: “To prudence belongs not only the consideration of reason, but also the application to action, which is the goal of practical reason.”

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

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