CNS photo/Paul Haring

Daunting challenge

  • September 25, 2014

The extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family will examine a broad range of important issues but, even before the Oct. 5 opening session, one question dominates: Will Pope Francis entertain a reinterpretation of doctrine to permit full participation in the sacraments for civilly divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received a Church annulment? In short, will they be welcomed back to Communion?

That single topic is overshadowing a long list of important family matters to be discussed by an assembly of more than 250 cardinals, bishops, priests and 54 non-voting experts and observers, including 14 married couples. The drama has been building for weeks despite this being just the opening act of a Synod that will play out in two parts. No formal recommendations are expected to be made before a larger world synod concludes in October 2015, and no decisions will be made by the Pope until some time after that.

Yet a cloud of anticipation is already forming over the Vatican. The bishops will delve into several aspects of family life — common-law relationships, same-sex unions, children raised in unconventional situations, family violence, single-parent families and other societal trends — but the focus so far has centred on whether the Church will rethink marriage, divorce and annulment. Canadian Cardinal Marc Oullet called it a “wave of hope set in motion by the preaching of Pope Francis.”

Indeed, the Pope certainly has people wondering if change is coming. He has spoken of a cultural, social and spiritual crisis and proposed a need for more mercy, particularly in how the Church responds to divorced and remarried couples. What that means exactly is unclear. And that uncertainty is fuelling anticipation among those who want the Church to reconcile its teaching on divorce with this call to show mercy to otherwise sincere Catholics whose marriages have failed. But this isn’t like baseball where the ump can arbitrarily decide to expand the strike zone. 

Even before the synod opens, several prominent cardinals have taken the debate public, including Cardinals Ouellet, Germany’s Gerhard Muller, American Raymond Burke and Australia’s George Pell. All have published essays that pour cold water on suggestions that Church doctrine can be reinterpreted to permit some divorced and remarried Catholics a return to Communion. A sacramental marriage is an unbreakable bond, they’ve said.

“We must say and say again to divorced remarried persons . . . God’s mercy reaches them intimately in their new situation. We cannot, however, give them authorization to give public witness through eucharistic Communion,” Ouellet wrote.

What the Synod faces instead is the conundrum of finding other ways to make remarried couples feel welcomed and included in the Church, just one of many challenges the bishops must address.

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