CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope Francis calls for flexibility, patience as he opens talks on Church teaching

By  David Gibson, Religion News Service
  • February 20, 2014

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis opened a major two-day meeting on the Church’s approach to the complexities of modern family life today, telling the world’s Catholic cardinals that the Church needs a “pastoral” approach that is “intelligent, courageous and full of love” and not focused on abstract arguments.

In brief introductory remarks released by the Vatican, Francis pushed the closed-door summit of about 150 cardinals to “deepen the theology of the family and discern the pastoral practices which our present situation requires.”

He asked that they do so “thoughtfully” and by keeping the focus on “the beauty of family and marriage” while at the same time showing that the Church is ready to help spouses “amid so many difficulties.” Francis added the phrase “intelligent, courageous and full of love” extemporaneously.

Francis summoned the cardinals to Rome for a weekend of ceremonies at which the Pope will appoint his first batch of 19 “princes of the Church,” as cardinals are often called. But he asked them to arrive early so that they could spend time discussing one of Francis’ signature themes: shifting the Church’s approach on controversial topics like divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, gay marriage and contraception.

Those issues will also be the focus of two larger and longer meetings of bishops at the Vatican both this fall and in 2015.
“The Pope has opened a dialogue, he’s not decided anything yet and now he’ll let us discuss,” Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian who is a favourite of Francis, told Reuters on Thursday.

Kasper said the talks were not about changing doctrine or watering down traditional marriage — “that’s not possible,” he said. But “it’s a question of how to apply (Church teaching to) the concrete, difficult, complex situation.”

Francis tapped Kasper to open the meetings with an address that would set the stage for the talks. Kasper — a onetime sparring partner of another German cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Benedict XVI — delivered a two-hour talk that centred on marriage and took up most of the morning’s session.

Kasper has pushed for relaxing the ban against Communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment; as a bishop in Germany in the 1990s, he tried to institute a policy that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics to recieve Communion in certain circumstances. The plan was rejected by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, then headed by Ratzinger.

In his talk on Thursday, Kasper did not offer any specific proposals, but repeatedly stressed the importance of pastoral flexibility and realism in dealing with people in challenging or unusual family situations.

Even before he was elected Pope, Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires — last March blasted priests who “hijacked” the sacraments and refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. He called such clerics “hypocrites” who “drive God’s people away from salvation.”

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