20Oct No white smoke at synod

http://ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/synod-ends-where-it-began-disagreement

Thomas Reese

With time running out, the synodal fathers appear no closer to resolving their conflicts over issues facing the family than they were a year ago. One of the principal sticking points is over Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics who do not have an annulment. Another controversy is over the language to be used in speaking about homosexuals.

The Synod of Bishops concludes this Sunday after meeting in Rome since Oct. 4. The synod has been discussing issues facing families, the same issues discussed at a similar gathering of bishops last October.

The pope and the bishops argue that the synod is about the family and decry the media’s focus on homosexuality and divorce, but there is no question that these are the topics around which the bishops have conflict. There is little disagreement over other issues.

One group of bishops, led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, would like to see a pastoral solution that would allow a penitential process leading to Communion for such Catholics, but this is opposed by others, perhaps a majority, who feel that this would violate church doctrine.

Many bishops hoped that they could find a pastoral solution that would not involve a change in doctrine, but conservative bishops are not buying this approach.

The problem is that conservatives do not see divorce and remarriage as simply one sin, which can be confessed and forgiven. They see it as a continuing sin each time the couple has sex. Since they will not stop having sex, they cannot go to Communion. There is no willingness to accept the first marriage as irrevocably broken and destroyed, which would allow the parties to move on with their lives.

Some have portrayed this as a conflict between truth and mercy. Should the church emphasize the teaching or the mercy of Jesus?

For a short time, there was hope for a solution when word got out that the German-speaking small group had reached a consensus. This group contained a wide spectrum of theological heavyweights of opposing views, including Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith. But the consensus was on such an abstract level that it was pastorally irrelevant. The Germans had agreed that mercy, truth, and justice were not in conflict because they coexist in God. Big deal!

The bishops appear oblivious to the fact that, at least in the West, the success of the synod will be judged by whether there is an opening to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. With around 40 percent of Catholic marriages in the United States ending in divorce, every family has someone touched by divorce. Remarriage for many of these people results in new relationships and responsibilities that are seen as very positive.

One bishop spoke of a child who at his First Communion gave part of his host to his mother and father who were not allowed to go to Communion. Does this child understand something that the bishops do not?

Kasper does not have the votes in the synod for his solution. At this point, a victory for the progressives would be a synodal call for continued study of the possibility of finding a pastoral solution without changing church doctrine. Simply leaving the issue open for further discussion would be a success.

Meanwhile, bishops are talking about pastoral outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics that does not include Communion. They are using words like “accompany,” “listen,” and “welcome.” This has been caricatured as “You are welcome to come into our house, but you can’t eat dinner with us.”

And how do you “accompany” people you believe are in such serious sin that they cannot go to Communion? What does “listen” mean if you have already decided that you will not change your mind no matter what you hear?

In any case, this is better than referring to such couples as “living in sin.” Perhaps the progressives believe that bishops will be changed by such ministry, while conservatives hope to give couples absolution on their death beds.

Whether this pastoral outreach without Communion will sell back home remains to be seen. I doubt it.

The more likely result will be that certain parishes and dioceses will become known as places where divorced and remarried Catholics are unofficially welcomed at Communion — don’t ask, don’t tell. Pastoral practice will change, and theology and the bishops will catch up eventually.

Meanwhile, other parishes and dioceses will publicly bar such Catholics. Divorced Catholics who cannot find a welcoming parish may well find a Protestant church where they are welcomed.

In the West, there is also some support for modifying the church’s approach to homosexuals.

Let’s be clear: No bishop is talking about blessing gay marriages. Nor are any bishops talking about the positive aspects of these relationships as they did at the last synod.

But some bishops would like the church to stop using terms like “intrinsically disordered,” which is heard as demeaning by gays. Even language such as “hate the sin, love the sinner” is seen by some bishops as not helpful since sexuality is experienced as intrinsic to a person’s identity.

On the other hand, some bishops are obsessive in their opposition to homosexuality. Some still see it as a lifestyle choice. Dr. Anca-Maria Cernea, a lay auditor and head of the Association of Catholic Doctors in Romania, gave an impassioned speech at the synod linking homosexuality and Marxism while arguing that homosexuals can be cured.

One wonders what would have happened if one of the U.S. bishops had offered their 1997 pastoral message to parents of homosexual children, Always Our Children, as a model for the synod. This 18-year-old document is light years ahead of where many of the synod fathers are today. The American bishops pretty much ignore it also, wishing it had not be approved but afraid to disown it.

Most of the synodal bishops realize that their teaching is not convincing. To those who see themselves as countercultural prophets, this is irrelevant. “We are right, the rest of the world is wrong.”

For those who still have pastoral concerns, there is hope that the church’s teaching can somehow be repackaged in new language so that it is more convincing. But a new language could also mean a new theology that could lead to new approaches to old problems.

The bishops are currently trapped in the old theology they learned in the seminary. They are afraid of new ideas and are not consulting with theological experts who could show them other options. As a result, it is unlikely that new pastoral approaches will be coming forth from this synod.

Some progressives still hope that Pope Francis can somehow magically pull victory from the jaws of defeat. I don’t think so. Pope Francis is conflicted. His pastoral instincts are leading him in one direction, but his respect for collegiality is stopping him from getting too far out in front of the bishops.

Never in my lifetime have I heard of bishops and cardinals being so disrespectful of a pope, challenging his organization of this synod, even a few referring to him as a Protestant and threatening a fractured church if he goes against their wishes.

The pope may have the support of the people, but could he win a vote of confidence from this synod?

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

9 Responses

  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    The church is broken. Politics is broken. Willingness to learn is the challenge which can fix all issues. The desire to change is the greatest fear. Articles like this present as nonsensical and they paint people in a dim light. We are all blessed with the spirit of change but it seems like there is a common despair among the intellectuals of this world who are not ready to engage in a dialogue that ascends a generation. It’s a shame to constantly read about leadership that is not ready to take a chance or a leap of faith. It is crippling to those who want to achieve more but are less likely to ascend because our leaders hold us back.

  2. Peter Shore

    I was pleasantly surprised to find this article hitting the nail on the head in many respects. Instead of circumlocuting around “new pastoral approaches” it acknowledges that a change to the teaching on communion for divorced and remarried people would require a change in theology. It would mean that “what God has joined together” would be dissoluble.

    Fr. Reese also, to his credit, questions notions of “accompanying” and “listening” if the doctrine cannot change. He doesn’t advocate the incoherent approach of changing the pastoral message while ignoring the theological elephant in the room.

    The question about whether the synod’s eventual decision will “sell” is irrelevant. There is already serious division in the Church and the episcopal factions cannot agree among themselves. Once again, Fr. Reese puts his finger on the inescapable conclusion: one set of bishops is right, and everyone else is wrong.

    Perhaps he is correct that some will tragically desert the Church for Protestantism, but surely only those who already disbelieve that the Church has the authority to bind and loose. That is already protestantism.

  3. Darlene Starrs

    Dollars to Doughnuts, Pope Francis sees these synod meetings as “too little, too late”. It looks to me like the Institutional Church has waited far, far, too long to address modern family issues. Where does that leave us?…I think, the only way…to tackle issues at present…is to assign groups of conferences of bishops tasks of study…for example…have the American, Canadian, Irish Conference of Bishops study a topic…like divorced and remarried Catholics…then..another group of Conference of Bishops studies something else….Eventually…collect these works…and have a Vatican III.
    There just has to be another way of coming together and addressing issues…otherwise…there doesn’t appear to be a way for the Catholic Church to catch up.

  4. Michael C.

    Peter, you seem to miss the point of this article entirely and try to set up arguments that justify your own opinions. The fact is church ‘teaching’ on many issues has changed and changed utterly over the centuries. A very good example is in the article ‘what to do when your church changes on you’

    You say ‘a change to the teaching on communion for divorced and remarried people would require a change in theology. It would mean that “what God has joined together” would be dissoluble.’
    It may come as a surprise to you, though I suspect not, that the church has always reserved the right to dissolve valid marriages, e.g. Pauline Privilege etc.It regularly unties what “what God has joined together” if it is of benefit to the faith of one of the partners.

    You entirely misquote Fr. Reese in saying “Fr. Reese puts his finger on the inescapable conclusion: one set of bishops is right, and everyone else is wrong.’
    What he said was ‘Most of the synodal bishops realize that their teaching is not convincing. To those who see themselves as countercultural prophets, this is irrelevant. “We are right, the rest of the world is wrong.”

    Your concluding paragraph is amazing, in that it is the complete opposite of what Fr. Reese was saying in his article. You state “Perhaps he is correct that some will tragically desert the Church for Protestantism, but surely only those who already disbelieve that the Church has the authority to bind and loose. That is already protestantism.”
    According to Fr. Reese the ones threatening to fracture the church are those opposed to any type of change. “Never in my lifetime have I heard of bishops and cardinals being so disrespectful of a pope, challenging his organization of this synod, even a few referring to him as a Protestant and threatening a fractured church if he goes against their wishes.”

    It would be funny if not sad the way you attempt to twist and spin this article to fit your own opinion.Perhaps you should pause before rushing to comment in an attempt counter every article that in your opinion does not fit your idea of what is orthodox and ‘doctrine’

    Maybe you could as well reflect on your own definition of protestantism. “those who already disbelieve that the Church has the authority to bind and loose. That is already protestantism.”
    I would suggest that many opposing any notion of change ever occurring are protestant by your own definition as they rule out the possibility of the church ever ‘loosing’ the burdens that are tied up on people’s shoulders and that some never make any attempt to help in carrying.

  5. John

    “What God has joined together…” certainly should not be put asunder. But it can be done, and the news every day emphasises that – including the taking of God-given life. What is utterly destroyed cannot be brought back. There is very little on this earth that is indissoluble, except as the bible tells us, the love of God.

  6. Con Devree

    Michael C
    The article “What to do when your Church changes on you” does not succeed in making the argument it claims to make.

    Pauline Privilege is not an instance of change in Church teaching. It is based on the Letter to the Corinthians. It pertains to natural marriages contracted by couples both of whom were non-believers at the time of the marriage. It’s a clear instance of Canon Law obeying St Paul.

    Fr Reese is jumping ahead too fast. We don’t know the outcome of the Synod. Will Christ’s teaching on marriage and St Paul’s on valid reception of communion abide?

    Question:
    If the Church contents itself with offering to the secular culture only what the secular culture finds convincing, then why would anyone in the secular culture move towards the Church? It, the Church, would be perceived as moving in their direction anyway, so why move?

    Fr Reese’s article is significant regarding Cardinals Meuller and Kasper engaging in dialogue. The resultant report while not being quite as he describes it, is as he says. How many more sessions of dialogue would it take to resolve the differences between both?

  7. Eddie Finnegan

    WHAT GOTT HATH JOINED TOGETHER . . . .

    I’ve always suspected that there was something providential about Germany’s failure to found a worldwide empire, apart from the occasional Anschluss, takeover or threatened invasion close to home. God clearly had in mind the importance of cohesion, coherence and deep theology in the 2015 Synod’s ‘circuli minores’. What chance would the Synod have of ever reaching any conclusion on anything by Sunday if the German-speaking bishops were scattered among as many as four ‘Small Groups’ representing German-speaking Catholics from five continents? Fortunately, the bishops of Germany(31% RC), Austria(61% RC) & Switzerland(38% RC) could all fit (relatively)cosily into one small group where Marx, Schonborn, Kasper and Mueller could happily swap merry quips from Aquinas, Luther, Haering, Rahner and Ratzinger.

    Contrast this with the random make-up of the motley Anglophone Groups A, B, C & D in which Irish, English, Australian and Canadian chairmen and ‘relators’ attempt to elicit some consensus from bishops from Africa, Europe, Asia, America and Oceania. Talk about herding mice at a crossroads! And no real evidence of theological or pastoral depth, not to mention collegial practice on their home turf, among the lot of them. For once in four years, I’m inclined to agree with Darlene@3: send them all home with clearly assigned homework tasks and call them back to Rome for VatIII around 2020-2025.

  8. D Flanagan

    The internal forum solution for giving communion to the divorced and remarried on a case-by-case basis, when a person reflects and forms their conscience with the help of a priest, sounds ambiguous.

    Could Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Muller agree on the issue of Catholic conscience?

  9. Peter Shore

    Dignitatis Humanae seems to be a favourite of those who want to demonstrate mutability of Church teaching, but as far as I can see it is either correct about its own faithfulness to tradition or it is lying. Either way, it can’t be an example of both authentic, and authentically changed, teaching. I don’t think we need to worry, though. DH should be seen as a pastoral document pertaining to the relationship of the person to the State. The relationship of the person to the Church is, not surprisingly, covered in the Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The two are not in opposition. For a better explanation than I could give, see here:
    http://www.evangelisationstation.com/htm_html/Catholic%20Perspectives/did_vatican_ii_reverse_the_churc.htmh

    You are right, of course, that Fr. Reese does not himself say that ‘one set of bishops is right, and everyone else is wrong’. But I stand by my contention that it is an inescapable conclusion. For if the bishops who claim to be right are, in fact, wrong, then the other set of bishops is right. On doctrinal matters of such fundamental importance, it certainly seems to be a binary proposition.

    Regarding the ‘disrespectful’ bishops, surely historical synods and councils have been beset by controversy of at least equal seriousness? The bishops rightfully see themselves as the defenders of unity and orthodoxy. It would be remiss of them not to take the task seriously. But they are *obedient* to the Pope and to Church teaching. You do not see Cardinal Burke hammering on the door demanding to be let in. Let’s see if such obedience is replicated elsewhere. And even the Pope must be faithful to Sacred Scripture, even Peter who, at the Council of Jerusalem, quoted the prophet Amos in resolution of the circumcision controversy.


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