Blog Post

Closed-Door Discussions are Published, and a Synod Storm Gathers

Originally posted in Catholic World Report

The facade of St. Peter's Basilica behind the statue of St. Peter at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Proceedings of an un-publicized series of workshops at the Vatican earlier this year reveal controversial conversations taking place ahead of this fall’s Synod on the Family.

There is a storm warning ahead for the Ordinary Synod on the Family, scheduled for October 2015 in Rome. Can there be “the possibility of an evolution of the ecclesiastical doctrine of marriage” in the Catholic Church without the Synod fathers “betraying their own traditions”? That evolution is the goal of some prominent theologians and canonists who met for three separate workshops earlier this year, under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Tdivorziati Risposati: In Un Volume la Riflessione Piu Avansata, published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV), is a guide to the three workshops. The book was reviewed in the July 25 issue of the Italian Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana; the review details the proceedings of those workshops that, while perhaps not “secret,” were not publicized by the Pontifical Council for the Family. Unlike the semi-secret, but unofficial, “Shadow Council” held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in May, no members of the press were invited to the workshops.

The workshops were held in January, February, and March of this year. LEV’s 500-page compilation of the proceedings purports to outline the most “advanced reflection” on the relationship of the family and the Church, particularly on the hot-button issues that sparked controversy during the preliminary Synod on the Family in October 2014.

When the mid-point relatio of that preliminary synod was released to the public last year, Catholic observers and even some synod participants learned that novel “pastoral” initiatives had been proposed, including openness to homosexual “gifts” and a “pathway” for the divorced and remarried to be permitted to receive Communion.

The debate over Communion for the remarried caused cardinal tempers to flare. Many recoiled at the suggestion that settled Church doctrine should even be a topic of discussion when so many grave matters threaten families. Issues such as religious freedom, catechesis, persecution, and poverty drew less discussion because energy was directed toward defense of the doctrinal teaching on marriage and family. Prior to the synod, a much-circulated “Kasper Proposal,” presented by Cardinal Walter Kasper during a February 2014 consistory of cardinals, was touted as a pastoral approach that skirted the thorny problem of changes to the doctrinal teaching on marriage.

The question that looms large in these discussions strikes at the very foundation of sacramental theology: How can those in an objectively sinful marital arrangement—the divorced and civilly remarried—be admitted to the sacrament of Communion? It was Jesus himself who taught that marriage was indissoluble (Mt. 19:3-12). Even pastorally, can we ignore the clear prescription of Christ? Are we to hold that Christ’s own words on marriage are too hard for our contemporary era? Or is the demand for new pastoral elasticity itself a sign of the secular pressures against marriage that the synod hoped to address?

In the tense week following the release of the synod’s midterm relatio, these tendentious proposals failed to gain sufficient votes for inclusion in the final synod document. Despite the rejection of the majority of the synod fathers, in an unusual procedural move, paragraphs dealing with those topics were retained in the final document with a notation of their failure to pass. This effectively insured that the issues remained open for discussion in meetings of varying authority and influence.

It was in this context that the Pontifical Council for the Family hosted its closed-door workshops, which gathered 29 canonists, moral theologians, psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers to find an “interdisciplinary contribution” to the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in October. There were no bishops or cardinals among the experts.

Among the participants was Father Eberhard Schockenhoff, professor of moral theology at the University of Freiburg in Germany. Father Schockenhoff also serves as an advisor to the German Bishops’ Conference. His own theological orientation is revealed in his bookRedeemed Freedom, in which he proposes a negotiation-style communication between man and the Creator of the Cosmos. God does not impose commandments on man; rather, the Creator communicates his love for man, principally in granting man near-absolute freedom. This schema dismisses God’s will for man; man is captive to his own limited determinations about what is true. The only revelation that matters is that God in his heaven loves man. It is a love that makes no demands other than that man discover himself.

In addition to Communion for the divorced and remarried, Father Schockenhoff urges approval of homosexual clergy and finds “stable” homosexual pairs to be ethical.

During the workshop proceedings, Father Schockenhoff insisted that “the possibility of an evolution of the ecclesiastical doctrine of marriage is greater than the suggested assertion that the Church cannot change its practice without betraying their own tradition.”

Support for the Schockenhoff’s position was offered by Father Gianpaolo Dianin, an expert on pastoral care of the family and a member of the Theological Faculty of Triveneto. His paper on the Eucharist and “irregular unions” was offered at the third workshop, on March 14. Father Dianin, who is also rector of the major seminary of Padua, explored instances in Church history in which adjustments to the regulation of marriage were made on the basis “of the new problems that emerged from time to time.” Following Father Schockenhoff, he admonished Christians who might treat the divorced and remarried as “dangerous people, unreliable who betrayed a promise,” and instructs pastors that they must overcome that “mentality in the community.” It’s unclear whether or not there is a place for instruction of the remarried regarding living chastely, in those situations in which they remain civilly married for the sake of raising their children.

On the issue of the Eucharist and “irregular unions” it was noted by Father Dianin that today, given contemporary challenges that secularism has put on Catholic marriages, there are numerous pastors who wish to do “something” for their parishioners but feel constrained by Church discipline that “understands little” of the hardships.

Participants at the workshop acknowledged a need for a more specific theology of marriage in contemporary times if the synod fathers were to adopt these proposals. Some recalled the work of noted liberals such as Bernard Haering, the German theologian whose controversial concept of a “moral death” of the bond of marriage could inform pastoral care. (That idea is little different from deciding on one’s own whether or not one is still sacramentally married. In the 1990s Cardinals Lehmann and Kasper were admonished by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for telling congregants to simply follow their own consciences.)

As Church discipline stands now, Communion for civilly remarried Catholics can only be received if the couple abstains from sexual intercourse, as is stated in Familiaris Consortio. However, many theologians openly dissent from the teaching. According toFamiglia Cristiana, canonist Alphonse Borras of the Catholic Institute of Paris said that the requirement of sexual abstinence was “profoundly ambiguous,” as it reduces sexuality to “genital activity” only.

It was reported that the March workshop featured an extended discussion of the uncomfortable position of the remarried within the wider Catholic community. Humberto Miguel Yanez, SJ, director of the Department of Moral Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, observed: “We gave Communion to the genocides that have never made public recantation, the capitalists who exploited the workers to grow their profit without limits, the mobsters who have exploited the Church to legitimize their business and their crime, war criminals who never repented, but is not allowed to remarried divorcees.”

It’s an emotional plea that Yanez makes, but hardly the theological basis the Kasperites are hoping to build for changing pastoral practice. Yanez’s illustration is not unlike a teen caught taking the family car without permission who points at the transgressions of his sister in hopes of deflecting his parents’ disapproval. Yanez, who was received into the Jesuit order by then-Father Bergoglio when the future pontiff was the provincial in Argentina, joins Father Schockenhoff’s camp—in this case the sinner is the Church, who causes the remarried to feel “excluded.”

The problem with these “exclusion” pleas is that it is not up to the Church but to the couple, who do have the pastoral option to live according to Familiaris Consortio if their case isn’t eligible for annulment. Because it is very difficult, very sacrificial, many pastors find it uncomfortable to suggest this path.

Certainly members of a community ought to be reminded by pastors to treat charitably all those among them who live in difficult situations, for all have sinned. But marriage, divorce, and remarriage is not a single sin or even a repeated sin. It is living in a perpetual state of sin that places one beyond the requirements for worthy reception of the sacraments. This is a truth that is seldom noted in any discussion by liberal proponents of proposed changes to pastoral care. Those bishops and theologians who oppose the Kasper Proposal begin from the standpoint of the soul—the eternal destiny of man. In that view there is no intent to “exclude,” rather to avoid additional sin incurred when one receives Communion while not in a state of grace.

However, this tactic of delegating a sort of victim status to those who are civilly remarried has prominent supporters. During the workshop, French theologian Xavier Lacroix, former professor at the Catholic University of Lyon, attempts to place the issue in the context of “forgiveness”: “There is no Christian life without forgiveness…it is not an excuse or a forgetting, but a re-gift.” The difficulty with this approach is that forgiveness as such presumes that transgressions are repented of, whereas a civil union while still sacramentally married to another is an objective instance of living in persistent adultery.

Friar Eduardo Scognamiglio teaches theology at the Theological Faculty of Southern Italy. At one of the workshops, he expressed his expectation that this question will raised at the synod: “Can you honestly deprive a believer of the Eucharist through the entire course of his existence?”

The workshops are reported to have devised a complex proposal as a path toward reinstatement of the remarried to the sacraments. The path included a penitential “journey” under the guidance of a pastor or bishop. There were serious objections.

Father Jose Granados, professor of dogmatic theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome, noted that a path of penance should dissolve the illicit union, and where that is not possible, there must be complete chastity within the civil union. His was considered to be the most “radical” solution. Others agreed that the path of penance can be a public prelude to welcoming the couple back to Communion, without the requirement of marital continence. (Presumably, this public penance is intended to forestall scandal among the faithful who witness divorced persons receiving Communion). However, Father Dianin stressed that the relatio synodi does not mention the commitment to live “as brother and sister,” pointing out that it refers not only to repentance, but to a penitential journey under the guidance of the bishop that assumes at least a partial re-admission to Communion, for example, on Easter Sunday.

Father Dianin introduced the tradition developed by the Second Lateran IV (1215) of the “Easter duty”—the reception of confession and Communion that is expected of Catholics at least once a year. His idea was that the “minimum” should not be denied to the divorced and remarried. His idea found some consensus, but others pointed out that if it is “right” once a year, it is senseless to limit it the rest of the year.

Still others objected to the public-penance path as an invasion of privacy and a psychological burden. Their hope was to find a path back to the sacraments, though a less public one.

Gian Luigi Brena, SJ, professor of philosophical anthropology at the Institute Aloisianum of Padua, emphasized the penitential journey as “a short duty.” Pastors must avoid heavy burdens as a prerequisite to begin the path because “forgiveness is not earned, nor deserved, but is a free gift of the Lord.” Father Brena made his intent clear to the other participants of the seminar: “We cannot allow it [the penitential path] to lead us to forget the mercy…threatening to remain firm in judgment toward the people in need, without giving acceptance and forgiveness.” He added a caution: “Besides, the current framework would not seem to be secure, in which case there would be no need for a double synod.”

The workshop sessions indicated a distinct willingness to promote “evolution” of current pastoral practices. The hefty volume of proceedings of the workshops has not yet been studied by a broader group of experts. On the basis of theology alone there is sure to be vociferous objections to any path, penitential or otherwise, wherein those who continue to live in sin according to the words of Jesus are returned to Communion.

There is another consideration. The synods are formally called to address the family in the context of evangelization. From an evangelical standpoint, who would believe in a God whose very own words we officially contrive to ignore? Are we to imagine that the Gospel is today less appealing than it was to the first Christians who heard and believed? Rather, as these thunderheads mount, might the synod fathers ask if the problem is not the clear teaching of Christ himself, but is rather that our flaccid, over-indulged society finds the Christian journey too difficult? The African Church does not find the teachings burdensome; they recognize them as salvific. What of their witness? Is theirs the compelling evangelical path?

The meetings were held January 17, February 21, and March 14, 2015. Among those in attendance were Msgr. Fabio Fabene, assistant secretary of the Synod of Bishops; Msgr. Jean Laffitte, secretary to the Pontifical Council for the Family; and Msgr. Carlos Simon Vazquez, undersecretary for the Pontifical Council for the Family. None of the above addressed the workshops.

About the Author
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications. She is a frequent guest on EWTN's “Abundant Life,” and her monthly “Global Watch” radio program is heard on EWTN radio affiliates nationwide. She was appointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops National Advisory Council (NAC), 2010-2014 and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @maryjoanderson3.