Given that the Catholic Church is the biggest and most powerful institution world-wide to uphold and protect the family, its stance on these matters are of great relevance both for those who want to preserve the institutions of marriage and family against being undermined as well as for those who want to re-define, weaken, and ultimately destroy, them.
For the latter, the outcome of the three-weeks-long Bishops’ Synod on the Family, which ended yesterday with a solemn Te Deum, must have come as a disappointment. A very serious attempt, lead mainly by Church hierarchs from Western Europe and America, to relativize the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage has been defeated. This attempt, bearing the name of Cardinal Walter Kasper from Germany (and allegedly supported by the Pope himself!), would have given access to the Church’s sacraments to persons who are divorced and civilly re-married, thus either abandoning the doctrine that a Catholic marriage cannot be divorced, or (alternatively) implying that living openly in a status of adultery and/or bigamy is not a sin.
However, there was determined opposition against this plan from the outset, especially from bishops from Africa and Eastern Europe. Thanks to this, the document that has finally emerged from the Synod contains not a trace of Cardinal Kasper’s proposals.
The three paragraphs that many consider the most controversial ones (and which indeed were adopted only by a narrow margin) are the following:
84. The baptized who are civilly divorced and remarried should be more integrated into Christian communities in different possible ways, avoiding thereby every occasion of scandal. The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral accompaniment, so that they not only know that they belong to the Body of Christ, which is the Church, but they can also have a joyous and fruitful experience of it. They are baptized, they are brothers and sister, the Holy Spirit bestows upon them gifts and charisms for the good of all. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services: it is therefore necessary to discern which forms of exclusion that are currently in practice in the areas of liturgical, pastoral, educative, and official responsibilities can be eliminated. These individuals not only must not feel themselves to be excommunicated, they should be able to live and grow as living members of the Church, feeling Her as a mother who accompanies them always, who cares for them with affection and encourages them along the way of life and the Gospel. This integration is necessary also for the care and Christian education of their children who should be considered the most important of all. For the Christian community, taking care of these individuals is not a weakening of their faith and of the witness of the indissolubility of marriage; rather, the Church expresses its charity in just this care.
85. St John Paul II offered a comprehensive criterion that remains the basis for the assessment of these situations [civilly divorced and remarried Catholics]. “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.” (Familiaris Consortio, 84). It is therefore the responsibility of priests to accompany such persons on the way of discernment according to the teaching of the Church and the directives of the Bishop. In this process it will be useful to make an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves how they behaved toward their children when their marriage entered a crisis; if there have been efforts at reconciliation; what is the situation of the abandoned partner; what are the consequences of the new relationship on the rest of the family and on the community of the faithful; what example this new relationship offers the young persons who must prepare for matrimony. A sincere reflection can strengthen confidence in the mercy of God that is not denied to anyone.
Furthermore, it cannot be denied that in certain circumstances “the imputability and responsibility of an action can be diminished or nullified” (CCC 1735) on account of diverse constraints. As a consequence, the judgment about an objective situation must not be carried over to a judgment about “subjective imputability” (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration of 24 June 2000, n. 2a). In defined circumstances people experience great difficulty in acting in a different way. For this reason, in addition to upholding a general norm, it is necessary to recognize that the responsibility with respect to certain defined actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, in addition to taking into account the rightly formed conscience of individuals, must also take these situations into account. Moreover, the consequences of actions carried out are not necessarily the same in all cases.
86. The pathway of accompaniment and discernment leads these faithful to conscientiously reflect on their situation before God. A conversation with a priest, in the internal forum, leads to the formation of correct judgment concerning that which bars the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on those steps that may favor it and enable it to grow. Given that there is no graduality in the law (cf. Familiaris Consortio 34), this discernment can never be detached from the exigencies of truth and the charity of the Gospel proposed by the Church. In order that this may happen, the necessary conditions of humility, confidentiality, love for the Church and its teachings must be guaranteed in the sincere search for the will of God and in the desire to arrive at a more perfect response to it.
There is much that could be said with regard to these paragraphs, but the most important is the following:
- A great emphasis is put on a better pastoral accompaniment of faithful living in irregular situations (i.e., those who are divorced and re-married). This involves not only a careful discernment on a case-by-case basis, but it also implies giving them a feeling that they still are welcome as members of this Church. Such a welcoming and caring attitude indeed is an important pre-condition for any attempt to help them in finding their way back to a life that corresponds to the Church’s moral precepts. This was always the Church’s teaching, and it was therefore not controversial.
- On the other hand, it is clearly recognized that “every occasion of scandal” must be avoided. Also, it is made clear that the “general norm” (about the conditions for access to the sacraments) must be upheld, and the discernment must be “according to the teaching of the Church”. That teaching is that marriage is indissoluble.
- It should in this context also be noted that the “discernment” on a case-by-case-basis may relate to the circumstances that have led to the breakdown of the marriage, and to the person’s responsibility for such a breakdown. However, what causes obstacle for a civilly re-married person to have access to the sacraments is not the breakdown of the first marriage, but the fact of having contracted a second one. This is not a matter for a case-by-case assessment.
The fundamental problem with the Kasper proposal, which ultimately led to its rejection, is that it fails to address the problem it pretends to address. A pathway of accompaniment and discernment is certainly good in that it allows to look at the reasons that have lead to the breakdown of the first marriage – and in the ideal case it even can lead to the re-establishment of that first marriage. But that is precisely not what the supporters of access to sacraments for the civilly remarried are striving for. They want, on the contrary, to do away with the first marriage – as if it could be dissolved or as if it had never existed – and uphold the second one. This would either imply the possibility of divorce (which is not accepted in Catholic doctrine) or the possibility of having two marriages at the same time (which is equally not accepted). In other words, this proposal was heretical, which is why the Synod’s final report does not even mention it.
Some might have hoped that the Synod mention it and express its severe disapproval. But such a public naming and shaming would have created the risks of deepening the rift between innovators and conservatives rather than bridging it. That said, the Synod might nevertheless have tried to find ways to express the Church’s doctrine with greater clarity, in particular by repeating the passage from Familiaris Consortio 84 that for some unclear reasons has been omitted in the paragraph quoted above:
However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
But even without being repeated expressis verbis, there can be no doubt that this doctrine remains in place, and that any attempt to interpret it away would constitute a wilful manipulation of the Synod’s true stance. There is therefore no possibility for the Church as a whole, or indeed for individual bishops or bishops’ conferences, to abrogate from that doctrine.
On an unrelated point, it should also be noted that the Synod has also not ceded to pressures to modify its stance towards sodomy, in particular by accepting it (or even welcoming it) as a “normal” and morally acceptable behaviour.
What the Synod’s final report does say is what the Church has always said: people with same-sex attractions are as welcome as everyone else, but no exception is made for them. We are all sinners, and we are all called to repent and mend our ways. Whatever the individual person’s responsibility may be, the homosexual orientation is intrinsically disordered and must not be acted upon.
Let us hope that, now that the Synod is over and a consensus has been found, the Church will continue to vigorously defend marriage and the family. This is important not only for Catholics, but for society as a whole.