Sunday, September 28, 2014

Synod on the Family: The Battle Lines Are Forming

So we are going to change our rules on divorce and remarriage.  This seems to be the foregone conclusion of many on both the right and the left about the upcoming Special Synod of Bishops on the Family scheduled for Rome from October 5-19th and as a rising tide lifts all boats, the rumors about the synod has raised both the hopes of the left and the fears of the right.  Actually, the synod rumors are like the astonishing tides in the Bay of Fundy as the hopes and the fears of each party have rarely before been raised to this height. 
The Isaiah of the Left has been Cardinal Walter Kasper, former President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.  Kasper’s theological insights have long been admired by Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, and Francis asked the German Cardinal to give the keynote address to a meeting of the Cardinals last February.  The meeting was part of the preparation for the upcoming Synod and Kasper, never one to avoid an issue, jumped right in and proposed theological justifications for admitting those who have been divorced and remarried to receiving Holy Communion.  Present Church discipline does not permit the divorced and remarried to receive the sacraments without first obtaining an annulment from the Church of their previous marriage(s).  Kasper did not propose a carte blanche for all divorced and remarried but he did outline certain circumstances in which a pastoral decision might be made in which the Church could accept the couple back into full communion without giving its blessing to the second marriage.  Basically the Cardinal is proposing nothing different from what has long been called the “internal forum” process in which the priest confessor or advisor of a couple who have found it, for one reason or another, impossible to obtain an annulment but whose first marriage(s) were seriously flawed to the point where an annulment should have been granted, assures the couple that they can in good faith return to the sacraments.  An example would be a Catholic whose second marriage is to a Protestant who is unwilling to go through the Catholic annulment process for a previous marriage and there is nothing that the Catholic party can reasonably do to convince their Protestant spouse to regularize the marriage.  Another example might be that of a Catholic who has tried to have his or her marriage annulled but was unsuccessful because a witness, for reasons of spite, lied to the Tribunal hearing the case.  Such internal forum solutions have long been practiced though somewhat unevenly as much depends on the openness of the priest who is the confessor or spiritual advisor.  Priests are extremely reluctant to discuss particular cases—sometimes because it involves material learned in the Sacrament of Reconciliation—and the Cardinal’s proposals would not so much change the rules as bring out into the open a practice which has long lurked in the shadows of the confessional.  Nevertheless, the Cardinal’s proposals have triggered a strong reaction even among his fellow Cardinals.
Partly in reaction to Kasper’s proposals and partly to prepare for the Synod, several prelates—including six Cardinals—contributed to a book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ that argues for the indissolubility of Christian marriage.  Those who see this book—and many do—as a reaction to Kasper’s position have set up a bit of a straw man as it is highly simplistic, even disingenuous, to say that Cardinal Kasper has attacked the indissolubility of marriage.  The Cardinal has only said that we need to bring out into the open the pastoral practice that has long been practiced behind the closed and sealed door of the confessional and that furthermore, we need to follow our own theology on the healing and forgiving power of the Eucharist and give those whose lives have been broken by a failed marriage access to the graces of that healing and forgiving power. 
Well, it would appear to be one Cardinal against six but in fact it is no secret that Cardinal Kasper is only the spokesperson for Pope Francis who cannot himself declare on the subject without prejudicing the Synod.  While he has not spoken on the matter, Pope Francis has sent every signal that he not only approves of the Cardinal’s position but that he actively endorses it.  This, in turn, has triggered a reaction of panic on the part of the Katholic Krazies who see any change in Church discipline as yet a further step away from the beloved mix of myth and tradition that they consider authentic Catholicism.   The krazies have lit up the blogosphere like Bastille Night on the Champs Elysees
Among the participants in the synod are Cardinals Muller, Burke, Caffarra, and Pell—all contributors to Remaining in the Truth of Christ.  Pope Francis has appointed liberal Cardinals Kasper and Daneels to the Synod—but Cardinal Caffarra, one of the contributors to the book, is also there as a papal appointee.  Other prelates who are most likely sympathetic to the Kasper position are Cardinals Schönburn of Vienna, Dolan of New York, Marx of Munich, Nichols of Westminster, Koch of the Curia, and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, also of the Roman Curia.  The answer to the question, however, will not lie with either the Kasper group or the Burke group but with the much larger assembly of bishops from around the world and from whom we have yet to hear.  To a certain extent, actually to a great extent, the final decision will be an affirmation of or disaffirmation of the papacy of Pope Francis as everyone is aware of where the Pope wants to go with this and how it fits into the overall theme of his papacy which stresses mercy and reconciliation of those alienated from the Church. 
Meanwhile the Krazies are beside themselves.  I noticed Lifesite News ( is appealing for its readers to send in money so that they can go to Rome and lobby the Synod against any change.  Lifesite News is the internet face of Campaign Life Coalition, sometimes just called Campaign Life, a Canadian division on the conservative side in the culture wars.  While they espouse a pro-Life agenda, a careful examination of their publicity materials shows them to be a movement somewhat of the same nature and goals as the Tea Party in the United States.  In addition to the pro-Life issues of abortion and euthanasia they have taken very active stands against Same Sex Marriage, LGBT rights, sex-education, adoption by same sex couples, gender and orientation inclusivity, ALS research, and the Gay-Straight Alliance.  In addition to being opposed to human cloning and stem-cell research, they take a particularly narrow and unnuanced approach to questions of bio-ethics and consider bullying in schools and among teens and pre-teens to be “a myth,” particularly when it is related to sexual orientation. They also insist that Climate Change is a myth—something that one would think a Canadian might be less quick to deny.  While they are a Canadian organization—and one without any official Church recognition—the Campaign Life Coalition and its website Lifesite News, have spilled across the northern border and joined the American krazies in taking on Catholic Relief Services and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for not buying into their limited understanding of the Church and its mission.  They are currently appealing to their faithful for the funds to sponsor their junket to Rome to lobby the Synod. 
They are only one of several groups who are planning on demonstrating in Saint Peter’s Square against any relaxation of Church discipline in an effort to find pastoral solutions to the complexity of questions rising from contemporary issues of family life.  What will happen if the Synod should address and attempt to remedy the pastoral concerns faced by families today—divorce and remarriage, same-sex adoptions, bullying of children, contraception and family planning, in vitro conception, gay children, transgendered persons, or who knows what else?  And of course families are faced with a host of other issues as well that need to be addressed and which have political and cultural undertones—unemployment, immigration, abandonment, run-aways, health care and more.  There is no way that the Synod can tackle the issue of the Family and not be caught in the culture wars. 
My suspicion is that the end result of the Synod will be a somewhat ambiguous document that can be interpreted a number of ways, allowing a bit of wiggle room for confessors and spiritual directors to help people re-integrate themselves into the full life of the Church but without actually changing the official line.  In this sense it will be a disappointment to many who have what I think are unrealistic hopes for drastic public change.  If there is no change, I think business will go on as usual with progressive clergy helping people find sensitive and pastoral solutions to the dilemmas of modern life that face them and more conservative clergy wringing their hands as they explain that there is nothing they can do.  On the other hand, if there is a significant change of direction in the Church, and anything is possible when the bishops come together, I think we will see a revolving door as a significant number of Catholics who have been alienated from the Church decide that it is “safe to go in the water again,” but an equally significant number of neo-traditionalists go over to the various Latin Mass schismatic groups and the sedevacantists, claiming that Pope Francis and the Synod have abandoned the historic faith.  It is interesting to see how those who used to dine in the Magisterium’s Restaurant are now filling the cafeteria and those formerly relegated to the cafeteria are now enjoying the haute cuisne of Francis’ papacy.  As Saint Luke records the Blessed Mother saying: The mighty shall be cast down and the lowly raised up.  

1 comment:

  1. Informative article. If asked to summarize in only one sentence, I would quote this: "There is no way that the Synod can tackle the issue of the Family and not be caught in the culture wars."