116. After the Synod on the Family, What?

December 1st, 2015

Two sessions in two consecutive years (2014 and 2015). Two full months of intensive discussions among Catholic bishops gathered in Rome from around the world. Several controversies between conservative and progressive voices discussing the state of the family in today’s world and, more specifically, whether or not to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. Now that the Synod is over and its Relatio Finalis (Final Report) was voted and released,[1] it is finally possible to ask the question: What was its outcome?

Letter Vs Spirit

The answer comes from the mouth of the Pope himself. At the end of the Synod he delivered a speech that provides his interpretation of the document. A closer look reveals that his approach to the text is actually an overall framework of his papacy. Referring to a language used by Paul (e.g. 2 Corinthians 3:6) and Origen (e.g. On First Principles 4,2,4), the Pope pitted the “letter” against the “spirit” of any given official teaching.[2] One the one hand, the “letter” of canon law is rigid and protective; on the other, the “spirit” of the same teaching needs to be elastic and embracing.

According to Pope Francis, there are those who want to defend the “letter” in the attempt to safeguard its purity and definitiveness. If this happens, the attitude towards those who are outside of its boundaries becomes harsh and judgmental to the point of excluding those who do not fit its criteria. This is why he urged his Church to implement the “spirit” of its traditional teaching in view of the fact that the church is for the whole of humanity. In theory, the “spirit” does not annul the “letter”, but practically it overcomes and eventually will supersede it.

Pitting the “letter” over against the “spirit” in this way has far-reaching consequences. In fact, distancing from the clear-cut “letter” and searching for the merciful “spirit” of traditional Catholic teaching seems to provide a fitting hermeneutic of the Pope’s attitude as a whole. This tension helps come to terms with what he has been saying and doing so far. The Pope seems to think that the “letter” is a straitjacket to the mission of the Church and needs to be replaced by the “spirit” of it.

Where is the “Spirit” Leading?

The “spirit” requires a big-tent approach that paves the way for developments. Applying this “Letter Vs Spirit” dialectic to the issues at stake at the Synod, it is not surprising to read Pope Francis encouraging his Church to address the divorced and remarried Catholics, not according to the sheer “letter” of their traditional exclusion from communion, but following the all-embracing “spirit” that will look for ways to include them on a case by case basis. Each confessor will have to decide, opening the possibility for different criteria to be used. The “letter” of the Report does not openly speak about readmitting them to communion, but the “spirit” of the Synod endorsed by the Pope does indicate that there must be a way to achieve this. The text is at least ambiguous and the “spirit” will eventually help to clarify it.

The final Report only contains recommendations but the final decisions will be made by the Pope himself in the form of an “exhortation”, i.e. a written papal document that becomes official teaching. Commenting on the outcomes of the Synod, the Italian senior journalist Eugenio Scalfari wrote that in a recent phone interview with the Pope, Francis told him, “The diverse opinion of the bishops is part of this modernity of the Church and of the diverse societies in which she operates, but the goal is the same, and for that which regards the admission of the divorced to the Sacraments, [it] confirms that this principle has been accepted by the Synod. This is bottom line result, the de facto appraisals are entrusted to the confessors, but at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask will be admitted.”[3] According to this view, the “spirit” of a text may take time to become “letter”, but nonetheless indicates the way forward and the expectations of the process. It is true that the Vatican Press Office said that Scalfari’s report was not reliable,[4] but these alleged papal statements are completely in line with the “spirit” with which Francis understands the results of the Synod. Moreover, the same “spirit” exactly reflects the pastoral approach that Archbishop Bergoglio followed in Buenos Aires before becoming Pope when he applied very inclusive patterns of admission to communion. The way he is leading towards is the same way he is coming from.

Pope Francis is working hard to change the overall narrative of the Roman Catholic faith, wanting it to be marked by mercy and inclusivity at the expense of tradition and rules. The “Letter Vs Spirit” dialectic helps him to pursue his goal. Roman Catholicism has always played with this dialectic in order to account for its “development”: the development of doctrines, traditions and practices. Vatican II has been a monumental exercise of the “Spirit Vs Letter” tool. With its numerous ambiguities disseminated in the texts, it has given rise to an on-going debate between conservative letter-bound interpreters and progressive spirit-evoking voices. The Synod is the latest instance of this lively confrontation that is intrinsic to a complex system like Roman Catholicism. What is new is that, whereas the previous Pope was a defender of the “letter” of the magisterial heritage, Pope Francis advocates for the “spirit” of it. We will see which “developments” this “spirit” will lead to.

93. Who Are We to Judge? The Synod on the New Forms of the Family

October 31st, 2014

“Whom am I to judge?” answered Pope Francis to a question on homosexuals. Who are we to judge? … seems to be the sequel of his answer by the Synod that met in mid October to discuss various critical issues about the family and the Church’s responsibility in addressing them. We are perhaps dealing with a significant development in the Roman Catholic Church, something along the line of the “aggiornamento” (i.e. update of attitudes and approaches) that took place at Vatican II and after. The pre-Synod debate chiefly concentrated on the possibility to re-admit to the Eucharist those who went through a divorce. Given the fact that, according to Roman Catholic teaching, marriage is a once and for all sacrament administered by the Church, should those who have broken marriages be given the sacrament of the Eucharist or not? The debate was polarized between progressive voices (like Cardinal Walter Kasper, for example) who favored a relaxation of the prohibition and conservative ones (like the North-American Cardinals) who opposed it. No final decision has been made yet. Next year’s second session of the Synod will make it and ultimately the Pope will promulgate it. There are tensions within the Catholic Church but the majority seems to have taken a line marked by openness towards change, not only as far as the re-admission to the Eucharist is concerned, but also towards re-positioning the Catholic Church in the much bigger discussion about the different forms of human relationships.

The Law of Graduality

The report drafted after the initial discussion (Relatio post disceptationem) contains some revolutionary statements and some significant silences. It highlights the positive value of each relationship, considered as always a good thing in itself. The Church wants to speak a word of hope to each relationship but the document refrains from passing over moral judgments on the kind of relationship that is envisaged. The report appeals to the “law of graduality”, i.e. each form of relationship is an imperfect form of good that needs to be encouraged to flourish. No distinction is made between heterosexual marriage and homosexual relationship, co-habitation and unions of various kinds. The good of a relationship is always in a “gradual” form and no relationship is totally deprived of it. Therefore, while recognizing standing and unresolved moral issues, positive words are used to describe homosexual relationships and non-married unions. This is the first time that something similar happens in a semi-official Vatican document.

The “law of graduality” allows to recognize the positive elements that exist in every situation, even in those that the Church has traditionally defined as sinful. Stress is put on “imperfect forms of good” that are present everywhere. Traditional Roman Catholic teaching has often underlined the “objective” nature of sinful acts (e.g. the adulterous and the homosexual intercourses), but the document leaves aside any reference to a black-and-white moral picture when it comes to assessing the present-day forms of relationship. Each relationship has different shades of good and this is the point the Church wants now to focus on. It is true that the final report (Relatio Synodi) moderates some of these statements and puts them more clearly in the context of the traditional teaching of the Church. The point is that the principle of the Roman catholicity (i.e. the development and widening of catholic synthesis) has been working here. A more extreme position is after mitigated and then one year is taken for the debate to go on until the final decision will come. Having said that, Pope Francis’ question “Who am I to judge?” has become the question of the majority of the Synod. It is now clear that the Pope’s “merciful” attitude has gained attention and has become wide-spread amongst the Catholic hierarchy.

The Vatican II Paradigm

Where does this feasible but not-yet official change come from? Some observers might argue that it is a capitulation to the spirit of the age that blurs any moral distinctiveness and elevates individual choices as the paramount criterion of what is good. Though there may be some truth in it this analysis is nonetheless incomplete. It was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that provided the tools that the Synod is now applying to the issue of sexuality and the family. Let’s see what happened then and how it impacts today’s discussion.

Before Vatican II, all non-Catholics were thought of as being heretics, schismatics or pagans. You were either in the Church or outside and against it. The Council introduced a new way of looking at non-Catholic people. While the Catholic Church retained its conviction to have access to the full sacramental salvation, other believers were considered as revolving around it depending on the distance or nearness to the center. The other religions reflected different degrees of truth and blessing and were seen in a fundamental positive way. The point is that each religion contained elements of truth that needed to be appreciated and that formed the basis for a re-discovered universal brotherhood. Vatican II abandoned the clear-cut in/out approach to embrace the principle of graduality: instead of denouncing the others’ errors, each religion became to be seen as having some good in it.

The same model is now applied to the different relationships. There is some good in a homosexual relationship although it remains distant from the ideal relationship. There is some good in a co-habitation outside of marriage although it is still irregular. There is some good in any loving relationship. It may be weak, defective, and even contradictory, but the Church wants to speak a word of understanding and hope for all. Although Pope Francis has not yet made this position official, everything that he has been saying and doing so far points to this direction. After his “Who am I to judge?”, the majority in the Synod is saying “Who are we to judge?”

77. Where is the Catholic Marriage Going?

March 21st, 2014

The family is at the center of Vatican concerns and activities. A Synod of Bishops is due to meet this coming October and then again in 2015. These important gatherings will address the challenges that the Catholic Church is facing concerning the difficult task of maintaining its traditional teaching in relationship with today’s realities, e.g.  many broken families, many divorces, many “new forms” of family even amongst practicing Catholics, not to mention what happens in secular society. Of course, the issue is huge and multifaceted.

One has to bear in mind that the present-day Catholic concern focuses primarily on the sacramental dimension of the problem. In other words, what does the Church do with the many Catholics who are divorced and are therefore excluded from the Eucharist? Should the Church soften the ban? Should it make provision for more “pastoral” approaches that could allow  their admission under certain circumstances? Ultimately, should the Church change its rigid sacramental categories and come to terms more with the “human”, frail, and transient aspects of marriage?

Kasper’s Way Forward

In preparation for the Synod Cardinal Walter Kasper was asked to introduce the discussion. His lecture (20th February) has stirred the internal debate and is polarizing opinions between reformists and traditionalists. The latest book by Kasper has a programmatic title: Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Paulist Press, 2014) and was publicly praised by Pope Francis as the best book he had personally read for some time. It is no chance that Francis has been insisting on “mercy” as the attitude that needs to characterize the Church in all its dealings with people.

Kasper’s lecture is a theological feast that blends Biblical exegesis, patristic writings, canon law and magisterial teaching throughout history. After revisiting all this against the background of the present-day crisis, Kasper envisages some possible “open doors” for those who have had failed marriages and whose conditions of life prevent them from any possible reconciliation. He makes references to the practice of the early church that used to re-admit people who divorced in some specific cases and that is still kept in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

How can a well established Roman Catholic teaching change? Kasper is aware of the newness of his proposal and suggests that the current situation is analogous to that of the Second Vatican Council on issues of ecumenism and religious freedom. The Church had been against both issues for centuries, but “the Council opened doors” by deciding that a “development” should take place and therefore recognized religious freedom and embraced ecumenism. What should prevent the same from happening with the admission of divorced couples to the Eucharist?

The “Sacramental” Bottom-Line

Non-Catholics may fail to understand the depth and the intensity of the problem. It is not so much about the indissolubility of marriage per se and the realization that divorce is part of the fallen world. It has to do with the sacramental theology that lies at the heart of the Roman Catholic religion. According to Catholic doctrine, marriage is a sacrament, i.e. an “efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1131). The essence of marriage is not a human covenant before God, but a divinely appointed channel of grace that is administered by the Church. “Normalizing” the failure means downplaying the sacrament and therefore shaking the sacramental institution that dispenses it. The fact that the discussion is also about the admission to the Eucharist, i.e. another sacrament, nay the chief sacrament, further amplifies the issue.

Any talk about marriage, divorce, re-marriage and the Eucharist is a talk about the sacramental nature of the Church. Kasper quoted the “development” that took place during Vatican II concerning ecumenism and religious freedom. This is true but neither of those issues impinged on the sacramental structure of the Church. They were sacramentally-free developments, so to speak. Re-admitting divorced people to the Eucharist surely has a “pastoral” dimension to it, but it is essentially a dogmatic issue in that it revolves around the identity of the sacrament, i.e. a divinely appointed efficacious sign of grace entrusted to the Church.

The Roman Church is built around the notion of the sacrament. It is a thoroughgoing sacramental institution. Cardinal Kasper (along with Pope Francis?) wants to emphasize the need for “mercy”, but is he counting the dogmatic weight of such a move? A more “human” and “merciful” sacrament will mean a more humble and modest Church, certainly not the Catholic Church that stemmed out of the Councils of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II.