THE great values of marriage and the Christian family correspond to the search that distinguishes human existence even in a time marked by individualism and hedonism. It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy. — First-week report on the Synod of Bishops, by Cardinal Péter Erdo
Will the Vatican now allow divorced Catholics to remarry? If not, can those who do so anyway still receive Holy Communion? What about unmarried couples living together? Are homosexual acts no longer sinful? Is artificial birth control?
Setting out the evolving Church position on such moral questions was the work of the Eleventh Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, held at the Vatican from October 5 until yesterday. And tasked by Pope Francis to report on the first week of discussions was Cardinal Péter Erdo.
He is no small potato. As Esztergom-Budapest archbishop since 2002, he is the Primate of Hungary, the highest Catholic leader in that country. When Pope Saint John Paul II made him cardinal in 2003, Erdo, then 51, was the youngest Prince of the Church. The former professor of theology and canon law also heads the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, grouping the presidents of 33 conferences.
Thus, Erdo enjoys not only intellectual and ecclesiastical stature, but more important, broad respect among more than 200 bishops and archbishops gathered for the Synod on the family. He needs those qualities as General Rapporteur summing up without slant or omission the assembly’s sometimes discordant views and proceedings.
The above-quoted lines from the October 13 report suggest the tensions underlying the forum. While acknowledging Christian family values, the excerpt cites the need “to accept people in their concrete being.” That includes “failure” and “diverse situations” in personal life like cohabitation, remarriage after divorce, and homosexuality — all contrary to Church law.
The last sentence highlights the paramount challenge in the Synod: balancing the demands of doctrine and the imperative of mercy. God’s commandment and His forgiveness. So it has been in Christendom from the beginning, with 3rd Century Pope Saint Callixtus I, commemorated last Monday, facing strong opposition in extending absolution to sexual transgressions.
A Church divided
Today, the debate is not so much about forgiving sinners who turn away from their proscribed ways, but how the Church should regard and treat professed believers who continue with practices and relationships violating present laws of Catholicism. This question is dividing the hierarchy and the faithful at large.
The debate over allowing divorced Catholics with new spouses to receive the Eucharist flared up in the months before the Synod, with leading cardinals taking opposing sides. Earlier this year, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council on Promoting Christian Unity, published a book titled Gospel of the Family, advocating communion for remarried divorced Catholics after a period of penance.
In response, five Cardinals and four other theologians have published Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, disputing Kasper. Citing Scripture and early Church tradition and writings, the nine Church men affirmed the indissolubility of marriage and the principle of linking this doctrine with sacramental practice. So no communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry.
The Synod summary recorded the differing views: “[regarding]Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening … For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path …”
The traditional approach of simply insisting on obedience to Church norms was under review: “Reconfirming forcefully the fidelity to the Gospel of the family, the Synodal Fathers felt the urgent need for new pastoral paths, that begin with the effective reality of familial fragilities … It is not wise to think of unique solutions or those inspired by a logic of ‘all or nothing’.”
Indeed, the bishops even urged care in the words used for Catholics who divorce and remarry, “avoiding any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against.” One wonders if that means they can no longer be told what Jesus said in the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”
‘Homosexuals have gifts to offer’
Several media reports on the Synod document highlighted the short three-paragraph portion subtitled “Welcoming homosexual persons”. It read: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”
The Synod stressed “that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.” Still, the document acknowledged that homosexual ties do some good for those they bind: “Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.”
Gradualness — the new mercy?
Along with arguments for changes in moral doctrine, there was discussion on gradualness: the idea that Catholics in proscribed situations be accepted and assisted in gradually moving toward the Church family ideal, acknowledging positive aspects in their relationships: “while clearly presenting the ideal, we also indicate the constructive elements in those situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to that ideal.”
Thus, on cohabitation, the Synod argued that if a civil union “reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage.”
Next October a follow-up Synod shall further refine Church positions after a year of pastoral encounter and dialogue. Can there be common consensus by then? After two millennia and with God’s grace, we hope so.