October 18, 2013


Pastoral care of marriage

As we reported in a Catholic News Service story in last week’s issue of The Criterion, Pope Francis has called an extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops a year from now to discuss the “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”

Notice that word “pastoral.” Pope Francis uses it frequently.

For example, during that now-famous press conference on the plane after World Youth Day in Brazil, he said that the next synod would explore a “somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage.” He apparently was already planning to call the synod.

He went on to say, during that press conference, that Church laws governing marriage annulments have “to be reviewed because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this. It is complex, the problem of the pastoral care of marriage.”

If anyone should be pastoral, it should be a pastor, or any priest. The word itself, of course, denotes the idea of shepherding sheep, and Pope Francis stuck with that metaphor during his chrism Mass during Holy Week when he told priests that they should be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” They should understand their people’s problems, and try to help them solve them.

One of the problems that the pope knows well from his years as head of an archdiocese is that of divorced and remarried Catholics. The Church encourages them to continue to practice their faith by attending Mass and participating in parish affairs, but they are forbidden to receive Communion unless they have received a declaration of nullity (an annulment) for their previous marriage or marriages from a Church tribunal.

The practice has sprung up in many parishes, at Communion time, for those who have not received an annulment to approach the priest or extraordinary minister of holy Communion to receive a blessing. Unfortunately, though, some Catholics who have remarried have stopped practicing their faith altogether since they are denied Communion.

Perhaps that is what the pope has in mind when he speaks of pastoral challenges of the family “in the context of evangelization.” In all that he has done since his election, Pope Francis has been trying to make membership in the Catholic Church appealing, and a modification of those rules for remarried Catholics may do that.

At the same time, it’s good to remember that studies done by such organizations as the Pew Research Center suggest that relatively few Catholics—in the United States at least—who have joined another faith community, or who simply identify now with no religion, rarely identify divorce and remarriage as a reason for their change.

Before he makes any changes in Church law, Pope Francis wants to get the advice of bishops from throughout the world. That’s why he has called the extraordinary session of the synod, only the third extraordinary session since Pope Paul VI reinstituted synods in 1965.

The announcement of the extraordinary session came on the heels of a meeting with the Council of Cardinals, the eight cardinals that Pope Francis appointed to advise him in his governance of the Church. We know that one of the things they discussed was the reform of the Synod of Bishops.

That, in turn, appears to have come out of the meeting of all the cardinals that took place before the conclave during which Francis was elected pope. Exactly what happened during that meeting is clothed in secrecy, but we know that there had been dissatisfaction among bishops with the way past popes used the Synod of Bishops as merely an advisory group rather than a decision-making body.

In his interview published in the Jesuit periodicals, Pope Francis said that perhaps it is time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops because “the current method is not dynamic.” Therefore, we strongly suspect that, during the year before the extraordinary session is held, the pope will announce changes in the synod, perhaps giving the body decision-making powers as long as its decisions are promulgated by the pope.

Our article last week reported that the announcement of the meeting of the synod came amid news that the Archdiocese of Freiburg, Germany, has issued new guidelines making it easier for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. This issue has been discussed in many dioceses in Europe, not only in Freiburg, and we suspect without knowing for sure that it was among the things discussed by the cardinals in that meeting prior to the conclave. It just seems that the Archdiocese of Freiburg is jumping the gun.

However, the pope has also spoken about giving local bishops’ conferences more authority and, during the Mass in late June in which he gave the pallium to Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin and 33 other metropolitan archbishops, he spoke about the need for collegiality.

—John F. Fink

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!