November 6, 2015


The synod’s final report

An important thing to keep in mind while discussing the recent meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family are these words of Pope Francis: “The synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called upon to pronounce as ‘pastor and teacher of all Christians,’ not based on his personal convictions but as a supreme witness of totius fides Ecclesiae [the faith of the whole Church].”

In other words, the synod isn’t over until the pope speaks and decides the issues discussed, because, he said, he is “the guarantor of obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the tradition of the Church.”

Now let’s consider a hypothetical case. A man and woman grow up as Catholics and get married in the Church. After a few years, the man has an affair with another woman, leaves his wife, and the marriage ends in divorce. After a few more years, the woman has a civil marriage to another man. They have a happy and enduring marriage for 25 years, raising children in the faith, and faithfully practicing the Catholic religion, except that they cannot receive Communion when they go to Mass.

That’s what much of the controversial parts of the synod were about. Some of the bishops thought that the Church must continue the rule that divorced then remarried people may not receive Communion, while other bishops thought that the Church should be merciful toward people in those circumstances so that some such couples could receive Communion.

The members of the synod gave Pope Francis a 94-paragraph report that highlighted the role of pastors in helping couples understand Church teachings about marriage. They voted separately on each paragraph, and it required a two-thirds vote for the paragraph to be included in the final report.

Paragraph 85 passed by one vote beyond the required two-thirds. It said that “pastoral accompaniment” should accompany “discernment” on a case-by-case basis the moral culpability of people who do not live up to the Catholic ideal of marriage. In other words, it seems to open the door for the couple in our hypothetical case to discern, with the help of their pastor, whether or not they are worthy to receive the Eucharist, although there is no direct mention of receiving Communion. At the same time, it must be said that reasonable arguments have been made that interpret the paragraph as maintaining the Church’s current practice.

As reported, there was wide disagreement among the members over this issue, including among the U.S. bishops. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, for example, speaking about the indissolubility of marriage, said, “To my mind, indissoluble means unbreakable, and you can’t say later it’s indissoluble but not exclusive.”

There was little controversy over most of the other paragraphs in the report, including a paragraph that praised divorced Catholics who, “even in difficult situations, do not undertake a new union, remaining faithful to the sacramental bond.” These Catholics can and should “find in the Eucharist the nourishment that sustains them.”

And, the report said, those who have remarried without an annulment of their sacramental marriage must be welcomed and included in the parish community in every way possible.

Now that the pope has the report of the synod and personally heard what the members said, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said on Oct. 28 that an apostolic exhortation on the family following the recently concluded Synod of Bishops could be released soon.

As we’ve gotten to know this pope, we indeed believe that he will act fairly quickly. And, as we’ve gotten to know this pope, we expect some changes.

We can confidently state that we believe he is not going to say that divorced and remarried couples may all receive Communion. But that couple in our hypothetical case might be given a path toward receiving Communion. Not so, though, for the woman’s first husband if he remarries.

—John F. Fink

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