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Should divorced Catholics be allowed to remarry? The texts that must inform debate

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Pope John Paul II greets throngs of Poles waiting for a glimpse of their native son at the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. Photo: CNS/Chris Niedenthal
Pope John Paul II greets throngs of Poles waiting for a glimpse of their native son at the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. Photo: CNS/Chris Niedenthal

Letters from the Synod: Volume 15 – 16 October

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and elsewhere, on the XIV Ordinary General assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Edited by Xavier Rynne II

…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers


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Doubts About Devolution – IV

Those contingent borders, and a few more lessons from history

Both St John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI, were committed to the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the collegiality of bishops. Indeed, the future Benedict XVI, as Fr Joseph Ratzinger, helped formulate that teaching in his work as a Council peritus, or theological adviser, while the future John Paul II, as Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, was a leading member of one of the most rock-solid episcopal conferences in the world, a genuine collegium of bishops whose unity was a major obstacle to the Polish communist regime’s efforts to deconstruct the Catholic Church in Poland. At the same time, however, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were clear on the nature of national or regional conferences of bishops. Both men saw these bodies as essentially functional: they served primarily as instruments of pastoral coordination and mutual support among bishops, not as some sort of “intermediate” level of teaching authority in the Church wedged “in between” the Office of Peter and local bishops.

Their reasoning on this point, as I understand it, was theological. The Council had taught, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, that full authority in the Church belonged by divine origin to the College of Bishops with and under the Bishop of Rome (see Lumen Gentium, 22). The Council had not taught that that authority could be devolved to national or regional episcopal groups – a notion uncomfortably redolent , it might be noted, of the old, pre-Vatican II image of the Church-as-pyramid. Moreover, while the current ecclesial self-understanding of the Catholic Church has certainly developed over time, the notion that Catholicism is a  federation of local churches is an outlier in the history of Catholic theology. Rather, on the John Paul II/Benedict XVI view, which is the Vatican II view and is both reiterated and deepened in the 1998 apostolic letter Apostolos Suos, local churches are distinct expressions of the universal Church, each reflecting the truth of Jesus Christ, who is himself the one origin of the Church’s universal mission.

Still, while their teaching on episcopal conferences and their functions was primarily driven by doctrine and theology, I cannot believe that John Paul and Benedict, two keen students of history, were not also impressed by certain historical problems with regionalism and nationalism that had bedeviled the Church over two millennia.

Feuding patriarchates in the Mediterranean world were one unhappy feature of the first thousand years of Christian history, the most dramatic case being the mutual excommunications exchanged by Rome and Constantinople in 1054; those excommunications have been mutually lifted, but the effects of the rupture can still be felt today. But the controversies that led to 1054 were not unique to Rome and Constntinople. Ongoing contentions between the patriarchates of what is now the Middle East and North Africa in the first millennium helped weaken the Church in that part of the world over time; and that, arguably, was one of the factors contributing to the success of Islam in its triumphant drive out of the Arabian peninsula, across the southern Mediterranean littoral, and on into Spain.

The utter contingency of national borders must also impress itself on anyone trying to assess the claim that such borders, whatever their meaning in international law, constitute coherent bodies of Catholic bishops who, by reason of those borders, enjoy as a group an “intermediate” authority between that of the Pope and that of the local bishop in his diocese.

Alsace and Lorraine have bounced back and forth between France and Germany for centuries; if the question of who won the last war between the French and the Germans is determinative of who is in what episcopal conference in that part of the world, does that suggest that General Eisenhower somehow created the teaching authority of those episcopates in their present form? Suppose Robert E. Lee had listened to James Longstreet on the morning of the third day of Gettysburg, avoided a direct assault on the Federal position on Cemetery Ridge, and won the battle – and the American Civil War? Would the Army of Northern Virginia have been the decisive factor in creating two distinct bodies of bishops? What if Winfield Scott had kept going after conquering Mexico City, all the way down to the Isthmus of Panama? What if William Seward hadn’t convinced the U.S. government to buy Alaska from Russia? What if those we now know as Canadians had not repulsed their southern neighbors in the American Revolution and the War of 1812? What if Norway had not detached itself from Sweden, or if Schleswig and Holstein had not been restored to Denmark? What if the Italian Risorgimento had failed to unite the tribes and subtribes of the Italian peninsula into a single state? What if British India had remained one country rather than eventually splitting into India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh? What if Lwow and Wilno were still part of Poland rather than being L’viv in Ukraine and Vilnius in Lithuania?

And so forth and so on. In addition to the doctrinal and theological issues involved, the case that borders somehow “make magisterium” is a hard one to sustain, given the contingency of national borders over time.

There’s yet another subtext to this discussion. Certain western European bishops are the principal drivers of proposals for the “devolution” of authority over doctrinally-weighty pastoral matters to local bishops’ conferences. In presenting their case, they seem to assume that their ecclesiastical situation is normative and that, sooner or later, the rest of the world Church (like those culturally backward Africans, stubborn Poles, and “culture-warrior” Americans) will eventually get with the program, understand “pastoral accompaniment as they do, and join in offering what I described yesterday as an exemption from the universal call to holiness – in the hope that this will somehow get people interested again in Jesus Christ and his Church.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of the debates more than a decade ago over a new constitutional treaty for the expanded European Union. Then, the Old Boys Club in western Europe spoke rather haughtily of a Europe proceeding à deux vitesses –“at two speeds”, the laggardly new kids on the block from behind the old iron curtain eventually catching up to their elders (and betters). It’s certainly not the case that all the bishops from western Europe who are fathers of Synod 2015 think of the rest of the world in these terms. But some clearly do. And while they’re waiting for the dullards to catch up, they want some sort of synodal authorisation to proceed along their own path – which, as everyone paying attention knows, some of them are already doing.

One more thing. Those western Europeans who simply assume that everyone else in the world Church will eventually be like them seem not to have noticed that the secularisation hypothesis – the classic sociological claim that modernity inevitably and inexorably leads to the collapse of religious conviction – has been falsified in every part of the world except theirs (and their cultural colonies, like Québec). Yes, Christian faith must now be far more intentional than in the days of our grandparents and the old Catholic ethnic-transmission belt. Yes, the claims of post-modern culture raise all sorts of new challenges for the proclamation of the Gospel and for living an integral Christian life. But when Jesus is boldly proclaimed as Lord and the walking wounded of post-modernity find in the Lord’s witnesses – the Catholics they meet – the possibility of a happier, nobler, more compassionate and more exhilarating way of life, then the Church not only survives, it flourishes.

Which might be something else for the proponents of devolution to consider.

George Weigel
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Centre


“In Him all things hold together”

Letters from the Synod is grateful to Fr Robert Imbelli for taking time during his current Roman holiday, which follows the recent celebration of his golden jubilee of priestly ordination, to write the following essay especially for these pages. Fr Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College. Ad multos gloriosque annos!

Sunday, 11 October, 2015, was a gloriously sunny day in Rome – much as it had been 53 years before at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. I enjoy the wonderful blessing of having been in Rome on both occasions. Then, I was a young seminarian, just beginning theological studies; now by God’s grace, truly an “elder”, celebrating fifty years of priestly ordination.

My time in Rome, as a seminarian, coincided with the four years of the Second Vatican Council, which has so shaped the Church Catholic over the ensuing years. I, therefore, consider myself a “Vatican II priest”, firmly committed to the Council’s distinctive dialectic of ressourcement and aggiornamento.

As a theologian, I have insisted that there can be no authentic aggiornamento without a deep recovery of the foundational documents of the faith: the Scriptures and the Patristic writers. Reciprocally, genuine ressourcement is never antiquarianism: a museum tour through ancient artifacts. It always seeks to serve the life of God’s holy people in the today of faith.

But in my years of teaching and pastoring, I have grown increasingly concerned about what a previous entry in this series referred to as a “Christological deficit” in contemporary theology and Church life. One might even characterise this as a diffuse, if mostly unacknowledged, “Arianism”.

One theological symptom of this deficit is the not always benevolent neglect of Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. To my mind, this very Constitution, with its splendid confession that “Christ is himself both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation” (Dei Verbum, 2), provides the dogmatic foundation for all the Council’s teaching regarding the Church and its mission in human history.

Thus, I have often contended that the providential accomplishment of the Council consists in its Christological re-Sourcement. Its confession and celebration that all the Church is and all it strives, with God’s grace, to accomplish depends upon its living relation with the living Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the light of the nations (Lumen Gentium) and the only true foundation of human joy and hope (Gaudium et Spes). In a Patristic image much loved by Pope Francis, the Church is the moon reflecting the light of the Sun who is Christ.

The current Synod on “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World” seeks to follow the dialectic of ressourcement and aggiornamento that marked the deliberation and discernment of Vatican II. And it will be fruitful to the extent that it can provide a compelling Christological frame for the portrait and promise of family life that it paints.

In this regard a number of the reports issued by the circuli minores  after their first week’s discussion helpfully point the way. One of the English language groups stated forthrightly: “In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, we find the source of hope for the family in the contemporary world. Thus confidence in him is to be the first and last word of the Synod.”

A French-speaking group insisted that the Synod’s reflection must be “rooted in Christ, allowing itself to be taught by him, seeing with his eyes, having his sentiments”. And an Italian group, commenting on the formula – “see, judge, act” – emphasised that “one cannot truly see without letting oneself by taught by Jesus’ own way of seeing”.

The vibrant Christocentric vision, crucial to proclaiming and teaching the Good News of Christian family life, can well draw from Pope Francis’s inspiring apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. In the very opening paragraph Francis writes: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (Evangelii Gaudium, 1).

What better beginning for exploring the heights and depths of Christian married love and family life than in such a context, suffused with the realisation of Jesus Christ’s presence and love? And how better to initiate a reflection upon the family’s evangelising vocation than to take as point of departure Francis’s lyrical exclamation: “The primary reason for evangelising is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” (Evangelii Gaudium, 264).

But, if further warrant be needed to recommend this Christological frame for exploring the vocation and mission of the family, one can invoke an even higher authority than an apostolic exhortation: the exhortation of the Apostle himself.

St Paul addresses “the holy ones at Colossae” and recalls to them the extraordinary Christological hymn they sing at their liturgies, a hymn which confesses the absolute uniqueness of Christ in whom “all things hold together”, in whom “all fullness resides” (Colossians 1:17, 19). As theologians like Robert Barron and Bruce Marshall rightly insist, Jesus Christ holds an “epistemic primacy” in the life and reflection of believers. All things find their true significance in the light of Christ, “the first-born of all creation”, (Colossians 1:15); the signs of the times can only be truly discerned in his light.

Further, this confession of Christ does not leave the believer untouched, a distant spectator. For he and she are called to participate fully in this Christic Mystery. Indeed, it is revelatory of their own true identity and mission. As the Apostle proclaims, the Mystery is this: “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Such participation in Christ is, of its very nature, transformative. Believers are called, by their baptism in Christ to “put on the new self, renewed in the image of their Creator” (Colossians 3:10).

And so the Apostle Paul sums up his ministry: “It is Christ whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect (teleios) in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). The Synod discussions speak often of “pastoral accompaniment”. Can the goal of such accompaniment be other than presenting everyone perfected in Christ?

Often, beneath the surface allure of the so-called sexual revolution, lies a profound unease and even revolt against bodily being, somatic existence. This new Gnosticism can only be truly exorcised by ongoing conversion to Christ who, in the magnificent confession of Saint Irenaeus, “brings all newness, by bringing himself”. Omnem novitatem attulit, semestipsum afferens – a phrase significantly cited by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (11).

Jesus Christ, the beginning and end, is the measure and goal of the Christian journey and of Christian family life. Much more must, of course, be discerned and taught regarding marriage and family life. But unless the Christological foundation is luminous and compelling, we run the real peril of losing the Way.


…for the Synod and the Church to hear

These texts on the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and civilly remarried, briefly annotated where necessary, ought to be a central part of the debate on whether the Church’s current and classic practice is merely a “disciplinary” matter, as some suggest, or a practice in which both doctrine and ecclesiastical discipline  are engaged in a holistic and inseparable way. The resolution of that debate awaits a definitive clarification in the Synod; we hope a review of these texts will help advance that clarification.  XR2


Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, 22 November, 1981: #84

…the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church, which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples”.

[The last sentence is taken from the homily of John Paul II at the concluding Mass of the Sixth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on 25 October, 1980. There is no indication in this text that the current practice is only disciplinary, or that the Church is able to entertain different options.]


Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to Bishops Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, 14 September, 1994: #5

[In response to a proposal for changes in pastoral practice advanced by several German bishops, including then-Bishop Walter Kasper, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote a circular letter, approved by Pope John Paul II, affirming the teaching of Familiaris Consortio and the Church’s classic practice as taught in that apostolic exhortation and elsewhere. On the status of the question, the CDF letter clearly declares the classic practice to have doctrinal and disciplinary character.]

It falls to the universal Magisterium, in fidelity to Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to teach and to interpret authentically the depositum fidei. With respect to the aforementioned new pastoral proposals, this Congregation deems itself obliged therefore to recall the doctrine and discipline of the Church in this matter. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, the Church affirms that a new union cannot be recognised as valid if the preceding marriage was valid. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists .


Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of the Faithful Who Are Divorced and Remarried, June 24, 2000

This Pontifical Council, in agreement with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, declares the following:

  1. The prohibition found in the cited canon [915], by its nature, is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church. The scriptural text on which the ecclesial tradition has always relied is that of St Paul [in 1 Corinthians 11.29]: “This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup. He who eats and drinks without recognising the body eats and drinks a judgment on himself.”


Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 17 April, 2003: #37

The judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience. However, in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved. The Code of Canon Law refers to this situation of a manifest lack of proper moral disposition when it states that those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” are not to be admitted to Eucharistic communion.


Pope Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, 22 February, 2007: #29

If the Eucharist expresses the irrevocable nature of God’s love in Christ for his Church, we can then understand why it implies, with regard to the sacrament of Matrimony, that indissolubility to which all true love necessarily aspires. There was good reason for the pastoral attention that the Synod gave to the painful situations experienced by some of the faithful who, having celebrated the sacrament of Matrimony, then divorced and remarried. This represents a complex and troubling pastoral problem, a real scourge for contemporary society, and one which increasingly affects the Catholic community as well. The Church’s pastors, out of love for the truth, are obliged to discern different situations carefully, in order to be able to offer appropriate spiritual guidance to the faithful involved. The Synod of Bishops confirmed the Church’s practice, based on Sacred Scripture (cf. Mark 10:2-12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist.


…being other items of interest 

Marriage as a chaste union

A fine article by Fr Mark Pilon, written for The Catholic Thing, on the exemplary meaning for the Synod – and the rest of us – of this coming Sunday’s canonisation of Bl. Louis and Bl. Zélie Martin, the parents of the Little Flower, St Thérèse of Lisieux:

A word from the Emerald Isle

The primate of Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, on the question discussed above under “Doubts About Devolution”.

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