Preparations for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family

Source: FSSPX News

On October 8, 2013, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would convene an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops from October 5 to 19, 2014, on the theme “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”.  The extraordinary assembly of the Synod is a gathering of the heads of dicasteries of the Roman Curia, the patriarchs and major archbishops, as well as the presidents of bishops’ conferences worldwide.  This extraordinary general assembly has been convened only twice in the past:  in 1969 on the theme of “Cooperation between the Holy See and the Episcopal Conferences”, and in 1985 on the implementation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

In a letter dated October 18, Bp. Lorenzo Baldisseri, the new Secretary-General of the Synod, asked the various episcopal conferences to “share as widely as possible in the deaneries and dioceses” a list of 39 questions to start consultation at the local level.  So it is that a seven-page questionnaire was sent to them, noting that the Extraordinary Synod will be a first step in ascertaining the state of the questions to be discussed and in gathering proposals from the bishops.  In a second phase, an Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod will take place in 2015 to define specific approaches for pastoral ministry to families.  This preparatory document was presented to the press on November 5 by Cardinal Péter Erdö, General Reporter of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod, assisted by Bp. Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary-General, and Abp. Bruno Forte, Special Secretary;  it was available on a website of English-speaking Bishops, however, as soon as the letter dated October 18 was received.

This Roman document contains 39 questions dealing with the diffusion and reception of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, with the notion of natural law, with pastoral care with regard to the family and, in particular, marriage preparation.  These questions also address irregular situations:  cohabitation, divorce, divorce-and-remarried persons;  and the bishops are asked about their pastoral approach to these situations, or about the suffering of divorced-and-remarried persons who cannot approach the sacraments.  On this last-mentioned point, the document does not hesitate to pose the following question:  “Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognizing a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved?”

The questionnaire also mentions homosexual “marriage”, and the law in force in each country:  “What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?” it asks, before inquiring about the education of children in irregular marriages, as well as the reception of Church doctrine with regard to contraception.  A final question invites the readers to submit to Rome proposals on these subjects that may be urgent or useful and that would be appropriate to discuss during the next synod.

This questionnaire takes on the appearance of an opinion poll, since it is available to the public on the website of the Bishops of England and Wales, and because everyone—cleric or layman—is invited to respond to it so as to “participate actively in the preparations for the Extraordinary Synod”.  Thus it was published ten days after the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Abp. Gerhard Ludwig Müller, published in the October 22 issue of L’Osservatore Romano a doctrinal memorandum on the indissolubility of marriage and the impossibility of admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to Holy Communion.

On July 28 of this year, in response to questions from journalists on the airplane that was bringing him back from the World Youth Days in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Pope Francis had declared on the subject of divorced-and-remarried Catholics:  “We need to look at this within the larger context of the entire pastoral care of marriage....  But also—a parenthesis—the Orthodox have a different practice.  They follow the theology of what they call oikonomia, and they give a second chance, they allow it.  But I believe that this problem—and here I close the parenthesis—must be studied within the context of the pastoral care of marriage....  One of the themes to be examined with the eight members of the Council of Cardinals with whom I will meet on 1-3 October is how to move forward in the pastoral care of marriage, and this problem will come up there.” Before giving this reply, the Pope had stated:    “This is the season of mercy....  The Church must travel this path of mercy.”

The document authored by Abp. Müller and published on October 22 rejects the idea mentioned three months earlier by the Pope of a “second chance” offered by the Orthodox to divorced persons.  It declares:  “This practice cannot be reconciled with God’s will, as expressed unambiguously in Jesus’ sayings about the indissolubility of marriage. But it represents an ecumenical problem that is not to be underestimated.”  The document also dismisses the “mercy” invoked by the Pope, saying that “it misses the mark when adopted as an argument in the field of sacramental theology.”  “God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church,” Abp. Müller writes.

On the other hand, like Pope Francis, who declared in July that nowadays people sometimes get married while “lacking maturity” or “without realizing that it is a life-long commitment”, Abp. Müller states that “marriages nowadays are probably invalid more often than they were previously,” because “many Christians” are influenced by “today’s mentality” that is “opposed to the Christian understanding of marriage”.  Therefore, the German prelate goes on to say, “assessment of the validity of marriage is important and can help to solve problems.”  Hence the question in the preparatory Synod document:  “Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognizing a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved?” – This is not a question, but an incitement to respond in the affirmative. 

Some observers have seen in Abp. Müller’s memorandum a certain intention to “reframe” the issue, because since the beginning of the present pontificate the question of divorced-and-remarried persons has been the subject of statements that cannot help but result in very specific initiatives.  Thus, after his answer to the journalists on July 28, the Pope returned on September 16, during a meeting with the Roman clergy, to the discipline of the sacraments that are denied to divorced-and-remarried Catholics, stating:  “The Church must do something to resolve the problems of annulments” of marriage.  Now, on October 8, the spokesman of the Holy See had to warn against initiatives that could create “confusion”.  Fr. Federico Lombardi had in mind a circular letter issued by an agency of the Archdiocese of Freiburg-im Breisbau and sent to the priests of the diocese, asking them to reach out to divorced-and-remarried couples and to consider, on a case-by-case basis, the possibility of admitting them to Holy Communion and of entrusting to them missions within the parishes.  According to the Jesuit priest:  “Nothing is changing, there is nothing new for the divorced-and-remarried.”  The document “was issued by a local pastoral agency and does not involve the bishop’s responsibility”.

This clarification was not very convincing, if you know that Abp. Robert Zollitsch, President of the Conference of German Bishops and former Archbishop of Freiburg-im-Breisgau (retired because of his age, but still the administrator of the diocese) is a progressive prelate who has already publicly called for some opening on behalf of couples in an irregular situation.  In a letter dated October 10 and addressed to his clergy, Abp. Zollitsch felt obliged to make a correction to that document that had been published unbeknownst to him, he says.  It was just as “provisional suggestion” (sic).

Commentary:  This plethora of statements followed by clarifications gives the impression of a certain inconsistency:  someone opens a breach in Church discipline, only to close it up afterward.  But perhaps the intention is to accustom Catholics to seeing this discipline constantly being attacked, in the name of pastoral considerations and at the expense of doctrine, which they would not do otherwise.  And making the sacrament of matrimony the object of an opinion poll, as the Anglo-Saxon bishops do, will help dilute the dogma a little further into a pastoral plan that is more dependent on sociology than on theology.

The reflections of John XXIII cited by Abp. Forte during the presentation of the document to the press on November 5 confirm this sociologically pastoral trend:  “All is to be seen in the light of pastoral ministry: that is, in terms of souls to save and to edify.”  The Archbishop added, “It is not, therefore, a matter of debating doctrinal questions, which have in any case been clarified by the Magisterium recently … [The whole] Church is to listen to the problems and expectations of many families today, manifesting her closeness and credibly proposing God’s mercy and the beauty of responding to His call.”

(Sources : VIS/IMedia/Apic/Osservatore Romano/La Croix/ DICI no. 284 dated November 8, 2013)