Does Francis have an 'R&D strategy' on the divorced/remarried?

Does Francis have an ‘R&D strategy’ on the divorced/remarried?

For more than two years, Catholicism has been gripped by lively debate over what the implications of opening up Communion to at least some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics might be. Maybe what Francis wants now is some R&D to find out what actually happens.

Various news outlets reported recently that four cardinals have written to Pope Francis to ask him to clear up what they describe as “grave disorientation and great confusion” related to his document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, and specifically whether it does or doesn’t allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to the Sacrament of Communion.

The four cardinals are Germans Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner, along with Italian Carlo Caffarra and American Raymond Burke. Because all four are typically seen as conservative, it’s reasonable to assume they were hoping the answer would be “no.”

It’s important to note, however, that the exact same questions could have been asked by progressives hoping for a different result.

(For the record, the four cardinals asked that their initiative not be viewed through a “progressive/conservative paradigm.”)

Undoubtedly, some will take their references to “confusion” as a criticism of the pope, though it’s hard to dispute the way the cardinals describe the lay of the land. It’s a plain fact that, as they say, there are “interpretations that are not only divergent, but also conflicting,” of Amoris Laetitia, and whom one chooses to blame doesn’t alter the reality of the situation.

Though it’s fascinating to see the precise way these cardinals framed their questions for the pope, technically known as dubia, there’s probably not much real news in the mere fact that they’re asking. Somebody, at some point, was bound to do it.

Perhaps the more interesting element of the story is the pope’s response – or, better put, the lack of it.

“The Holy Father has decided not to respond,” the cardinals write. “We have interpreted his sovereign decision as an invitation to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect.”

At first blush, it may seem puzzling that the pope would hold his tongue.

Either he really did mean to open a door to Communion for the divorced and remarried, in which case he’s presumably frustrated that some bishops are impeding his will; or, he didn’t mean to do that, and under that scenario one would imagine equal frustration that his decision is being misinterpreted and misapplied.

What, then, are we to make of the pope’s strategic silence?

Until Francis himself comments, this is of course nothing more than speculation, but here’s one possible way of accounting for his apparent willingness to tolerate a bit of pastoral chaos at the moment: Maybe this is his version of Catholic R&D, letting things play out for a while on the ground before he says anything irreversible.

(Granted, Francis did comment in a recent letter to the Argentine bishops applauding their interpretation of his document, but that’s hardly the same thing as a binding magisterial pronouncement.)

For more than two years, during the two contentious Synods of Bishops on the family and now in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, Catholicism has been gripped by lively debate over what the implications of opening up Communion to at least some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics might be.

Proponents of the idea have argued that it would promote a greater climate of mercy in the Church in the context of the pope’s jubilee year, that it would bring back people long estranged from the faith into more active practice, and that it would help take the edge off public perceptions of Catholicism as harsh and unforgiving.

They also claim that such a gesture will have ecumenical value, especially in cases of remarriage to a non-Catholic spouse.

Critics, on the other hand, contend that such a concession will lead to a lessening of respect for the sacrament of marriage, potentially producing more broken marriages on the grounds that Catholic couples will now perceive an “exit option,” and that it would also shift the Church’s understanding of the sacrament of the Eucharist in profound and damaging ways.

Somebody trying to look at this from a non-partisan point of view can probably find merit in each of those arguments, or, at the very least, can understand why someone would be tempted to think that way.

The problem with trying to resolve the dispute, however, is that up to this point it’s been largely theoretical. We don’t have any “field trials,” so to speak, to gauge how a provision to encourage divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to Communion after a process of discernment actually works in practice – whether it really produces either the positives or the negatives various people have forecast.

(The fact that this has happened quietly on the fly for decades in various parts of the world doesn’t count, because that was going on without explicit papal encouragement.)

In the end, it may not really matter if that’s actually what Pope Francis has in mind, because the real-world effect of how he’s left things cuts in that direction anyway.

What seems clear is that for the foreseeable future, there will be some dioceses and parishes in which the answer is “yes,” others in which it’s “no,” and that will allow people to do some comparing and contrasting.

(A creative Catholic university someplace could be developing tools for longitudinal studies right now about how levels of faith and practice, especially with regard to marriage and the Eucharist, either change or don’t in dioceses with varying approaches to the implementation of Amoris Laetitia.)

Of course, the R&D model won’t be satisfying to the most convinced on either side of the argument. Critics will say you don’t corrupt or water down Church teaching simply to see what might happen, and ardent defenders of Francis will insist that people should just suck it up, fall in line with his vision and quit trying to obstruct it.

For others, however, there’s an intriguing upside to the muddle the Church seems to be in right now vis-à-vis Amoris, which is that, for better or worse, it looks like we may find out which side has the better read on reality.

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