ROME — Pope Francis opened the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the Family today by urging the bishops and other participants to “speak boldly,” yet the main speaker on the summit’s opening day struck a cautious note, insisting that what’s at stake isn’t church doctrine, but rather its practical application.
“What’s being discussed at this synod … are not doctrinal issues, but the practical ones,” said Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, tapped by the pope to serve as the synod’s relator, meaning the person who opens the discussion at the beginning and who wraps it up at the end.
Despite that, Erdő insisted the synod would still be a free and open debate.
Although the pre-synod period had been dominated by a public cross-fire among cardinals and other bishops over the controversial issue of whether divorced and remarried Catholics ought to be able to receive communion, several prelates today denied that the synod is divided.
“There isn’t a conflict,” said Cardinal André Armand Vingt-Trois of Paris during a Vatican news conference.
“Some things were said in the heat of the moment, but I don’t define this as a real polemic” among bishops, he said.
Erdő did not offer any prediction in his opening speech about how the debate over divorced and remarried Catholics might be resolved, but he did say what whatever happens, the church’s teaching on marriage as a lifetime commitment won’t change.
“The teaching on the indissolubility of marriage as such is not being questioned,” Erdő said. “A synod as such isn’t primarily a place for deepening theological reflection, but rather for talking about pastoral possibilities.”
In terms of what practical changes might be in play, Erdő opened the door to a streamlined process of granting annulments, a Church declaration that a marriage was invalid that allows a believer to remarry.
Specifically, Erdő floated the idea of granting annulments through an abbreviated administrative procedure rather than the Church trial currently required.
“The process could conclude with a declaration of nullity by the diocesan bishop, who would also propose a way to raise consciousness and conversion in the concerned party in light of a possible future marriage,” Erdő said.
In comments to reporters, Erdő said he included that specific possibility in his opening speech because the responses from several bishops’ conferences around the world sent in ahead of the synod “more or less made proposals along those lines,” suggesting that the call for a streamlined annulment process enjoys broad support among the bishops.
Last month, the Vatican announced the creation of a new commission destined to revise the annulment process, which is sometimes derided by critics as “Catholic divorce.” Some faithful who have been through the process complain that it’s lengthy, cumbersome, and overly invasive in terms of the personal information required.
Francis often has called for the Church to be more merciful in its treatment of people in what the Church considers “irregular” relationships, but Erdő was careful to stress that mercy does not mean throwing the rules on marriage out the window.
“In the case of a consummated sacramental marriage, after divorce, a second marriage recognized by the Church is impossible,” he said.
During his speech, Erdő admitted that the message of Christ regarding the vocation of the person and the family is not “easy to accept, because it places demands, requiring a conversion of heart. But, he added, “the joy of the Gospel fills the heart and the whole life of those who encounter inner emptiness and loneliness.”
In his own short opening remarks, Pope Francis urged the 184 bishops and 69 other participants, including priests, lay consultants, and nuns not to worry about what others, including himself, would think about what they have to say.
“Speak clearly. Say everything that, in the Lord, you need to say, without human considerations,” he said. “At the same time, listen humbly and welcome with an open heart that which your brothers say.”
Francis confided that after a meeting of cardinals he convened in February to prime the pump for this synod, one cardinal wrote a personal letter to say “it’s too bad that some cardinals didn’t have the courage to speak their minds,” because they were worried that the pope might have different ideas.
This time, the pope said, there should be no such taboos.