ROME — In Rome, a Synod of Bishops is a bit like the circus coming to town. There’s too much happening to fold all of it into brief news summaries, especially when the marginalia isn’t directly related to whatever the day’s main narrative turns out to be.
Here are two of those side notes from yesterday, the opening day of the Oct. 5-19 synod, each of which reveals something about where things stand.
A boost to American pride
Although there may be plenty of fault lines on other matters in this Synod of Bishops on the family, a fairly strong consensus seems to have formed already on one front: the need for a faster and simpler system for granting annulments.
Whatever the merits of that idea, it would arguably represent a boost to American Catholic pride.
That’s because streamlining annulments would offer yet another case in which an approach pioneered by the Church in the United States, which not so long ago was seen with skepticism elsewhere, is becoming the de facto global norm.
An annulment is a declaration that even though two people had a Church wedding, the sacrament of marriage didn’t exist because one or more of the tests for validity wasn’t met. People seeking one go through a detailed process under Church law that some find cumbersome, lengthy, and invasive, not to mention occasionally expensive.
During the opening speech of the synod, Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary said that “many marriages celebrated in the church may be invalid” because couples don’t go into them with the intent of making a lifetime commitment. The implication was that the church should be willing to grant more annulments.
Erdő floated the idea of creating an “extra-judicial” process, allowing bishops to issue an annulment by administrative fiat without the necessity of a legal verdict, in order to speed things up. During a Vatican news conference, Erdő said he included the idea in his talk because many bishops’ conferences around the world had suggested something like it, suggesting fairly strong support.
Though Erdő didn’t quite say so out loud, the suggestion is that the rest of the world is coming around to the American way of doing things.
By a wide margin, the United States leads the pack in terms of the number of annulments granted each year. With just 6 percent of the world’s Catholic population, America accounts for somewhere between 55 and 70 percent of the approximately 60,000 annulments issued annually worldwide.
Critics, including a number of church lawyers in Rome and even some Vatican officials, have long complained that the United States is an “annulment factory,” grousing that American bishops and Church courts are too permissive. Prelates in the States usually respond that they give out more annulments because they take the system seriously, investing in tribunals and training canon lawyers so people whose marriages break down can do whatever’s possible to fix their situation with the Church.
Wherever one comes down, the fact of the matter is that based on the comments from Erdő and others, it looks like the rest of the Catholic world is moving in the direction of the American example.
The same thing has already happened in other areas.
It was the US Church, for instance, which developed the original “zero tolerance” policy for sexually abusive clergy, a stance which a decade ago was scorned by some senior Vatican officials and prelates from other parts of the world as cowboy justice and a betrayal of the Church’s legal philosophy. Today, many Vatican officials now cite the American system as proof that the church has turned over a new leaf.
It was also the Church in the United States that developed more transparent systems of money management back in the 1980s and 1990s, with many dioceses developing credible financial councils, soliciting independent annual audits, and publishing the results. Those steps at the time were often seen as a typically American flourish either unnecessary, or unsuited, for other parts of the world.
Now a similar trajectory of following the American lead is seemingly emerging on annulments.
Granted, many American Catholics have complaints about the way the system works. Some think it’s too permissive and a threat to marriages, others think it’s far too complicated, and both might be startled to hear that the US is considered a pacesetter. Nevertheless, whatever the defects of the American model, the rest of the church seems to be inching closer to it.
In other words, the Synod of Bishops in 2014 may already have driven home a key insight: Watch out when the Church in the US sneezes, because sooner or later the rest of Catholicism is likely to catch cold.
A plug for Kasper
In 1985, Pope John Paul II convened a Synod of Bishops to look back on the Second Vatican Council on the 20th anniversary of its closure. The run-up to that synod was dominated by a fierce debate over the views on Vatican II outlined by John Paul’s doctrinal czar, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in a book-length interview called The Ratzinger Report. (Ratzinger went on to become Pope Benedict XVI.)
During a press conference in ’85, one speaker became so frustrated with yet another question about Ratzinger’s book that he snapped, “This is a synod about a council, not about a cardinal!”
Though no one’s used a version of that line yet at the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family, they easily could in light of how much debate over communion for divorced and remarried Catholics has been framed as a “yes” or “no” to the views of retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper.
In February, Pope Francis summoned all the cardinals of the world to Rome for a meeting to prime the pump for this month’s synod. He tapped Kasper to give the opening talk, and Francis certainly knew what he was getting. Back in 1993, Kasper had been one of three German bishops who adopted a policy allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion under certain circumstances, only to have their knuckles rapped in Rome.
Kasper made a forceful argument for the more permissive approach in February, eventually publishing his speech in book form. Since then, heavyweights on all sides have lined up either for or against Kasper.
Last night, Kasper picked up a powerful endorsement from a fellow German, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich. Marx is not only president of the German bishops’ conference, he’s also a member of the pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisors and head of his powerful new Council for the Economy – in other words, a very big deal indeed.
Speaking during an evening news conference held at Vatican Radio, Marx said that “the majority of the German bishops are with Kasper,” and although he didn’t quite say explicitly, he left the impression that his sympathies are with Kasper, too.
Perhaps it may not seem surprising to hear one German back another, but try to recall that when Kasper and his colleagues got into hot water with the Vatican more than 20 years ago, it was a German, Ratzinger, leading the crackdown. Recall, too, that one of Kasper’s most vocal critics this time around has been another German Vatican doctrinal czar, Cardinal Gerhard Müller.
Given how much the Germans have been protagonists in this debate, it’s no small thing to hear their most powerful member declare out loud which side the majority is on.