ROME – As the Synod of Bishops on the family heads into its home stretch, one of its top officials made clear today that there simply is no consensus on the vexed question of communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the church.
Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary, who’s serving as the synod’s general reporter, today delivered what’s known as the relatio post disceptationem, the “speech after the debate.” It’s intended to synthesize the points made during the opening round of discussion, and to set the table for the synod’s final act.
Erdő said that the bishops appear to be in lockstep on several matters, including:
- Making the church “a welcoming home” for people living in ways that don’t fully accord with the Catholic ideal, including homosexuals, couples cohabitating outside marriage, and the divorced and remarried.
- Seeing the positive elements in situations that the church technically considers “irregular.” A synod official offered the example of same-sex relationships, which may feature “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” that represents “a precious support in the life of the partners.”
- Simplifying the system for granting annulments, a declaration that a first union was never a real marriage that allows someone to be married in the church.
- Improving the church’s efforts to prepare couples before marriage, and to support them afterwards – for instance, with parish-based mentoring programs in which experienced couples can offer counsel.
Those points seem areas where the basic decision has already been made, and work can begin immediately on implementing them. Based on Erdő’s summary, however, the issue of communion for the divorced and remarried is still very much up in the air.
Under the current discipline, believers who divorce and remarry without an annulment are excluded from communion as well as the sacrament of penance. Debate over whether to relax that rule has been a constant of theological debate in the Catholic Church for the better part of the last thirty years.
Given the obvious divisions that have surfaced, the question will remain on the table for at least the next year, before Pope Francis convenes a second summit on the family in October 2015.
Erdő made clear that there are two basic camps among the bishops at the synod, for and against a rule change.
“Some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation,” he said, referring to Catholic teaching that marriage is indissoluble, meaning for life.
“Others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions,” he said.
“For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path – under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop – and with a clear undertaking in favor of the children,” Erdő said.
“This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied only on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Erdő implied that if the rules were to be relaxed, preference would be given to “those who have endured separation and divorce unjustly.”
Erdő did not indicate which of these two groups represented the bigger camp inside the synod, though several bishops associated with each position are taking part in the event.
Pope Francis has not spoken on the issue during the synod, though he’s taking part in its daily meetings. Over his first 18 months he’s dropped several hints that he’s at least open to the case for relaxing the present ban.
Under church law a synod of bishops is merely an advisory body, and final decisions are up to the pope.
On annulments, Erdő said there was wide interest in a “more accessible and flexible” system. At present annulments can only be granted after a legal process that some critics find cumbersome, time-consuming and overly invasive.
He cited three possibilities for reform: eliminating the current automatic appeal to Rome before finalizing the verdict; creating an administrative procedure that would be in the hands of local bishops; and a “summary process,” meaning an expedited procedure, when the grounds for an annulment seem clear.
Erdő also acknowledged that challenges facing the family differ widely around the world.
African bishops, he said, often have to deal with the realities of polygamy, as well as “marriage in stages,” referring the custom that a marriage sometimes isn’t considered final until the birth of a child and thus couples end up living as man and wife without a church wedding.
In countries where Catholicism is a minority, especially in the Middle East, mixed marriages often create headaches with regard to inheritance and legal rights, as well as with regard to religious freedom and forced conversions.
In the West, Erdő said, “the practice of cohabitation before marriage, or indeed cohabitation not oriented towards assuming the form of an institutional bond, is increasingly widespread.”
Erdő ticked off a series of other priorities, including upholding the rights of women in the context of domestic violence.
“The condition of women needs to be defended and promoted,” he said.
In general Erdő said it’s clear the synod wants to reach out to people living outside the boundaries of what the church considers the full truth about marriage, including “those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations” – though not, he said, at the expense of changing Catholic teaching.
In that sense, Erdő framed the basic challenge going forward as balancing “the doctrine of the faith” against the need to propose a message of mercy.
The Synod of Bishops on the family continues through Sunday, with its most important final product expected to be a guide for discussion over the next year that will likely serve as the working document for the second synod on in 2015.