ROME – There’s no consensus yet in the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the controversial question of allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, according to president of the US bishops’ conference, but he said many American bishops have their doubts.
American prelates generally have “a great concern with maintaining the bond of marriage, the integrity of that bond,” said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, who is taking part in the synod.
Kurtz spoke Oct. 10 in an interview with Crux.
Both American bishops and bishops from around the world taking part in the synod do appear, Kurtz said, to support a streamlined process for annulment, which is a Church declaration that a first union was never a real marriage because it failed to meet one or more of the tests for validity.
He also predicted that if a reformed process ends up meaning more annulments each year, any backlash over such an increase will be manageable. Kurtz warned, however, that by focusing on marriages that break down, the bigger picture of improving the Church’s support for married couples still trying to make it work could get lost.
Kurtz is at the synod in his role as the US bishops’ elected president, a position that reflects the respect he enjoys across a wide cross-section of American prelates. The truth, however, is that even if Kurtz didn’t hold the job, he probably would have been here anyway.
The family is a special passion for Kurtz, having served for a stretch as chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family Life and having helped steer through a pastoral letter on marriage adopted by the US bishops in 2009.
Given that background, Kurtz is likely to be an important voice in the synod’s deliberations as it heads toward conclusion. The following are excerpts from his Crux interview, which took place at Rome’s North American College.
Crux: This is your second Synod of Bishops, but the process has been changed to make the discussion freer. Is it working?
I think so. For one thing, it’s a smaller group. Another new element is the witness of married couples. That sets a whole different tone. Of course, we all come from families, so we have some experience with these things, but to hear from the real experience of married couples from all parts of the world has been very enriching and good.
Have you heard anything that’s surprised you?
I’m always enriched by hearing from other continents. I really have not had that many opportunities to hear from bishops from other parts of the world. There are flavors in Africa, for example, which I knew about but wasn’t quite as aware of as I am now. Several Africans who’ve spoken have described, for instance, how sometimes aid will be offered to their countries only on the condition that they do things contrary to their values. I think I know that intellectually, but I hadn’t heard it explicated so well.
Obviously, we’ve heard a lot from people in the Middle East. Now, do I know conceptually about the plight of people who are suffering, such as immigrants and people fleeing from persecution? Of course, but to hear from people who are actually on the ground is a different thing.
Heading in, there was a lot of speculation regarding what the synod might do on the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Can you see a consensus forming on that one way or the other?
I think it’s too early, but I will say that now I’m more convinced of the wisdom of having two synods. [Note: The current synod is preparing for another, larger summit of bishops on the family in October 2015.]
Obviously we’re all very interested in reaching out to families that are divorced and remarried, including both those who are still active in the Church, and there are many, but also those who are distant from the Church. To answer your question, though, I don’t think I’ve seen a consensus.
Where do you think the American bishops are on the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics? Those I’ve spoken with seem to be saying that the defense of marriage is a key value, now more than ever, and they’d be hesitant to do anything that looks like watering down the idea that marriage is permanent. Is that your read, too?
I think that’s a good handle on things, I agree with you. I would add that while there’s a great concern with maintaining the bond of marriage, the integrity of that bond, many bishops also believe that anything we can to assist with the annulment process, to streamline it, is worth doing. That’s been very strong.
As an American bishop, do you take pride in the fact that the rest of the world has derided the United States as an “annulment factory,” yet now many seem to want a global system more like yours?
I’ll let somebody else say we’re an example, but I will say that as a pastor I’ve known people who have benefited from it, so how can I not praise it? I do hope we’ll get better at it. Let me give you an example. Annulment is a canonical process that’s not intended to be therapeutic, but what I’m hearing [at the synod] is that there has to be a pastoral context for it. When a couple or a person comes asking for an annulment, it shouldn’t feel completely bureaucratic.
Let me brag about Louisville. When we came for our ad limina visit recently [a visit to Rome Catholic bishops are required to make every five years], we visited the Signatura [the Vatican’s Supreme Court], and they asked, ‘Who’s from Louisville?’ I raised my hand, and they thanked us for preparing what’s called ‘auditors.’ We have a whole series of these auditors, almost one per parish, who have been prepared both pastorally and canonically to welcome that couple seeking an annulment. We need to do more of that, I would say.
Does a ‘streamlined’ process mean more annulments?
That depends on couples coming forward. I would hope that it means less frustration for the couple coming through, and more sympathy and understanding for the steps they have to take. I like to tell people moving through the process, especially if they’re not Catholic, that the reason you’re doing this is out of love for the person you want to marry and that’s a worthy and noble cause. To the extent we can cut down on our frustration, it will help not only our couples, but also our priests.
If the system becomes less frustrating and more efficient, more people might use it and the end result will be more annulments. Is the Church ready for that?
First of all, as a pastor, my experience is that people welcome those who have had annulments. There’s no big concern at the level of the parish. I’ve never seen anyone protesting that this person should never have gotten one or anything like that.
On the other hand, we do have to worry about the confidence people have of their ability to be successful in marriage. I actually made that my first goal in prayer when I came here for the synod. I pray that the people who are getting married won’t wonder if they’re at the mercy of statistics. Do I not have a chance? From my social work background, I worry about the self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. If I tell myself enough that it’s not going to work, then it’s not going to work. So, we don’t want to pull the rug out from under people by suggesting that we don’t really expect their marriage to last.
We’ve got to avoid giving off the impression that we’re not interested in people in stable marriages. We’ve got to support them. If we come away [from the synod] with a strong message of support for people after they get married, as well as reaching to those who sadly have been divorced, then I think we’ll have a good situation.
If you get that, then an uptick in the number of annulments won’t be a problem?
I don’t think so. I was a pastor for 12 years, and in my experience being involved in the annulment process rejoiced when they looked around and also saw a strong support for married couples. When the US bishops did a pastoral letter on marriage a few years ago, that was the number one bit of feedback we got when we asked people for input. Couples told us that after their wedding was over, they were treated like a finished product and the Church had little to offer them.
Is another way of putting it that the focus on divorced and remarried Catholics and on annulments risks overshadowing the bigger question, which is how to prevent marriages from breaking down in the first place?
Absolutely. The preventative approach is important. Of course, we never should be making a choice between helping people who are suffering and trying to prevent them from getting hurt in the first place. We have to do both.
What would be most useful to you as an American bishop out of this synod?
I think the most useful result would be a confirmation of the beauty of the Church’s teaching and a resolve on the part of the Church at all levels, not just the bishops, to support marriage and family. If we have that confidence and resolve, the synod would be money well spent.