Imagine that a high-profile, deeply controversial court case in which the president is involved were before the US Supreme Court, and, at the very same time, the president was scheduled to deliver an address before an audience of judges touching on the issues raised in the case.
To say that people would be hanging on his every word is, obviously, an understatement.
Something of that sort happened on Friday, as Pope Francis gave his annual address to the judges of the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s main working court, to mark the opening of the judicial year.
Most cases the Rota hears involve petitions for annulment of a marriage, and the pope was speaking just ahead of a decision he’s expected to make about whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion, the hot-button issue of all hot-button issues at his two Synods of Bishops on the family.
The comparison with the president and the Supreme Court is inexact, because in the Catholic system there’s no separation of powers: The pope is both the supreme executive and also judicial authority. Still, the political reality is the same: Everything he said will be subject to intense analysis.
To save any further suspense, the bottom line is while Francis did not directly address the divorced and remarried, the overall thrust of his remarks seemed to dampen expectations of sweeping change.
“The family, founded on indissoluble marriage, unitive and procreative, belongs to the ‘dream’ of God and of his Church for the salvation of humanity,” Francis said.
The pope’s comments also suggested an important dose of perspective on his recent reform of the annulment process, intended to make it faster, easier to navigate, and cheaper. In effect, Francis seemed to be saying that what he wants is a more user-friendly system, but not necessarily a looser one.
Here are the highlights from his 1,000-word address:
- Francis bluntly insisted that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union.” (More on the importance of that in a moment.)
- Noting that the Rota has sometimes been called the “tribunal of the family,” Francis said he wanted to reflect on another designation: the “tribunal of the truth of the sacred bond,” meaning the bond of marriage. He said those two aspects of the Rota’s mission are “complementary.”
- Francis called the judges to remember that “those who, out of free choice or unhappy circumstances of life, live in an objective state of error, continue to be the object of the merciful love of Christ and therefore of the Church itself.”
- He insisted that the fact that many people today get married without fully understanding Church teaching, and with a weak personal faith, is not in itself grounds for declaring their marriage invalid.
- He called on judges to evaluate the sacramentality of marriage “very carefully.”
- Francis argued that “marriage in its essential elements — offspring, the good of the partners, unity, indissolubility, sacramentality” — is not an ideal that most people can’t be expected to obtain, but “a reality which, thanks to the grace of Christ, can be lived by all the baptized faithful.”
- The pope said a “family spirit” is the “constitutional charter” of the Church: “Christianity must appear this way,” he said, “and it must be this way.”
While none of that adds up to a clear “no” to Communion for the divorced and remarried, it does not suggest a pope who finds the present discipline on marriage unrealistic, or one who believes that the grounds for annulling a marriage need to be significantly expanded.
Instead, Francis called for a “new catechesis” on marriage, meaning more thorough programs of marriage preparation. He repeated the phrase “new catechesis” to the judges for emphasis.
Overall, the major take-aways from the Rota speech seem to be the following.
First, when Francis issues his keenly anticipated apostolic exhortation drawing conclusions from the family synods, which is expected sometime in February or March, it seems increasingly unlikely he will provide a straight “yes” to what’s known as the “Kasper proposal” to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments.
(The reference is to German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has championed allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Communion after a “penitential path.”)
While there may be some wiggle room in the document, and Francis certainly will insist on mercy for the divorced and remarried in the context of his jubilee Year of Mercy, the pope’s use of the phrase “objective state of error” to describe broken marriages, even as a result of “unhappy circumstances of life,” does not sound like the rhetoric of a pontiff on the brink of upending traditional teaching.
One note of caution, however: Sometimes when popes speak to the Rota, they urge judges to be tough because they intend to push the envelope on pastoral practice, and are counting on the Church’s legal system to not let things get out of hand.
In other words, a pope telling the Rota to uphold the law is not necessarily the same as a pope closed to new ways of implementing that law.
Second, Francis was clearly listening at the synods on the family.
Probably the two most commonly struck notes at the synods were that faithful Christian marriage is not an ideal for an elite band of spiritual over-achievers, but something feasible and widely practiced in the here-and-now, and also that the Church needs much more developed forms of marriage preparation.
Both notes were clear in Francis’ Rota speech.
Third and finally, Francis remains a pope unafraid of wading into political waters.
His reference to not comparing marriage to other sorts of unions might seem boilerplate Catholic language, were it not for the fact that Italy at the moment is gripped by an intense national debate over a bill to provide civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, including full adoption rights.
On Saturday, Jan. 30, up to a million or more Italians are expected to flood Rome for a rally opposed to the measure, called “Family Day.”
Up to this point, it’s been slightly unclear to some observers where Francis stands.
His personal choice as secretary of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, has seemed ambivalent about resistance to the measure, and when Francis recently canceled an appointment with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the president of the conference who’s been outspoken in his opposition to civil unions, some took it as an indirect rebuke.
In that context, the sound-bite from the Rota speech is likely to be taken by “Family Day” organizers as a welcome boost. It may also embolden Catholic members of the center-left governing majority to oppose the measure, perhaps especially the controversial provision for adoption rights.