Rome and the entire Catholic blogosphere are abuzz with speculation over an upcoming papal letter on marriage and the family, the fruit of back-to-back Vatican synods on the topic in 2014 and 2015, and set to be released in a Vatican news conference on April 8.
The wildly different scenarios put forward underscore the unpredictability of this Argentine pope, and highlight how difficult it is to evaluate his pontificate, even after a full three years sitting in the chair of Peter.
Despite the vast number of important topics debated at the synod, the speculation really swirls around a single issue: sacramental Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. In his “apostolic exhortation,” will Pope Francis depart from the constant teaching of his predecessors or will he change Church practice and allow the “remarried” to receive Communion?
Three important German prelates, each with a legitimate claim to knowing the pope’s mind, have come forward to offer their predictions on where the pope will come down on the question.
Progressive Cardinal Walter Kasper, an active proponent of relaxing the Communion ban for the divorced and remarried, confidently stated earlier this month that the pope will directly address this issue and his teaching “will be the first step in a reform that will turn the page back for the Church after a period of 1700 years.”
But then again, Kasper also confidently declared that the letter would be released on March 19, which did not happen.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the prefect of the Papal Household, told the German news service Deutsche Welle that he is convinced that Francis will hold to the line of his predecessors and that his upcoming letter would not represent a departure from traditional Catholic teaching on the matter.
Finally, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, recently reemphasized Church teaching on the necessity of being in a “state of grace” to receive Holy Communion, and the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation to recover lost grace.
Müller has presumably read through the text of the pope’s letter, since a draft was sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency, for its review and suggestions.
The bizarre truth is that even after the publication of the apostolic exhortation, this debate will not come to an end, and each will find something in the pope’s text to back up his thesis. The pope will not simply come out and say that the remarried may now receive Communion, but he will leave doors ajar and hint at unnamed possibilities for the estranged to feel more “welcome” in the Church.
And it is precisely the pope’s studied ambiguity that many find stimulating, and others exasperating. Francis has railed against those who emphasize the letter of the law over its spirit, recalling Jesus’ teaching on the priority of mercy over rules and human traditions.
He has been the pope of open doors and bridge-building, looking for new and innovative ways of making God’s love real and present to those who have strayed. His evangelical freshness has invigorated countless souls, and the centrality of mercy in his preaching and pastoral programs clearly replicates the teaching and actions of Jesus himself.
Thumbing through the pages of the gospel, there can be no doubt that the pope’s toughness with today’s “elder brothers” and his relative softness toward inveterate “sinners” are drawn directly from Christ’s example.
On a personal level, Pope Francis challenges me to constant conversion and to continually confront my life and choices with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. He unsettles me in the best and most fruitful of ways.
And yet the pope is more than a country pastor, and his words and teachings become the matter of study and a doctrinal benchmark for future generations of Christians. People inside and outside the Church have always admired the clarity of her teachings. Agree or disagree, at least you knew where she stood, yet this hasn’t always been the case with Francis.
As a theologian, I confess that I cringe when I hear the pope tell the United Nations that the environment has rights (a philosophically unsustainable proposal) or when he casually compares the use of contraceptives by nuns threatened with rape in the Congo to married couples facing possibly complicated pregnancies due to the spread of the Zika virus (apples and oranges).
Clarity does not preclude mercy, and doctrine does not undermine joy and freedom. Put in another way, true Christian caritas only exists in veritate—there is no real charity without truth. (Caritas in Veritate was precisely the title of a 2009 encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI on Catholic social teaching.)
And so I cannot help but wonder whether, along with mercy, souls do not also hunger and thirst for clearer teaching in a world already fraught with uncertainty and doubt.
Thomas D. Williams, PhD, is a Rome-based theologian and author of 15 books, including Who Is My Neighbor? Personalism and the Foundations of Human Rights (CUA Press).