Four days ahead of the release of Pope Francis’ keenly anticipated document on the family, in which he’s expected to address the hotly debated question of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is urging the Catholic world to keep its eyes on the prize.
“My major concern is that we can’t allow this one issue, as important as it is, to eclipse the fact that the major and most urgent mandate for the Church is to reclaim the beauty and nobility of the sacrament of marriage and family life,” Dolan said.
“When you have a Church that says that family is actually the reflection of the life of the Holy Trinity, when you have a Church that says that the love expressed between a man and a woman in marriage is a reflection of God’s passion and eternal life, that’s magic,” he said, but “most people don’t hear that, most people don’t believe that.”
In fact, Dolan suggested that from a pastoral point of view, too much attention has been devoted to the Communion debate, since those Catholics who are divorced and remarried, who are still coming to Mass, and who faithfully observe the Church’s rules, represent a “distinct minority.”
“Believe me, I wish I got thousands of people at the door of the Church shouting, ‘We want Holy Communion! We want back into the Church!'” he said. “I wish they were doing that, but they’re not.”
“I don’t hear this as an urgent pastoral problem,” he said.
Dolan was in Rome on Monday for meetings with various Vatican officials, ahead of a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan on behalf of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, to express solidarity with persecuted Christians. That portion of Dolan’s exclusive interview with Crux, in which he discusses the upcoming trip, will appear tomorrow.
Crux spoke to Dolan at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Crux: As we speak, we’re four days away from the official release of “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family. Have you seen the document yet?
Dolan: No, I haven’t seen it. They said we’d have it three days before.
You know full well that some people are going to be upset no matter what the pope says. What would your message to those people be?
First of all, I would say to those who feel disappointed, that’s always been true from the beginning. I mean, the teaching of Jesus upset people. It’s also been accurate throughout the history of the Church, there have always been different ways of seeing things … you look at the Orthodox way, you look at different theories within the Catholic family. There have always been various ways of interpreting things, alright?
That having been said, there’s a clarity and precision in the message of Jesus that we can’t tamper with, and that I don’t want to tamper with, nor do I believe Pope Francis wants to. The message that I would hope is going to come through in a ringing way in the apostolic exhortation, the message I would certainly want to saddle up and gallop with, is that once again the Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is sincerely trying to be faithful to the timeless teaching of Jesus, and yet apply that in a very merciful, understanding, gracious way.
That’s not new, since I hope we’ve been trying to do that for a long time. I think it has a little bit more drama, and there’s a heightened attention to it, because of the personality of Pope Francis, who has made such pastoral sensitivity a hallmark for these last three years.
I think what you’re going to find is a classic Catholic approach, of a clear defense of Church teaching and yet a call for creative ways to extend the mercy of God to people.
Suppose some people in New York are upset anyway. What will you say to them?
The right spirit with which to receive this would be, I’d say, a humble attentiveness. Let’s read, let’s study, let’s see what the pope has said. Let’s not count on soundbites or headlines … even from reputable agencies like the one with which I am now speaking! Let’s read it, let’s see how the Church receives this.
You can’t be savvy about the Catholic world if you go around waiting for bombshells, because that’s usually not the way the Church operates. The Church is much more into hints and whispers and nudges, it’s rarely into lightning bolts. That’s what this will be, it will be another nudge.
Catholicism is about evolution, not revolution?
I like that … thank you, Bill de Blasio!
I would say, look, we tend to Jesus, the Gospel, and the teaching of the Church. We’re not one of these people confined to present exigencies and who think that the Church has to dramatically and in thunder-ball ways change things to meet contemporary expectations. So just be thankful, relaxed, humble, be attentive to the teaching, and it will work out.
If the pope does approve a cautious opening to Communion for the divorced and remarried, perhaps through the internal forum, have you thought about how you would implement that pastorally?
I haven’t spent much time on that. For one, I don’t think that’s going to happen. For two, this in many ways already has happened.
Of course, there’s a conservative approach to the internal forum solution that the most conservative canonists and theologians have defended forever. I think the fear among many of us, however, is that if anything, things have become a little bit too lax.
If the pope now says, ‘Let’s go back to that traditional openness of the Church, that some things can be settled on the level of conscience’, that’s nothing new. It goes back to the arguments of Alphonsus de Liguori, and everybody else. If he says, ‘Let’s add to that in a very reasoned, prayerful, reflective way,’ that, to me, would hardly be revolutionary.
You wouldn’t see a reference to the internal forum in the document as anything fundamentally new?
I wouldn’t. Some wag said to me, and I think he was onto something, “Probably what we’ll get after the apostolic exhortation is some confusion, which would not be new, because that’s what we’ve got now.”
My major concern is that we can’t allow this one issue, as important as it is, to eclipse the fact that the major and most urgent mandate for the Church is to reclaim the beauty and nobility of the sacrament of marriage and family life.
We’ve got the truth here, we’ve got the treasure. We’ve got the true, the good and the beautiful. When you have a Church that says that family is actually the reflection of the life of the Holy Trinity, when you have a Church that says that the love expressed between a man and a woman in marriage is reflection of God’s passion and eternal life, that’s magic, that’s powerful. And most people don’t hear that, most people don’t believe that.
We can’t allow those other points, as important as they are, but which are still peripheral to that central issue, to cloud or eclipse this. From the little bit which I’ve heard, even the title, I believe that the pope will not allow that to happen.
Of course, as he’s said over and over, the synod was not about the divorced and remarried coming to Holy Communion but about family life. We can’t allow this to eclipse the greater majesty of this stunning reaffirmation of marriage and family.
On the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried being important but peripheral, what’s your pastoral experience? How many divorced and remarried Catholics are there who still come to Mass and who aren’t already taking Communion?
I have to say, my American brother bishops and I at the synod couldn’t figure out the great fascination with this issue. In America, people are beyond it. Now, I’m not saying that’s good, but it’s factual.
Among those Catholics who are divorced and remarried, you’d have different groups: a small one would be extremely faithful Catholics, who still want to remain active in their parish, and who do, and who bear a heavy cross because they personally have an allegiance and a comprehension of the Church’s teaching that they can’t receive Holy Communion.
They say we’ll continue on, and as much of a Cross as this is, our faith is still there, and our participation through prayer is still there, the experience of community and worship is still there, and we’re never going to lose that. If anything, it’s there more than ever.
That, however, is a very distinct minority. I wish there were more. Most people have said, “I didn’t know that’s what the Church teaches”, or “They have no right to teach that, so I’m not going to obey them”, or, “Who cares, I don’t go [to Mass] anyway.” And the last group is the largest one.
Believe me, I wish I got thousands of people at the door of the Church shouting, “We want Holy Communion! We want back into the Church!” I wish they were doing that, but they’re not.
I don’t hear this as an urgent pastoral problem. Even among Catholics who might hope for some kind of mitigation, most of them would say I don’t care, I don’t go, and if I wanted to [take Communion], I would, because I don’t need the Church to tell me what to do!
Some see [the debate over Communion] as laudably driven by pastoral sensitivity, who feel that if we’re going to get sensitive to our people, we better get into this issue. In pastoral fact, however, I don’t think it’s such an issue.