VATICAN CITY — The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming! The briefing today featured for the first time one of the 14 observer couples to the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Jeff and Alice Heinzen of the LaCrosse, Wisconsin diocese. The couple found out over the summer that they would be included in the Synod, and have attended the entire debate this week.

Today is the last day for the prepared interventions. According to the Vatican’s count, 180 of the 194 participants of the Synod have had the opportunity to speak. Starting next week, the Synod forms into language-based discussion groups to review the presentations made during this week, picking up where the speeches and the informal side discussions left off. There will likely be more development, but perhaps less news, made during this second round of the Synod. In one nod to some of the criticism over the lack of transparency during round one, the Vatican announced today that it would publish the texts of the speeches from observers and experts, but not from the Synod’s voting members. Much of those have already been published, especially the testimonies of the observer families.

A group of students from Switzerland joined us in the press briefing today. I’m not entirely sure why. The teens were quite respectful and enthusiastic, accompanied by a priest or deacon, and I took a picture for them using their own camera (which I enjoy offering when I see people getting left out of their own pictures.) The one young man with whom I spoke briefly spoke impeccable English told me they attended a Catholic school in Switzerland. I wanted to get an interview with them when the briefing ended, but they left after about 15 minutes of Fr. Federico Lombardi’s opening statement at the briefing. It’s the first time I’ve seen such a group admitted to the briefing, although “admitted” overstates the process; if you can get into La Sala Stampa, you can easily walk into the briefing room.

The briefing covered some of the same topical ground as yesterday, but moved the recap of fresh discussions a little more forward. One interesting topic that hadn’t arisen before now was natural-family planning and Humanae Vitae, as Alice Heinzen has been a facilitator of this teaching in her diocese. Yesterday the briefing noted that there were only a couple of interventions on contraception for the entire synod even though the Vatican opened the topic with the bishops, which suggests that Humanae Vitae still enjoys overwhelming support 46 years after its publication. (In fact, the final day of the Synod will be dedicated to the beatification of its author, Pope Paul VI, who also presided over most of Vatican II.) Alice responded to a question regarding the lack of traction that NFP has had among younger Catholics, and she urged them to give it another look. The science has developed considerably, Alice said, and she hopes that the Catholic Church crafts full programs to instruct young marrieds in its use. Jeff followed up by noting that the use of NFP requires and promotes trust and bonding between husbands and wives, and allows them to control their own fertility without chemical or surgical intervention, making it also the healthiest choice. After that, Fr. Thomas Rosica noted that even more discussion of the “imposition of ideologies” on third-world countries, especially in regard to artificial birth control, abortion, population control, and same-sex marriage.

There was more discussion of a “penitential journey” for divorced and remarried couples, but that was put in the context of an educational process by the Heinzens in a follow-up. The issue is the recognition of the true source and substance of the Eucharist, which is the path to true holiness. On that subject, John Thavis had an enlightening report about remarks from Cardinal Coccopalmerio, who appeared at yesterday’s briefing, about the nature of the “penitential journey.” It may be more about administrative annulments, rather than a change in Eucharistic practice:

But meantime, some very interesting comments came today from an unlikely source. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, reviewed with reporters some of the pastoral options that are being proposed for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.

He noted the suggestion that the church should look into the Orthodox Church practice of accepting, to some degree, second and third marriages, and said it deserved study. But he foresaw problems, and did not appear at all convinced that the Catholic Church would go down that road.

Instead Coccopalmerio favored streamlining the annulment process. He is a key member of a commission recently named by Pope Francis to study that very issue.

Coccopalmerio said one of more intriguing ideas was to establish an “administrative” procedure whereby a local bishop, after careful consideration based largely on the credibility of the couple, could simply declare a marriage annulled – thus avoiding the sometimes lengthy and costly treatment by marriage tribunals. Care would be needed to ensure this procedure did not become superficial, but he said he was “very much in favor” of this approach. It was significant that such an endorsement came from the Vatican’s top canon law official.

Then Coccopalmerio explained why he thought something had to be done to address the needs of Catholics in irregular unions. He said he agreed with Pope Francis’ view – that “yes we have to protect the doctrine, but we also have to begin with the situations of real people, and give them a response. These are people with urgent problems, and they need our help.”

Whatever the approach, the concern over what the bishops called “the widows and widowers of divorce” is real and a priority in this synod. We will hear more of this as the synod progresses into its next phase, but even more so over the next year after the conclusion of this two-week start.

Later today, I’ll be on Sheila Liaugminas’ show on Relevant Radio at 5 pm CT. That’s a pretape, as a live interview would be, oh, midnight here in Rome. Very little of the nightlife is actually open that late, and I certainly won’t be.

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