Cardinals clash over divorce, communion ahead of Vatican synod

In just two weeks, selected bishops and cardinals will gather at the Vatican to debate how the Catholic Church should put its doctrine and teachings on family life into practice. The Synod on the Family is only the third extraordinary synod since Vatican II (there are regularly-scheduled ordinary synods for routine Church business), and expectations are high for a robust and momentous debate, and not just on issues such as divorce and remarriage, either. Those, however, have touched off a rare public fight between cardinals, after five of them published rebuttals to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s appeal to mercy in divorce issues. Kasper claimed that the rebuttals didn’t target him, but the man who appointed Kasper to the upcoming Synod:


In an interview published Sept. 18, a proponent of changing church practice to allow such Catholics to receive Communion answered criticism from some of his fellow cardinals, suggesting they are seeking a “doctrinal war” whose ultimate target is Pope Francis.

“They claim to know on their own what truth is, but Catholic doctrine is not a closed system, but a living tradition that develops,” German Cardinal Walter Kasper told the Italian daily Il Mattino. “They want to crystallize the truth in certain formulas … the formulas of tradition.”

“None of my brother cardinals has ever spoken with me,” the cardinal said. “I, on the other hand, have spoken twice with the Holy Father. I arranged everything with him. He was in agreement. What can a cardinal do but stand with the pope? I am not the target, the target is another.”

Asked if the target was Pope Francis, the cardinal replied: “Probably yes.”

Last night, the Associated Press noted that “the battle lines were being drawn” for the synod by the six cardinals:

Five high-ranking cardinals have taken one of Francis’ favorite theologians to task over an issue dear to the pope’s heart: Whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment can receive Communion.

They have written a book, “Remaining in the Truth of Christ,” to rebut German Cardinal Walter Kasper, whom Francis praised in his first Sunday blessing after he was elected pope as “a great theologian” and subsequently entrusted with a keynote speech to set the agenda for the two-year study on marriage, divorce and family life that opens Oct. 5. …

Conservatives, including the five cardinal authors, have vehemently opposed Kasper’s suggestion as contrary to Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

The second most powerful man in the Vatican has backed their view: Cardinal George Pell, one of Francis’ key advisers, wrote in another new book that debating something that is so peripheral to begin with and so clear in church teaching amounts to “a counterproductive and futile search for short-term consolations.”

“Every opponent of Christianity wants the church to capitulate on this issue,” Pell wrote. “We should speak clearly, because the sooner the wounded, the lukewarm and the outsiders realize that substantial doctrinal and pastoral changes are impossible, the more the hostile disappointment (which must follow the reassertion of doctrine) will be anticipated and dissipated.”


Among the five who participated in these rebuttals is Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, who at the moment heads the Apostolic Signatura, which is the Vatican’s judicial arm and a critical post when it comes to enforcement of doctrine. Burke has been prefect of the Signatura since 2008, which arguably makes him the second-most significant authority on practice at the Vatican, just below the Pope. Burke has a long reputation for conservative thought and theology, which would explain his participation in the rebuttal to Kasper, but Burke has also defended Francis from those who accuse him of seeking change for change’s sake.

However, rumors have floated out for the past few days that Burke may not remain in that position for long, but be sent to Malta for a conspicuous but largely ceremonial position. Father John Zuhldorf believes that this change might be part of the reorganization of the Curia — if the departure is actually true, which has not been confirmed — but still isn’t happy about it:

If you eliminate a position that has required a Cardinal, and that Cardinal is not 75 or 80, that is, ready for retirement, the Pope has to do something with him.  Burke is only 66.  What can the Pope do if there are no longer enough cardinalatial slots in the curia because he plans on eliminating them?  Well, you can send His Eminence off to be the bishop of some important see in his own country, right?  What if the Pope can’t do that because the Cardinal’s own countrymen have been drenching the same Cardinal in contumely?  Not enough curial chairs, not a good option back home?  Don’t forget that the Archbishop Secretaries of eliminated offices have to go somewhere too!  They might need those dioceses back in their native places.

So, what? You put the Cardinal in the best possible cardinalatial role you can find.  Some Cardinals who hit 75 and are at the end of service in a Congregation, are still useful.  They reside in Rome.  They can be on other Congregations until they are 80.  They could head up some office such as, once upon a time, the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei”.  That’s been put under the CDF.  There are still, for example, Archpriests at the Major Basilicas.  But, there’s already an American at St. Paul’s outside-the-walls: Card. Harvey, 64, also from Wisconsin, just like Card. Burke. Two American sexagenarian Cardinals from Wisconsin as Archpriests of Papal Basilicas at the same time? Not likely.


As one veteran Vaticanista advised me, it’s usually better to wait until things actually happen than to worry too much about rumored moves. Just like in any government, there are a lot of people who like to do a lot of talking (and for their own purposes), and often nothing much comes of it — and, well, sometimes it does.

Few denied that the issues being raised at the Synod would be contentious, produce passionate debate, and emotional responses. The fact that it’s started this early and appears to be getting personal highlights just what a minefield Catholic bishops and cardinals will have to navigate in two weeks. This public blow-up probably won’t reduce those tensions much, either.

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