Synod opening: Marriage, divorce, mercy, and justice

VATICAN CITY – The Extraordinary Synod on the Family began today with an exhortation from Pope Francis to his gathered bishops to speak clearly and courageously about the issues facing the Catholic Church. The pontiff encouraged them not to hold back out of worry about “what the Pope will think,” and not to tell anyone else that “you can’t say that” in regard to open discussion. This directive need hardly be said, considering some of the debate that took place in the weeks prior to the beginning of this Synod, with several cardinals and bishops issuing competing arguments over marriage, divorce, and the process of annulments.

The opening statement to today’s session from Cardinal Peter Erdo appeared more intended to reaffirm current church teachings on family life — and perhaps reassure some of the participants that the focus would be on pastoral issues rather than doctrine. “Therefore, what is being discussed at this synod of an intense pastoral nature are not doctrinal issues,” the gathered participants heard (based on a translation of remarks as prepared for delivery, “but the practical ones — nevertheless inseparable from the truths of the faith.” Instead, the synod was encouraged to apply a “truth cure … as a remedy for the many problematic, oftentimes burdensome, family situations.” In the strongest affirmation of the current teaching, Erdo emphasized that the basis of this Synod would rest on the current Catechism, as well as St. John Paul II’s encyclicals Gaudium et Spes, and Familiaris Consortio. Innovation will not be an expected part of the Synod, at least not overt innovation.  

In particular, Erdo’s opening statement focused on marriage, divorce, cohabitation, and its consequences. Part of this synod will focus on the surveys conducted by the dioceses about the catechesis and understanding of family life in the parishes, but Erdo asserted that the the data shows that on marriage, practicing Catholics know and support the church’s teachings. The indissolubility of marriage “enjoys a broad consensus among practicing Catholics. This is particularly true,” Erdo continued, “among those who are baptized. The teaching on the indissolubility of marriage as such is not questioned.” Indeed, it is not just unquestioned but also “for the most part observed … with persons who have failed in their marriage and seek a new beginning.” Later, Erdo emphasized that recognition of divorce and remarriage without a church finding of nullity in the first marriage “is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive.”

The focus of this synod, Erdo stated, would therefore be on the promulgation of “shared pastoral guidelines” for a proper balance of mercy and justice, which would then be applied consistently throughout the worldwide church, right down to the parish level. A new effort must be made to “avoid[] the improvisations of a ‘do-it-yourself ministry’,” which Erdo said was making acceptance of the truth of Church doctrine on family life “more difficult.” Throughout his speech, Erdo emphasized the truth and justice of those teachings and the need to make them more clear and useful to the broader range of those whose family lives were disordered or troubled.

With that said, Erdo outlined at length some areas in which annulment practices might be reformed. Noting that formation programs for young adults seeking to marry and form families need improvement, Erdo questioned whether people truly understand the nature of the sacrament in this age of secularism and relativism. “Indeed, under the influence of the existing culture,” Erdo declared,” many reserve the ‘right’ not to observe conjugal fidelity, to divorce and remarry, if the marriage might not be successful or not be open to life.” However, Erdo noted that many divorced Catholics have little knowledge about the criteria for valid marriage, and therefore the opportunity to determine whether an annulment could be possible. In this light, the Instrument Laboris has produced “a rather broad consensus” for simplifying marriage cases. While the Catholic Church should “avoid any type of mechanics or impression of granting a divorce,” Erdo suggested that the annulment process could move from a judicial practice to “an administrative practice,” in some cases. Interestingly, Erdo also noted that “some responses suggest further examining the practice of the Orthodox Churches,” which allow for remarriage after suitable penitence.

That will not likely make Cardinal Raymond Burke feel reassured. In a press conference last week, Burke insisted that this particular question had already been resolved. Regarding a proposal from Cardinal Kasper to loosen the restrictions on access to the Eucharist for divorced and remarried, Burke responded, “The Kasper petition has been discussed already some decades ago, at the time of the writing of the Pope John Paul II’s exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, and were thoroughly discussed and the church gave the response in accord with their tradition.” On the other hand, Erdo explicitly rested his remarks on Familiaris Consortio, which seems to tip the hand a bit toward the status quo on practice that Burke hoped would remain in effect.

Almost no mention was made in the opening remarks of same-sex issues. Erdo only addressed those in a single paragraph, which noted the “broad consensus” from the survey that people with same-sex attraction should not suffer discrimination. However, he also said that “the majority of the baptized — and all episcopal conferences — do not expect that these relationships be equated with marriage between a man and a woman.” Erdo added that the vast majority of Catholics rejected “the ideology of gender theories,” a rather amusing swipe at academics, while still noting that many want more of an effort to end discrimination against women while still recognizing “the differences by nature between the sexes and their reciprocity and complementarity.” The focus on the emergence of same-sex marriage from the media in preparation for this synod seems, at least at this point, to have missed the mark.