Though Pope Francis is depicted in the press as a radical, reforming Pope, in recent weeks his emphasis on traditional sacramental teaching has been increasing. What is his true position?
Vatican observers are noting that as the second and last session of the Synod on the Family approaches, the conflicting “sides” of the discussion are becoming ever more distinct, hardening, perhaps, for battle.
The more “reform-minded” cardinals, represented by Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, have expressed views often in agreement with a significant number of Germany’s bishops, who in December released online, in several languages, the results of their “consultation” with the “People of God” in their dioceses on several questions pertaining to marriage, divorce, sexuality and the Sacraments.
The results confirmed that German Catholics apparently want the Church to readmit to the sacraments some divorcees in second civil marriages, and practice “acceptance” of — even a “blessing” of — homosexual relationships, with which the bishops seem to concur in their statement. (Not all the German bishops approve of this kind of “reform,” however; see below on the German clergy’s “dissent” movement.)
The much-publicized sympathy of Pope Francis for the “Cardinal Kasper school” of theological opinion, evidenced in select statements of the Pope prior to the Extraordinary Synod last October (for example, calling Cardinal Kasper’s thought “profound theology”) continues to be assumed by many. Immediately subsequent to last fall’s Synod, however, it seemed to come to an abrupt halt.
In fact, the Pope has, since the close of the Extraordinary Synod, ceased altogether to give any hints of support, or even openness, to the “new paradigms” proposed on the controversial questions. Instead, he has reiterated and intensified his support for the traditional Catholic understanding of marriage and family, sexuality, contraception and abortion. He has criticized “gender theory” and pointed out repeatedly that humankind is made in the image of God as male and female, in a relationship of complementarity.
Even before last October’s Synod concluded, Pope Francis had acted to rein in the innovators by choosing several traditional-minded prelates to populate the committee responsible for writing the final report.
The popular media continue to depict Pope Francis as himself an innovator, a reformer, even a revolutionary, and therefore there is some presumption that those, like the bishops of dying Europe, who propose a radical loosening of the disciplines related to marriage and the sacraments are in congenial company with him on these issues.
They are forgetting that another hallmark of this papacy has been a solidarity with the young, poor, but thriving Churches of Africa and Asia, where Catholicism has only arrived lately and been recently embraced, and its riches of traditional doctrine and practice are still seen with a fresh eye and accepted with simplicity and gratitude.
The Pope’s reformist acts in view of October’s Synod. The Pope and Cardinal Gerhard Müller
Editor’s note: The article below is by a Latin American Catholic intellectual who is a supporter of Pope Francis. We learn from this article that many of Francis’ supporters see the present ecclesial situation as one in which there is a need for “updating the Church” to “keep up” with changes in modern society while avoiding, if possible, any division or schism in the Church. We publish this article, in translation, because it offers insight into the thinking of some of those Catholic thinkers close to Francis.
After the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod on the Family, which took place in October 2014, it seems that hostilities toward the Pope, due to his reformist spirit, have calmed down. In fact, Francis himself has sent out tranquilizing signals, reaffirming the Church’s magisterial teachings, showing more trust in some cardinals who dissented from proposed innovations, such as Carlo Maria Caffarra, and publicly putting distance between himself and reformist leaders such as Cardinal Walter Kasper.
Actually, this calm is more apparent than real, mainly because those conservatives in opposition have opted for working in silence, without making much fuss: in doing so, they are abandoning a style that served to put the universal Church on alert and gain followers. In a parallel way, the Pope has not ceased his denouncing of corruption within the clergy, while the G9 assists him in the challenge of forging ahead to get the Vatican’s finances in order and simplify the Curia.
In an institution where the status quo is predominant, it is no wonder that changes produce tension. That environment clashes with the solid adhesion and support that the figure of Pope Francis arouses, as he puts his authority into play to sensitize all nations to the goal of globalizing solidarity, justice and peace, and to promote, within the Church, the autonomy of the lay faithful, respect of personal conscience, and the embracing of charisms.
Behind each and every action carried out by the pontiff, there are messages of great significance that do not pass by unobserved. The nominations at the last Consistory, which liquidated ecclesiastical careerism, are one such example; another is the beatification of Archbishop Romero, which gives official recognition to this Church as the people of God, conceding ecclesiastical status to oppressed peoples and the poor in their battles for liberation.
Within this context, the analysis of last October’s Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod on the Family brings out revealing clues for evaluating the Church environment that surrounds Pope Francis. In this sense, the Relatio Synodi has given us unmistakable proof of the Church’s strength and a way of measuring the evolution of the Church since the Second Vatican Council.
The differences between a Council and a Synod assembly are clear to everyone, but the two do share common elements that help us to evaluate the quality of ecclesiastical communion. The voting consensus of both the Council and Synod Fathers is a good indicator of the climate of communion.
The Council documents were approved almost unanimously: on average, the Council votes had a 98.5% approval rate. With this in mind, we can see that the 92.5% approval obtained in the 62 paragraphs of the Relatio Synodi indicate a relatively lower consensus, with respect to the Council’s percentage. There are, moreover, four paragraphs from the Relatio Synodi that underline even more clearly the fact that divergent positions exist, such as matters concerning access to the Sacraments of Communion and Reconciliation, spiritual Communion and the recognition of positive elements in those who are not living out a Christian marriage, and the respectful and delicate reception of homosexuals. On these subjects, the level of refusal has surpassed 30%, and, in the case of access to the sacraments for people in irregular marriage states, it has reached 40%.
If that mere 1.5% of recorded dissent at the Second Vatican Council generated a painful schism that persists to this day, it is clear that dissent that reaches 40%, such as that recorded concerning the Relatio Synodi, highlights a significant change in the ecclesiastical spirit between the Second Vatican Council and the Synod on the Family. Here one can observe the 50 years of evolution that have taken place since the Council, as well as the scope of opposition to Pope Francis in pastoral matters.
Given this data, it is understandable that tensions within the Church, far from subsiding, are ever present and active. On the other hand, the news is that, after the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod, these tensions are not being aimed directly towards the Pope, but rather towards the reformists. Once ecclesiastical communion has been wounded, disputes become more subtle and technical, and less visible. For example, the case for innovation, led by Cardinal Walter Kaspar, is now facing new obstacles. At the February 2014 Consistory, when Cardinal Kaspar surprised the Assembly by citing a theological study by Professor Joseph Ratzinger, published in 1972, in which a pastoral solution was proposed for reinstating people who had been divorced and remarried, no one would have imagined that 44 years later, late in the year 2014, the same Pope Emeritus, with the help of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, would have published a Retractatio as part of a theological collection. In that collection, the Pope Emeritus, with his characteristic theological rigor, does nothing more than recognize the evolution of his thought, coherently with the principles upon which he himself had elaborated while heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Another case concerns the fact that, after the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod, a group of 100 prominent Catholics sent Pope Francis a Supplica Filiale, asking him to clear up the disorientation provoked by the possibility that, in the bosom of the Church, a chasm may be opening, wide enough to allow adultery and successive admittance to the Eucharist, on the part of couples who were divorced and then remarried civilly. Among the signers were Cardinal Raymond Burke and Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, together with a list of bishops and laypeople from various pro-life and pro-family organizations.
More recently, Cardinal Gerhard Müller publicly reaffirmed the authority of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, proposing the supremacy of this dicastery over the Bishops’ Conferences, in matters of marriage and family doctrine and discipline. He did this in response to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who, as President of the German Bishops’ Conference, had claimed that “we are not a branch office of Rome.”
In summary, next October’s Synod Assembly does not promise to be easy for the Pope. The opposition will be hoping to highlight the perceptions of a climate of schism in Rome, which is something that constitutes, in the Pope’s heart, a serious limit and an act of strong coercion, given that the Bishop of Rome, besides presiding over the others in charity, is also the sign of unity in the Church.
Pope Francis knows that the future of the Church lies in her capability to update, with respect to the challenges proposed by the world. This is an area in which the Church must enter into the age-old battle between the dominions of Law and of Mercy.
From this point of view, Pope Francis faces, in his pastor’s conscience, a serious theological dilemma, a matter that Jesus Christ faced and dealt with by contravening the Law, not on a whim, but out of mercy; in doing so, He behaved in a way that cost Him greatly on a personal level and, in the end, brought Him to the Cross.
This piece first appeared in the Chilean online journal Reflexión y Liberación.
“Dissenting” German bishops support brother bishop on traditional marriage
In opposition to the apparent majority of their confreres, five German bishops sent a letter of support (below) to the bishop of Passau, Bishop Stefan Oster, after he criticized the call from the Central Committee of German Catholics (the ZdK) to start blessing same-sex relationships as well as new relationships of divorced Catholics. Bishop Oster criticized their proposal by pointing out the biblical basis of marriage and that the selective “use” of Pope Francis’ words to support calls for change has no basis in reality.
Honorable Lord Bishop Oster, Dear Brother Stefan,
We thank you for taking a position against the proposal presented at the ZdK’s spring assembly, titled “Building Bridges Between Doctrine and Life — Family and Church in the Modern World.” We agree wholeheartedly with your remarks on the teaching about the Christian view of humanity regarding the importance for man- and woman-hood, and especially its importance regarding Christian marriage, based as it is on the teaching of Jesus in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.
In Germany, we are living in a strongly secularized society. This situation should not discourage us or make us want to adapt to the opinion of the majority, but it should be seen as an opportunity to rediscover the unique nature of the Christian vocation in today’s world. A frank and faithful proclamation of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel and the development of a relationship with Him as the richness of our lives, as you have undertaken in your reply, are an essential prerequisite.
We are convinced that many faithful are also very grateful for your frank words.
In fraternal solidarity, the bishops of:
Augsburg: Dr. Konrad Zdarsa
Eichstätt: Gregor M. Hanke OSB
Görlitz: Wolfgang Ipolt
Regensburg: Dr. Rudolf Voderholzer
Würzburg: Dr. Friedhelm Hofmann
The commission created by Pope Francis to review and change canonical processes for the possible recognition of marriage nullity has concluded its work and submitted its report to the Pope. The changes proposed are intended to streamline procedures and make diocesan processes faster.
It is likely that a document will be issued in this direction soon, certainly before the opening of the Synod on the Family in October, to clear up this problem, and make sure that the Synod Fathers can consider this chapter closed. The commission, created last fall, was presided over by Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota. Other members are Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and the Greek Dimitrios Salachas, Apostolic Exarch for the Greek Catholics of the Byzantine Rite. Last year’s Synod report included recommendations regarding annulments, such as “streamlining, simplified and faster canonical process; granting more authority to the local bishop; greater access of the laity as judges; reducing the cost of the process.”