Di­vorced Catholics see hope in Vat­i­can sum­mit

Bish­ops, how­ever, leave vague the ques­tion of tak­ing com­mu­nion

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­THONY FAIOLA

VAT­I­CAN CITY — Di­vided cler­ics at a land­mark Vat­i­can sum­mit echoed the more in­clu­sive tone of Pope Fran­cis on Satur­day, ex­tend­ing a more wel­com­ing hand to di­vorced and un­mar­ried cou­ples while stop­ping short of call­ing for clear al­ter­ations in church poli­cies and leav­ing the ground­break­ing pon­tiff as the ul­ti­mate de­cider of change.

The three-week sum­mit — known as a synod — marked the cul­mi­na­tion of a two-year process to re­cal­i­brate the faith’s ap­proach to fam­i­lies in the 21st cen­tury. Un­der Fran­cis’s di­rec­tion, bish­ops and car­di­nals set a new prece­dent by tack­ling is­sues once con­sid­ered ta­boo in the Ro­man Catholic Church.

Yet the still-sig­nif­i­cant op­po­si­tion in the synod to rapid changes in rules also sug­gested how far off Catholics may yet be from see­ing Fran­cis’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary style turned into prac­tice.

The doc­u­ment, in some re­spects, went fur­ther than some thought pos­si­ble ear­lier in the week. But even top cler­ics con­ceded that lib­eral Catholics with high ex­pec­ta­tions of change un­der Fran­cis might still come away dis­ap­pointed.

“We have to be al­ways cau­tious that there aren’t false ex­pec­ta­tions,” said Car­di­nal Don­ald Wuerl, the arch­bishop of Wash­ing­ton. “One false ex­pec­ta­tion is that Catholic teach­ings would be changed. That is not go­ing to hap­pen.”

While a bell­wether of the hi­er­ar­chy’s think­ing from its most heated gath­er­ing since the re­form­ing Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil in the 1960s, the synod’s fi­nal com­mu­nique amounts only to a list of rec­om­men­da­tions for Fran­cis.

Rather than over­haul church doc­trine — or the fun­da­men­tal truths and teach­ings of the church — the ques­tion largely fac­ing Fran­cis is whether to al­ter pro­ce­dures and em­power bish­ops and pri­ests to make more in­de­pen­dent de­ci­sions on the ground.

In per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant pro­nounce­ment, cler­ics sought to find more ways for di­vorced Catholic­stopar­tic­i­pateinchurch­life.Yet, to as­suage the con­cerns of con­ser­va­tives, the ques­tion of whether a door should be opened for di­vorced and re­mar­ried Catholics — who the church teaches are liv­ing in a state of adul­tery — to take com­mu­nion at Mass was left vague.

Lib­er­als ar­gued that the lan­guage paved the way for Fran­cis to en­dorse such a shift, while con­ser­va­tives took heart that it does not ex­plic­itly call for one. Such a change, how­ever, would re­flect a prac­tice al­ready hap­pen­ing, as some par­ish pri­ests have de­cided to of­fer com­mu­nion to such cou­ples de­spite church pol­icy.

In­clu­sion of the clause came af­ter a break­through among the Ger­man car­di­nals. Car­di­nal Wal­ter Kasper, a lib­eral lion with the pope’s ear who cham­pi­oned a path to com­mu­nion for such cou­ples through penance, came to terms on lan­guage with Car­di­nal Ger­hard Mueller, an arch­con­ser­va­tive. The re­sult was word­ing that could be broadly in­ter­preted with­out di­rectly men­tion­ing the right to re­turn to com­mu­nion.

In a church that teaches that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is “in­trin­si­cally dis­or­dered,” the doc­u­ment also rec­og­nized the “dig­nity” of gays and les­bians. But it stopped far short of en­dors­ing the most lib­eral pro­pos­als on same-sex cou­ples — in­clud­ing one by a Bel­gian bishop to rec­og­nize the spir­i­tual value of such unions. In fact, the synod de­clared that same-sex unions could not “re­motely” be com­pared with “God’s de­sign for mat­ri­mony and fam­ily.”

The synod was more em­brac­ing of co­hab­it­ing het­ero­sex­u­als, stat­ing that some cou­ples may not marry in the church for cul­tural or eco­nomic rea­sons. Their bonds, the synod con­cluded, could nev­er­the­less in­volve the kind of “last­ing” and “re­li­able” ties that can lead to mar­riage.

In a speech af­ter re­ceiv­ing a list of 94 rec­om­men­da­tions from the synod of bish­ops and car­di­nals, Fran­cis ac­knowl­edged the rifts among cler­ics, not­ing that dif­fer­ences of opin­ion were freely ex­pressed and“at times, un­for­tu­nately, not in en­tirely well-mean­ing ways.”

He noted the task ahead as he seeks to find a Solomonesque way to bridge those dif­fer­ences, par­tic­u­larly given the cul­tural gulfs among the world’s more than 1 bil­lion Catholics. They in­clude those liv­ing in the most lib­eral parishes of Western Europe and the United States as well as far more con­ser­va­tive ones, of­ten based in parts of the de­vel­op­ing world where the Catholic Church is grow­ing most.

“We have seen that what is nor­mal for a bishop on one con­ti­nent is con­sid­ered strange and al­most scan­dalous for a bishop on an­other,” Fran­cis said.

Yet the am­bi­gu­ity of the synod also puts Fran­cis in a highly dif­fi­cult po­si­tion. If he fails to change the sta­tus quo enough, he risks dis­ap­point­ing lib­eral Catholics — as well as many non-Catholics — who have her­alded him as an agent of change.

But go­ing too far be­yond the synod’s rec­om­men­da­tions could alien­ate many in his di­vided hi­er­ar­chy, trig­ger­ing an even stronger back­lash among con­ser­va­tives, some of whom are openly ques­tion­ing the di­rec­tion of his pa­pacy.

Car­di­nals and bish­ops here were di­vided over what course they thought the pope would take.

“He has proven him­self to be a man of sur­prises,” said Arch­bishop Mark Co­leridge of Bris­bane, Aus­tralia.

Lib­er­als at the synod were be­ing prag­matic, say­ing they were im­pressed they got as far as they did. “This synod has put an end to judg­ing,” said the Rev. Lu­cas Van Looy, the bishop of Tie­len, Bel­gium. “This is a wel­com­ing church. . . . For me this is the word that has been most im­por­tant in the synod: ten­der­ness.”

The synod on fam­ily is­sues marked the Vat­i­can’s sec­ond in two years, with a meet­ing last year touch­ing off the de­bates on di­vorce and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. Un­like last year, when sev­eral con­tro­ver­sial clauses failed to gar­ner a re­quired two-thirds ma­jor­ity, all the rec­om­men­da­tions made this time reached that bar. But some said that was partly be­cause of an at­tempt to make the lan­guage more palat­able and am­bigu­ous. Sig­nal­ing the in­ten­sity of the de­bate, there were more than 1,300 amend­ments pro­posed by the more than 260 del­e­gates.

This year, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity be­came less a fo­cus than di­vorce. But some con­ser­va­tive bish­ops ar­gued that the synod was be­ing hi­jacked by lib­er­als over­whelm­ingly fo­cused on “Western” or “Euro­cen­tric” is­sues.

Bishop Joseph An­thony Zziwa, a con­ser­va­tive Ugan­dan bishop, said there had been far too much talk about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, which is crim­i­nal­ized in his coun­try, as well as di­vorce. Bish­ops even dis­agreed ini­tially on the def­i­ni­tion of a fam­ily — which in Africa, he said, of­ten means ex­tended fam­i­lies, com­pared with nu­clear ones in Europe and the United States.

Africans more gen­er­ally, he said, had far big­ger prob­lems.

“You keep ask­ing some­one from Nige­ria to tell me about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, to tell me about di­vorce, when five of his chil­dren have been ab­ducted by Boko Haram? You think that per­son has time to talk about that?” he said.

The di­vi­sions were geo­graphic as well as ide­o­log­i­cal — with con­ser­va­tives rep­re­sent­ing pro­por­tion­ately higher num­bers in Africa, Asia and East­ern Europe. Some bish­ops said they were sur­prised by how open some of the Ital­ian and Span­ish-speak­ing del­e­gates were to re­form.

But there were lim­its. Bishop Jo­han Bonny of An­twerp, Bel­gium, said that when he raised the idea in his work­ing group at the synod that com­mit­ted same-sex re­la­tion­ships could have spir­i­tual value, “bad feel­ings came up.”

In the end, he said he was pleased that the synod did not delve deeper into the is­sue of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.

“That is a point for next time,” he said. “Bet­ter to leave it for later than dis­cuss in it a hot and bad at­mos­phere.”

“For me this is the word that has been most im­por­tant in the synod: ten­der­ness.”

The Rev. Lu­cas Van Looy, of Tie­len, Bel­gium


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