Cardinal Vincent Nichols has indicated that he expects the Synod on the Family to consider changes in the Church’s pastoral approach towards Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried.
The Archbishop of Westminster said one of the major challenges facing the synod was how to identify a pattern of conversion that would allow the divorced and remarried back into full Communion with the Church.
Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that such people are in a situation of “public and permanent adultery”, synod fathers such as German Cardinal Walter Kasper have proposed that some remarried Catholics might be admitted to Holy Communion in certain circumstances.
Cardinal Nichols, who will attend the synod with Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, said he believed admission to Holy Communion must be accompanied by conversion because the Eucharist was not “simply as a badge of acceptance”.
“One of our great issues, without a doubt, is to see what is the pattern of conversion for people who have experienced failure in their marriage and have found a precious new partner,” the Cardinal told a press conference in London on Tuesday.
“That can only be answered one by one,” he said. “Divorced people are not a category and there can be no categorical solution because they are not a category – they are people on a pilgrimage, like all of us.”
He continued: “I think a number of things need to be looked at in this synod. How do we find accompaniment for these people?
“How do we find the pastoral time and space and skill not simply to come up with some categorical answer but to say what does conversion mean now? I can tell you what it means in my life, what does it mean in your life?
“If a marriage breaks down and if it was a valid marriage then Christ is still faithful to that marriage because he gave his word to it and Christ never withdraws his word. So what is the grace that remains in a person’s life after a broken valid marriage?
“I would suggest that it might well be the grace of conversion, a fresh look at what happened … that is part of a pathway that people can be invited to walk – we learn more about it – and that is always part of the holding together of the mercy of God and his call to us to grow and be more like what we should be.”
A summary of responses to a consultation undertaken by the Catholic Church in England and Wales on the state of family life, called The Call, the Mission and the Journey, was released at the press conference, and it documented some of the broad range of opinions expressed on a number of issues.
The 28-page document noted that the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion was consistently contentious, with one diocese listing it as the principal issue of concern and another saying it was the “single most common theme”.
“In another diocese the most common area by far for comment concerns the issue of marriage break-up and divorce,” the summary says.
“Many write of happy and fulfilling marriages but often with a sting in the tail regarding their children having difficult and broken relationships and not keeping the faith. Time and again respondents refer to the pain and suffering caused by the denial of the sacraments to those whose marriages have failed and have divorced and remarried. The disturbing and damaging effect on children is frequently referred to.”
It says: “Virtually no-one is opposed to the ideal of marriage but many are disturbed by the legalistic and punitive response of the Church to those who cannot live up to the standard.”
Cardinal Nichols told journalists, however, that he believed the Catholic Church had not yet fully developed the concept of what a sacramentally-valid marriage involved.
Evidence for this, he said, were the reforms of the annulment process announced by Pope Francis earlier this month in a document called Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge).
The Pope sought to make annulments quicker, cheaper and part of the pastoral ministry of the local bishop so that separating couples did not have to wait years to nullify invalid marriages – but some critics have likened the reforms to “Catholic divorces”.
Cardinal Nichols said that he saw the papal document as a first major change in the way the Church dealt with such problems.
“I think that is a very important document, a direct result of feedback, including feedback from this country, prior to the extraordinary synod (of October 2014),” he said.
“It not only seeks to speed up the process by which the consideration of annulment can be taken forward but it also, while not radically shifting grounds, points to, for example, the importance of faith in the assent that people give when they marry.”
He added: “I think the wider implications of that document still have to come. I think the understanding of what a valid marriage in the Lord entails is being developed.”
The Ordinary Synod on the Family will be held at the Vatican from October 4 to October 25 and is the second phase of a three-stage process. Its deliberations will form the basis of a document written by Pope Francis and which published in the forthcoming Year of Mercy, which begins on December 8.
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