What would Benedict XVI make of the synod’s final report? He told us 30 years ago

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, pictured in 1987 (AP)

The recent relatio at the end of the family synod was, it was hoped, going to provide some resolution to the vigorous debate on the best means of pastorally accompanying couples who are divorced and civilly remarried, and specifically address the so-called Kasper proposal of admitting them, on a case-by-case basis, to Communion.

The space to manoeuvre between the concepts of doctrine and pastoral practice was hotly contested, with some suggesting that the decision about whether or not to receive Communion was a matter for the individual consciences of divorced and remarried couples.

The final wording of the synod document famously said nothing at all about Communion or access to the sacraments for people in these situations. And by saying nothing, the debate rages on until, one hopes, Pope Francis issues his own, definitive, take on the matter. The synod, after all, is simply a way for the Pope to canvass opinion before making up his own mind.

Another way for the Pope to inform his thinking is, of course, to reflect upon the thoughts of previous popes on these issues. In 1985, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a letter to Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle in which he eerily addresses, almost point-by-point, exactly the questions raised by the Synodal relatio. And he does so by rooting the answers squarely in the magisterium of the Church and in the jurisprudence of the Roman Rota and Apostolic Signatura. This is especially interesting because many commentators have recently sought to establish some clear blue water between doctrine, law, individual conscience and pastoral practice on just these issues.

On the subject of the divorced and civilly remarried and their admission to the sacraments, Cardinal Ratzinger explicitly rules out the so-called Kasper proposal because it goes against both doctrinal truth and canonical discipline and specifically warns against encouraging ambiguity on this point:

“Catholics have been advised that after divorce and civil remarriage, they may in conscience return to the Sacraments. Such a practice lacks foundation in the Church’s clear teaching about the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage after consummation, and in sound jurisprudence. A clear presentation, then, of the sacramentality and indissolubility of Christian marriage should be made to all your people. Every effort must be made to avoid written materials which equivocate regarding the essential properties of marriage and which may encourage the divorced to attempt a second marriage without the Tribunal’s declaration of nullity. At the same time, steps need to be taken to ensure that [a] Tribunal, both in its constitution and practice, conforms with all the prescriptions of the revised Code of the Church’s public law.”

Regarding the role of the individual’s conscience in determining their moral state, Cardinal Ratzinger reaffirms that personal conscience is not a law unto itself but is rightly subject to the truth as held and proclaimed by the Church:

“There is a need to correct misunderstandings concerning the role which conscience plays in making moral decisions. In particular it is necessary to highlight the valid claim on the Catholic conscience which is made by the authoritative teaching of the Church.”

Perhaps the most important point made in the letter, one which is in urgent need of repeating in the current climate, concerns the very nature of the Church and how it functions:

“The Church should be understood as more than a merely social entity, governed chiefly by psychological, sociological, and political processes. When it is viewed in this way, its institutional or visible dimension is placed in opposition to its Divine Origin, mission, and authority. Such a view misunderstands the meaning of the Church and destroys all prospects of the authentic renewal for which the Vatican Council II so clearly called.”

Pope Francis has repeatedly called for open, honest, and fraternal dialogue on some of the most important pastoral issues facing the Christian family today. The synod was an important part of that dialogue, but the opportunity to address new issues seems to have been lost in an confused rehash of questions that were settled 30 years ago. It’s hard to understand how the confusion has come about. One would expect memories to be longer in the Synod hall. It is especially odd to note that it was Donald, now Cardinal, Wuerl who was sent to Seattle with special responsibility see the letter’s instructions were carried out.

The full text of the letter is available here