Comment Comment and Features

Why popes don’t always get what they want

Cardinal Marx addresses the Pope during the German bishops’ ad limina visit (CNS)

In my last column I argued that it would be foolish to ignore the signs that Pope Francis has been giving for almost two years concerning the admission of the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion. Furthermore, after the synod his close advisers have made clear their expectation that the Holy Father will change the traditional practice, in contradiction to the clear teaching of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

That column has been cited as making a stronger claim than it actually did, namely that Pope Francis will certainly make such a change. There is good reason to think that the Holy Father desires to make a change, and that those close to him are indicating how he might do it. But that Pope Francis might desire a change does not mean that he will actually do it.

We know that Pope Francis is more than capable of acting on his own initiative. On two important occasions he has done just that. His creation of the Secretariat for the Economy was done and announced without the Holy See’s secretary of state being informed ahead of time. The recent motu proprio on annulment reforms was published without the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seeing the final draft. So Pope Francis is not shy about acting on his own authority. Yet popes do not always get what they want.

A relevant example comes from Vatican II, at which Blessed Paul VI was concerned about preserving the independence of the Petrine office. He proposed that the text of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, include that the pope “is accountable to the Lord alone”, signalling that his autonomy was limited by no earthly power, civil or ecclesial. The council’s theological commission, having heard the pope’s view, rejected it, noting that “the Roman Pontiff is … bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier Councils, and [to] other obligations too numerous to mention.”

So what Pope Francis may wish to do he may not actually do. He faces serious constraints and foreseeable negative consequences, in the consideration of which he may well decide not to proceed along the lines his friends have proposed.

The most important constraint is the doctrine of marital indissolubility itself, which the Holy Father himself has repeatedly said should not, cannot and will not be touched. Had he even hinted otherwise, the synod would have gone into open rebellion. Within the text of Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, the annulment reforms, Pope Francis writes that “we we are not unaware of the extent to which the principle of the indissolubility of marriage might be endangered by the briefer process; for this very reason we desire that the bishop himself be established as the judge in this process, who, due to his duty as pastor, has the greatest care for Catholic unity with Peter in faith and discipline.”

The recent synod made abundantly clear that the Kasper proposal – whether implemented directly or through the back door of the “internal forum” – would do more than endanger marital indissolubility in the consideration of the synod fathers. It would compromise it. Leaving the decision to local bishops or priests would certainly rupture unity in faith and discipline. If Mitis Iudex expressed a fear of how things might be seen, the Kasper proposal has to be thought far more dangerous, as reflected by the results of 2015 synod.

That’s the second constraint. Pope Francis firmly believes in the synod process, proposing a more widespread use of it during his address half way through last month’s synod. It is clear that the relevant section of the synod’s final report only received the necessary two third votes after all references to admitting the civilly remarried to Holy Communion were removed, and language upholding Church teaching and the complete criteria of St John Paul II was added.

Despite the insistence of Cardinal Walter Kasper and his allies, the synod did not say that the Kasper proposal was consistent with Catholic doctrine, despite a serious effort by synod managers to achieve just that. The most plausible reading of the Holy Father’s final synod address, in which he denounced the opponents of the Kasper proposal for acting in bad faith and having “closed hearts”, is that the synod did not give the Kasper proposal the support necessary to permit the Pope to support it officially.

Francis is constrained by his emphasis on synodality; if he goes where the synod refused to go, he undermines the very process that he himself chose to examine this question.

In receiving the German bishops for their ad limina visit last week, Pope Francis did not address their support for the Kasper proposal. But his speech was a scathing assessment of the collapse of German Catholicism. If the Holy Father were to prefer the German option to the synod consensus, not only would his words on synodality ring hollow, but so too his preference for the Church at the peripheries. Perhaps the German ad limina address indicated a growing sense that, after the synod rejected it, the Kasper proposal is no longer a feasible option.

In addition to such constraints, several negative consequences of a papal endorsement of the Kasper proposal are now becoming more clear. As the American theologian Janet Smith has argued, while the final synod document did not endorse the Kasper proposal, its ambiguity will encourage self-styled reformers to push it in practice, resulting in potentially decades of battles within the Church, diverting energies from evangelisation in general, and the revitalisation of family life in particular.

There are even more immediate consequences. A declaration that the teaching ofSt John Paul in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio no longer applies would contradict the teaching in these past weeks and months of the Holy Father’s own prefect for doctrine, . That path being impossible, the only option for the Kasper proposal to be advanced would be to leave readmission to Communion to individual bishops or priests.

Yet if that were to happen, it would be a matter of days before questions were submitted to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), as normally happens when discretion in liturgical or sacramental matters leads to conflicting judgments. The CDW would be asked for clarification on the parameters for the “discernment” that pastors should undertake. Is there any doubt that Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the CDW, would respond that the suitable criteria are provided in thereby rendering the Kasper proposal inadmissible?

Opposition from the CDF and CDW would produce an immediate crisis at the highest levels of the Roman Curia. The likely consequence of such a crisis would be that the rest of the Holy Father’s pontificate would be given over to even more intense intramural battles, a situation not unlike the 1970s.

What then will Pope Francis do? Wise observers know better than to predict anything in this pontificate with precision. It is clear, as I argued before, what his close advisers would like him to do. But can the Holy Father, in the face of serious constraints and sobering consequences, actually do it? That remains unclear. The Holy Spirit’s protection does not, after all, extend to what popes might desire, but to their actual decisions.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (27/11/15)

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