The best is enemy of the good.
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Monday, October 26, 2015
Pope Francis Weighs Response To Setback On Divorce Issue
Pope Francis Weighs Response to Setback on Divorce Issue
Bishops withhold support for proposed change in church’s approach to divorce and homosexuality
FRANCIS X. ROCCA
VATICAN CITY— Pope Francis, after failing to win bishops’ support for change in the church’s approach to divorce and homosexuality, must now consider how to respond in a way that will tamp down the culture wars that threaten to overshadow his papacy.
Late Saturday, a fraught, yearlong debate by bishops over family issues came to a close with the bishops withholding support for proposed changes to the church’s treatment of divorced or gay Catholics.
A group of more than 250 bishops had been debating the church’s approach to a range of family issues, but the most contested question was whether to allow Catholics who have divorced and then remarried to receive Communion. Church law currently forbids the sacrament for divorced Catholics who have remarried without an annulment of their first marriage.
But in their final report on Saturday, the meeting of the bishops, called a synod, omitted any mention of the Communion question.
“There’s no new recommendation” on access to the sacraments for divorced Catholics, said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington in an interview on Sunday. “It doesn’t change the law.” The cardinal was one of the 10-member panel that edited the bishops’ final document.
Saturday’s document is meant only to provide the pope with guidance; the last word on any change lies with the pontiff himself.
He can ignore the bishops’ document and allow for divorced Catholics to receive Communion. He can call for further study of the problem or accept the bishops’ report without change.
The push for a more conciliatory approach to people with ways of life at odds with the church’s teaching on family issues has been one of the defining initiatives of Pope Francis’ pontificate. But instead of forging a new consensus on the problem, the pope has thrown open a deeply divisive debate on issues that were considered closed under St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Divisions and tensions over the divorce issue, and all that implies about the church’s approach to sexual morality, have only been heightened by the process.
Liberals have been emboldened and encouraged as they haven’t been since the late 1970s.
But conservatives are energized. They have coalesced around the issue and around vocal new leaders, notably African and Eastern European bishops, even as they remain shaken by the pope’s push for a reconsideration of the church’s approach to divorce and homosexuality.
Traditional Catholics’ “trust in the bishops as a whole and toward the Holy Father is shockingly shaken by what happened here,” said Robert Royal, president of the conservative Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.
“There’s a lot of nervousness out there that this is a long game being played, and that now these issues are on the agenda of the Catholic Church.”
The focus now shifts to how the pope will respond, with both sides looking for him to settle the Communion issue for good. Conservatives want him to make a clear reaffirmation of traditional teaching. But raised expectations of liberals and the pope’s own preferences suggest the pontiff may opt for change.
There is no deadline by which the pope must announce any decision.
If the pope issues a clear yes or no to the question of allowing divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion, the effect would likely resemble that of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal letter by Pope Paul VI that affirmed the church’s traditional proscription of contraception.
While that document sought to put the question of artificial birth control to rest, it largely failed to do so, instead inspiring defiance by laity, priests and even many bishops. Paul VI never wrote another encyclical in the remaining 10 years of his pontificate.
In the end, Pope Francis could leave the matter vague— affirming the indissolubility of marriage, but urging priests to be merciful with people in difficult marital situations—tacitly allowing bishops to act on their own. Today, many priests knowingly give Communion to divorced, remarried Catholics.
Liberals are likely to bide their time, staking their hopes on gradual replacement of the bishops, now overwhelmingly appointees of conservative Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Liberals also may wait for more changes to the College of Cardinals to increase the odds of continuity in Pope Francis’ successor.
Pope Francis has appointed about a quarter of current voting-age cardinals and is expected to appoint a new batch in February, possibly including Chicago Archbishop Blase J. Cupich, one of the more progressive members of the synod.
But even if Pope Francis, 78, reigns long enough to reshape church leadership, church politics are complex and unpredictable. For example, the current pontiff was elected in 2013 by a college of cardinals named entirely by John Paul and Benedict.