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Those Three Paragraphs in the Synod Final Report
The German Spin Machine in Overdrive

Within ninety minutes of the Te Deum being sung at the end of Synod-2015’s last working day, controversy broke out over the meaning of the three paragraphs in the Synod final report that had received the largest number of negative votes from the Synod fathers, although not the 1/3 necessary to block their inclusion in the final text.

After these paragraphs had first been considered by the Synod fathers on Thursday night, several dozen amendments to the draft final report were offered, many of them proposing dropping one, two, or all three of the paragraphs in question because of perceived ambiguities of expression. About twenty similar suggestions were made in the general assembly’s discussion of the first draft of the final report on Friday morning. These proposals were not accepted by the drafting commission, but a crucial addition was inserted into the text; more on that in a moment.

Here is my translation of the three controverted paragraphs, made from the Italian original as released by the Holy See Press Office:

84. The baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried should be better integrated into Christian communities in the various ways possible, avoiding every occasion of scandal. The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral accompaniment, not only so that they know they belong to the Body of Christ which is the Church, but so that they may have a joyous and fruitful experience in it. They are baptized, they are brothers and sisters, the gifts and charisms of the Holy Spirit flow into them for the good of all. Their participation can express itself in various ecclesial services: so the Church must discern which of the various forms of exclusion practiced in liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional life might be overcome. Not only should they not consider themselves excommunicated, but they ought to be able to live and mature as living members of the Church, experiencing her as a mother who also accompanies them, who cares for them with affection, and who encourages them on the way of life and of the Gospel.

This integration is also necessary for the care and Christian education of their children, which is the most important consideration. For the Christian community to care for these people does not weaken [the Church’s] faith and its witness to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, in this care the Church properly expresses her charity.

85. St. John Paul II has given a comprehensive criterion that remains the baseline for evaluating these situations: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid” [Familiaris Consortio 84]. Therefore it is the duty of priests to accompany those concerned along the path of discernment according to the teaching of the Church and the guidance of the bishop. In this process it will be useful to undertake an examination of conscience, through moments of reflection and repentance. The divorced and remarried ought to ask themselves how they behaved toward their children when a crisis began in their first marriage; whether they made attempts at reconciliation; about the situation of the abandoned partner; about the consequences of the new relationship on the rest of the family and on the community of the faithful; and what example is being given to young people preparing for marriage. A sincere reflection can reinforce trust in the mercy of God, which is denied to no one.

Further, it cannot be denied that in some circumstances, “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or abrogated” [Catechism of the Catholic Church 1735] because of various conditions. In consequence, judgment about an objective situation need not lead to a judgment of “subjective imputability” [Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration of June 24, 2000, 2a].

In certain circumstances people have great difficulties in acting in a different way. Therefore, while maintaining a general norm, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility for a certain action or decision is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while still taking account of a properly formed conscience in persons, must make provision for these situations. The consequences of acts are not necessarily the same in every case.

86. The process of accompaniment and discernment guides these faithful to an examination of conscience about their situation before God. Speaking with a priest in the internal forum contributes to the formation of a correct judgment about that which blocks the possibility of a fuller life in the Church and about the steps that can favor and foster that growth. Given that there is no graduality in the law [Familiaris Consortio 34], this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity proposed by the Church. So that this might take place, the necessary conditions of humility, discretion, and love of the Church and its teaching must be assured, in a sincere quest for the will of God and in the desire for a more perfect response to it.

Some exegetical notes:

  • The possibility of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried is not mentioned in these paragraphs or in the entire final report.
  • The italicized phrase in paragraph 85 above (which is “emphasis added”) was inserted into the re-drafted final report after the paragraph was criticized by the Synod fathers to confirm that the teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage, and on worthiness to receive Holy Communion, remain the foundation from which “pastoral accompaniment” and “discernment” are to proceed. The construction of the entire sentence makes clear, or should, that the pastoral guidance of the bishop (and, by extension, the work of priests) is accountable to that baseline of settled teaching.
  • The teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio 84 is the operative and “comprehensive criterion” in these difficult and delicate pastoral situations. It was proposed in several modi (amendments) submitted this past Friday morning that section 84 of Familiaris Consortio be cited in full in the Synod’s final report; ambiguities would have been avoided had those amendments been accepted. But if Familiaris Consortio 84 is indeed the “comprehensive criterion” for pastoral and spiritual discernment in these circumstances, that “comprehensiveness” would certainly seem to include the following, which appears four sentences after the material cited in #85 above: “However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church that is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”
  • There is no suggestion in these three paragraphs or in the final report that “doctrine” can be separated from “practice” in the matter of the worthiness of the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion.
  • The Kasper Proposal does not appear in these three paragraphs on in the final report, because it was decisively rejected by the Synod fathers.
  • The final report does not endorse “Local-Option Catholicism,” i.e., the devolution of authority in these matters to regional or national conferences of bishops, or to local bishops or pastors.
  • The final report makes clear that “conscience,” properly understood, is a rightly-informed conscience, one formed in and by the truth; which is to say, “conscience” is not simply an expression of a person’s will. The statements on conscience in #84-86 of the final report should be read in light of that affirmation.

All of which suggests that claims from certain German bishops, repeated in parts of the world media, that these three paragraphs amount to a tacit vindication of the Kasper Proposal in any of its various iterations—Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried after a “penitential path;” devolution of authority over this to bishops’ conferences; an appeal to the rights of “conscience”—will not withstand serious scrutiny. Media reports to the effect that these paragraphs include an endorsement of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried are based on ignorance of the text or vulnerability to the German spin machine.

The language in the three paragraphs is sometimes ambiguous, especially if one is looking for ambiguity. But if read through the “comprehensive” prism of Familiaris Consortio 84 in its entirety, these three paragraphs—with their welcome and touching determination to reach out to the divorced and civilly remarried—are not only compatible with the classic doctrine and sacramental discipline of the Catholic Church; they reinforce it, by stating plainly that that teaching is the foundation from which are true pastoral accompaniment takes place.

—George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Center   

This letter is part of an ongoing series, the entirety of which can be found here.

More on: Synod2015

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