Another bishop has contested the idea that Pope Francis may allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Bishop Demetrio Fernandez, the head of the diocese of Cordoba in Spain, has said that Pope Francis told him the change, widely anticipated in the secular media for the upcoming Synod of Bishops, would not be possible.
Bishop Fernandez told the newspaper Diario Cordoba that Francis said the indissoluble nature of marriage “was established by Jesus Christ, and the pope cannot change it.”
The issue is probably going to be the most high-profile topic of discussion at the Synod, as it has been in the press in the lead-up since German Cardinal Walter Kasper made the “suggestion” at February’s consistory of cardinals that while the teaching cannot be changed, the practice of the Church may. Kasper’s suggestion has met with strong opposition from some of the Church’s highest-ranking prelates, including the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, Cardinal Gerhard Müller.
Bishop Fernandez said, “We asked the Pope himself, and he responded that a person married in the Church who has divorced and entered into a new civil marriage cannot approach the sacraments.”
“I say this because sometimes people say that ‘everything is going to change,’ and there are some things that cannot be changed. The Church answers to her Lord, and her Lord remains alive,” Bishop Fernandez added.
“The Church is continuously telling us to be welcoming, that people not feel excluded, and we can always find ways to be more welcoming.”
Bishop Fernandez’s comments have joined those of other bishops and cardinals who have said that a change in the teaching is impossible. The Catholic teaching on the nature of marriage, and the non-existence of divorce, has remained unchanged since the words of Christ Himself were recorded in the Gospels.
Speculation exploded that the Synod would change the Church’s teaching following the warm endorsement by Pope Francis of Cardinal Kasper’s address at the consistory. Francis, who has called Kasper his favourite theologian, praised the German prelate’s “serene” theology, though he stopped short of openly endorsing the controversial recommendation.
Recently, in addition to the many public statements of such prelates as Muller, Cardinal Raymond Burke, and Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, the theological journal Communio published a paper by Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, that repudiated the idea of a change. Scola, one of Italy’s leading “Ratzingerian” bishops, also recommended that the Church’s doctrine be better articulated to correct the “significant disconnect” between the faithful and the teachings.
Scola, along with the Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, also recommended making the process of “annulment” be made more efficient and timely.
At the same time, some bishops, including Pope Francis and Cardinal Kasper, have referenced the practice of the Orthodox Churches of “tolerating” second marriages as a “solution” for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. In the first of his series of public, off-the-cuff interviews on the plane following World Youth Day in Brazil, and long before the announcement of the Synod, Pope Francis made the aside, “The Orthodox have a different practice.”
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“They follow the theology of what they call oikonomia, and they give a second chance, they allow it. But I believe that this problem…must be studied within the context of the pastoral care of marriage.”
In response to this suggestion, an Orthodox monk who is converting to Catholicism has called into question the legitimacy of the Orthodox practice. Earlier this month, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, a prominent Catholic blogger and columnist, quoted the priest, identified as “Pater Augustinus,” who warned against the Catholic Church following the eastern model.
The Orthodox, Pater Augustinus said, may “attempt to pride themselves” on their fidelity to the traditions of early Christianity, but they have “come adrift from basic Christian doctrine on marriage and sexuality.”
“This is a matter of doctrine, not mere practice,” he said, adding that it would be “tragic” if the Catholic Church were to follow the Orthodox practice, since the “crystal-clear Patristic and Apostolic (and Scriptural) teaching that marriage is forever and excludes contraception, cannot [be debated] (at least, not by honest, above-board people).”
On the question of the Orthodox practice, the Italian Vaticanist, Sandro Magister, wrote that historically, in the Orthodox Churches it is the result not of superior theological understanding or a more “merciful” pastoral practice, but from a longstanding tradition of compliance “toward the bullying of the civil tribunals, from the times of the Byzantine empire.” In other words, the secular legal authorities first allowed divorce and the religious leaders have bowed to political pressure to recognize subsequent unions.
“The commonly held idea is that second and even third marriages are celebrated sacramentally in the Orthodox Churches, and communion is given to the divorced and remarried.” Those endorsing this as a “solution” for Catholics claim that it was also the practice in the Latin Church in the early centuries. “But the reality is very far from these fantasies,” Magister writes.
Magister quotes Archbishop Cyril Vasil, secretary of the Vatican congregation for the Oriental Churches and an expert in canon law, who wrote that when Byzantine Christianity arrived in Russia “the provisions of Byzantine law regarding divorce were incorporated into its laws.”
Archbishop Vasil continued, “In the so-called synodal period (1721–1917), a fixed number of reasons for divorce was established and clarified by State authorities in collaboration with ecclesiastical authorities.
“In 1917–1918 the Pan-Russian Council…of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted new regulations concerning divorce, reacting to recent secular laws established by the Soviets.”