Amidst Wild Speculation, Historic Synod Begins in Rome

family sunsetCommentary by Susan Brinkmann,OCDS

Pope Francis convened the much-anticipated Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Rome yesterday and called upon attendees to keep their eyes on Christ and not use the Synod as a means “to discuss beautiful and clever ideas” – many of which are achieving enormous exposure in the secular press – but to follow the Spirit’s guidance in order to “better nurture and tend to the Lord’s vineyard.”

Vatican Radio is reporting that Pope Francis presided over a prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square on Saturday evening in which he asked the faithful to pray for the Church during the Synod, particularly for the gift to listen to God, to have a spirit of openness in discussions and keep their eyes fixed on Jesus Christ.

“To search for that which today the Lord asks of His Church, we must lend our ears to the beat of this time and perceive the ‘scent’ of the people today, so as to remain permeated with their joys and hopes, by their sadness and distress, at which time we will know how to propose the good news of the family with credibility,” the pope said.

He prayed for three gifts from the Holy Spirit for the Synod Fathers: the gift of listening; the gift of openness so that discussions can be open and fraternal; and the gift of being able to keep their gazes firmly fixed on Christ.

It was a message he would repeat in his homily to the Synod of Bishops the following morning in St. Peter’s Basilica. Reflecting on the day’s Gospel about the Lord’s vineyard, he explained that the vineyard is God’s dream for his people, a dream that was thwarted over time by the “wild grapes” of sin of greed and pride.

“We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the Lord’s vineyard. Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent…  They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people.  In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.”

Acknowledging that we are all sinners who are prone to greed and to “take over” the vineyard, “we can ‘thwart’ God’s dream if we fail to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us that wisdom which surpasses knowledge, and enables us to work generously with authentic freedom and humble creativity.”

families in churchBy keeping their hearts and minds focused on Jesus, their “thoughts and plans will correspond to God’s dream: to form a holy people who are his own and produce the fruits of the kingdom of God.”

Meanwhile, the press is busy distorting everything the pope says in order to make it seem as though Francis is ready to “modernize” the Church by reforming its teaching, particularly on the issue of divorce and remarriage. This is in spite of the fact that the Synod itself is based on finding better ways to pronounce the Gospel message to the world, not to change it.

Much of the fodder being used by the press to promote the idea that doctrinal changes are in the works at the Synod is coming from German Cardinal Walter Kasper who believes exceptions could be made to Jesus’ teaching that “whomever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,” (Luke 16:18).

At present, Catholics who are divorced are permitted to receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion, but those who have remarried civilly are not permitted to do so.

Kasper suggests that this policy is too strict and would like the Church to make exceptions such as it did in the earliest days of Christianity and allow remarried couples to return to the Sacraments after a period of penance.

He also suggested that the Church consider adopting the Orthodox view on the issue by “tolerating but not accepting” second marriages that have not been blessed by the Church.

Apparently, none of his fellow Cardinals think much of his ideas because, as Kasper admitted to the Italian daily, Il Mattino on September 18,  “None of my brother Cardinals has ever spoken with me” about his ideas.

skd284550sdcHowever, he claims that he met privately with the pope who “was in agreement” with him.

The fact that he would speak publicly for the pope on such a controversial matter is so extraordinary that at least one Cardinal, Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolate Signatura, scoffed at the whole idea of it.

“I find it amazing that the cardinal claims to speak for the pope,” Burke said to the press in a recent conference call. The pope does not have laryngitis. He can speak for himself.”

Burke is also one of five prominent Cardinals to publish a book of essays on marriage entitled Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church.

The editor of the book, Fr. Robert Dodaro OSA, president of Rome’s Patristic Institute and a specialist in patristics and a consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, said he agrees that the Church needs to be welcoming and embracing of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, but he doesn’t agree with Kasper’s suggestion on how to bring this about.

“We believe that it [Cardinal Kasper’s idea] violates the principle of indissolubility of marriage, because the individuals in question are already married, or at least one of them is. Not just in the eyes of the Church, but in the eyes of Christ. We cannot understand how Cardinal Kasper does not see that,” Fr. Dodaro said according to the Catholic News Agency.

To make the exceptions Kasper endorses would do little more than introduce confusion about the nature of sin and repentance into the Church, he said.

For instance, a civilly remarried person cannot receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation because they are still living with someone in a relationship Christ sees as illicit.

“Catholics who sin can go to confession and be absolved because they repent of their sin and resolve not to sin again. However, Cardinal Kasper’s proposal would allow civilly remarried Catholics to receive sacramental absolution without resolving to cease having sexual relations, while in the eyes of Christ, they are still married to their original spouses. That is what makes the sacrament of penance impossible for them,” explains Fr. Dodaro.

Cardinal Kasper has also warned the Church against being too rigid and of making the Gospel into a kind of “code of penal law.”

confessional“I agree with the Cardinal that the Gospel is not a code of penal law, Fr. Donato said. “But it is a code of divine law and we have to make a distinction between human laws, the laws that the Church makes up, and laws that are divine.”

In spite of what the secular press may want us to believe, there won’t be any doctrinal changes at the end of this two-week long Synod.

As Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC told Vatican Radio, the Synod is a process and “we should not expect sound bite solutions” to the challenges facing the family in todays’ “secularized culture”.

Instead, the faithful need to do as the Synod Fathers are doing, coming to terms with the world in which they live and learning new ways to evangelize with the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The secular world, the secular vision doesn’t have a lot of space for a relationship with God, or a transcendent reality beyond us,” Cardinal Wuerl said. ” . . .(T)hat world has created a individualism and a self-referential world that doesn’t leave a lot of space for a healthy marriage and a family life that is going to follow on from that”.

There are not a lot of supports in today’s world for marriage and the family, or for objective right and wrong. This is the reality that Catholics are living in, and have been wounded by.

“They have experienced the failure that the secular vision brings.  So we have to be constantly aware that God’s mercy is a big part of the revelation in Jesus Christ…We have to be able to pastorally say to people that we know their suffering, the broken condition of a dysfunctional marriage and family and we have to be able to be there, that’s going to be the second challenge.”

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