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German theology and pastoral sensitivity key to opening up synod

16 October 2015 | by Christopher Lamb in Rome

It’s fair to say that the most theologically accomplished small group report from the synod so far has come from the Germans. It might also provide a sort of via media for the Church to develop its pastoral response to the question of communion for divorced and remarried and helping couples who fall short of Catholic teaching.  

Reflecting on the notions of mercy and justice the group stressed that it is important not to see the two things in opposition. This happens time and again with those in the Church who stress mercy accused of wanting to change the rules while those who stand for justice being viewed as too rigid. 

But, as the German group, points out, “God’s justice is his compassion” and the two are not “mutually opposed opposites.  

So what might this mean in practice? 

Rather than viewing all marriages and families under one general principle the group wrote that fundamental principles need to be applied to a particular situation with prudence and wisdom - this is in keeping with the theology of St Thomas Aquinas.  

And, crucially, they argue that applying the principles of justice to a situation is not the same as making an exception. 

 

 

Although they do not spell this out, you can see the way the argument is going given that the German and Austrian churches have called for a change on allowing remarried divorcees access to the sacraments. Can a pastoral solution be found to allow communion for the remarried on a case-by-case basis without changing Jesus’ words on the irrevocability of marriage? 

This might be done through the local bishop in a similar process outlined by the Pope last month when he gave greater powers to diocesan bishops on some marriage annulment cases. 

The Germans, whose group was led by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, also pointed out that just as the Church’s own understanding of marriage has developed over history so might an individual be on a journey in their own relationship. This is important in relation to cohabiting couples and those only civilly married. 

The synod has so far seen a whirlwind of ideas on theology and pastoral realitiesThe synod has so far seen a whirlwind of ideas on theology and pastoral realities (PA)


 

The report stated: “As the historical development of the church’s teaching required a certain amount of time, pastoral care must allow individuals time to mature on their path toward sacramental marriage and not act on the principle of “all or nothing.”

What is striking about the German group report is that it secured the unanimous backing of all its members. This is no mean achievement given it includes both Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has put forward for proposals allowing communion for the divorced and remarried, and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, who has been resolutely opposed to any development in this area.  

As we approach the final week of the gathering, it appears that the synod is moving the Church in a more open direction. Perhaps this can best be illustrated best by two stories that have been told in recent days and highlight some “pastoral realities”. One bishop told the synod of a child who, at Mass, took the host and split it and gave it to his parents who were not able to receive communion. This story apparently led to applause from the bishops. 

 

READ MORE IN THIS WEEK'S THE TABLET NEWSPAPER...

SYNOD SPECIAL: Awaiting the Spirit as the Fathers divide - Christopher Lamb

SYNOD SPECIAL: 'We do not fall from heaven as saints' - Helen Grady

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The second story was told by the Archbishop of Chicago, Blasé Cupich to journalists and concerned a divorced and remarried mother attending the funeral of her son who had committed suicide. She felt disaffected from the Church but the priest taking the funeral insisted she received communion. She was so moved by the experience she started the process to normalise her marital situation. 

In telling the story Archbishop Cupich made the point that it is “conversion that follows from mercy” and not the other way round. 

Perhaps some good theology and knowledge of pastoral realities may allow this synod to throw up the odd surprise.

 

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