- Trying to square the circle
The opening days of the Synod on the Family have revealed distinct differences of opinion between the participants. How can their commitment to church teaching be matched with compassion for those who struggle with it?
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Pope Francis is to create his first group of cardinals this morning at a tradition-laden ceremony that comes in the midst of 10 days of intense consultations on reforming Vatican finances, the Roman Curia and the Church’s approach to marriage and the family.
The Pope will give the red hat to 19 men, 16 of whom are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave, at today’s ordinary public consistory in St Peter’s Basilica. They will then concelebrate at a papal Mass tomorrow in the same basilica.
The new cardinals, including Westminster’s Vincent Nichols, gathered in the two days before the consistory with some other 185 members of the exclusive College for wide-ranging talks on issues regarding the family – a topic Pope Francis has asked the Synod of Bishops to ponder over the next two years.
The Pope chose Cardinal Walter Kasper, former head of the Vatican’s ecumenical office, to open the cardinals’ discussions with a keynote address (which was not to be made public). The choice was significant, considering the 80-year-old German theologian has been urging the Vatican over the past decades to rethink its exclusion of the divorced and remarried from receiving Communion.
In 1993, when he was Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Kasper and two other leaders of the so-called Upper Rhine dioceses – then-Bishop Karl Lehmann (now cardinal) of Mainz and Archbishop Oskar Saier of Freiburg – published a pastoral letter suggesting that remarried divorcees, after careful consultation with a priest or bishop, might be allowed to receive Communion on a case-by-case basis.
The proposal was rebuffed by then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who said marriage was “not merely a private decision”. The CDF head, Cardinal-designate Gerhard Müller, has maintained the Ratzinger line, while a number of other German bishops have led efforts (supported by some confreres in other parts of the world) to allow Communion for remarried divorcees.
Vatican sources told The Tablet that Pope Francis did not want the Thursday-Friday discussions – or next October’s extraordinary assembly of the Synod – to focus only on this burning issue, but to look at all the challenges facing the Church in its ministry to and support of marriage and the family.
In the run-up to the gathering of the College of Cardinals, the coordinator of the Pope’s group of eight advisers, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga SDB, said a married couple ideally should head the Vatican’s office on the family. In an interview with the French Catholic paper La Croix, he also reiterated his belief that the current Pontifical Council for the Laity should be raised to the level of a congregation. The family council, he suggested, could be made a department of that new, beefed-up bureau.
The advisory group that Cardinal Rodríguez coordinates, formally called the Council of Cardinals (C8), gathered with Pope Francis from Monday to Wednesday for only its third round of meetings since being set up last April. The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin, was present for all the sessions. It is unclear whether the Pope will officially add him or any other cardinals to the council, but it seemed certain the Northern Italian would now be, at least “de facto”, a permanent fixture among the group of advisers.
The C8 focused almost exclusively during this round on reforming the Vatican’s financial institutions and activities. It held frank discussions with representatives of three bodies that deal specifically with the Vatican’s financial affairs – two ad hoc exploratory commissions Pope Francis established last summer and a third, permanent “Council of 15” cardinals.
One of the ad hoc groups was the commission of reference on the so-called Vatican Bank (Institute for the Works of Religion, or IOR), a scandal-plagued institution whose future is still uncertain. Before the C8 meeting got under way the current president of the IOR, Ernst von Freyberg, told a Spanish newspaper it was still possible that the Pope might close down the IOR. But Italian media claimed that he was more likely to reform it and replace Mr Freyberg, a German financier appointed only a year ago by Benedict XVI, with a financial expert from Italy.
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi, cautioned journalists not to expect any decisions on financial operations or the Roman Curia to be announced in these days, although he said the C8 has begun formulating proposals for such reforms.
He noted that the Council of Cardinals for the Study of Organisational and Economic Problems of the Holy See (“Council of 15”) was to hold meetings next Monday and Tuesday in Rome. He added that the general secretariat and permanent council for the Synod of Bishops were also to hold talks in the first two days of next week. Both sets of meetings will be crucial in helping the Pope and C8 to continue looking at ways to reform the Vatican and the Curia.