Features > Who rules in Rome: Unprecedented doctrinal division emerges in the Vatican

23 February 2017 | by Christopher Lamb

Who rules in Rome: Unprecedented doctrinal division emerges in the Vatican


An unprecedented doctrinal division has emerged in the Vatican, with some cardinals openly critical of the Pope’s document on the family and others issuing public statements supporting it. What is at stake is not who may receive Communion, but who exercises authority in the Church

The imposing facade of the sixteenth century palazzo housing the Vatican’s doctrinal office towers over visitors, while the iron bars covering its first-floor windows hint of its past, as the headquarters of the Inquisition. For centuries, the department now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) handed down its edicts on doctrine, drawing clear lines about what is and is not acceptable under Church teaching – including the prohibition on giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics.

Not any more. The overbearing architecture of the old offices is now a symbol of the Church’s past rather than its future. Pope Francis has shifted decisions on certain doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues away from Rome and pushed them outwards and downwards, to the local churches. This is emerging as the major change that has resulted from his hotly disputed family life document, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

After he created – via a footnote – an opening in principle for remarried divorcees to receive Communion, the Pope left it up to local bishops to decide how to implement this in practice. What he has allowed is for priests and bishops to adopt a “case by case” assessment of those wanting to return to Communion – rubber-stamping something that had been happening on the ground in parishes for many years.


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