Who rules in Rome: Unprecedented doctrinal division emerges in the Vatican
THE TABLET23 February 2017 | by Christopher Lamb | Comments: 0 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.
But things haven’t quite gone according to plan. By shifting the process of decision-making away from Rome, Francis has let the genie of open disagreement out of the bottle. On the one hand there are bishops from Malta, Buenos Aires and Germany drawing up pastoral guidelines beckoning those in new marriages to the altar, while in Poland, Philadelphia and Portsmouth, the response to them is still “No”.
Leading American Catholic commentator George Weigel has given the example of a divorced and remarried woman who lives in the Diocese of Portsmouth, where the bishop is Philip Egan, but who regularly visits her holiday home in Malta, where the bishop is Charles Scicluna. When she asked a local priest which bishop’s advice on admission to Communion she should follow, he replied: “What could I say: ‘Egan when you’re here, Scicluna when you’re there?” For some, this is a dangerous inconsistency.
One of those who is worried is Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the German leader of the doctrine congregation, who argues that bishops cannot “subjectively” interpret papal documents. It has left him torn between loyalty to the Pope and his concern about Church teaching being tinkered with. At one point, he appeared to signal support for allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to be admitted to Communion in some circumstances. Since then, he appears to have pulled away. Müller is not a conservative caricature. A regular visitor to Peru, he is a convert to liberation theology who wore a poncho over his cassock when welcoming the father of the movement, Fr Gustavo Gutierrez, to Rome. This marked a change from the years when Gutierrez was treated with suspicion by the CDF.
Nevertheless, the Pope has bypassed Müller as the official “interpreter” of Amoris Laetitia. That job has been handed to the Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. The Dominican friar has impeccable credentials as the editor of the Church’s catechism and as a theologian who studied for his doctorate under the then Fr Joseph Ratzinger. Schönborn has argued that Francis’ document represents an “organic development of doctrine.” He says: “There is continuity in teaching here, but there is also something really new.”
Amoris Laetitia is not the first time we have seen a development in the Church’s attitude to the divorced and remarried. While Pope St John Paul II wrote in his 1981 apostolic exhortation on family life, Familiaris Consortio, that remarried divorcees may not receive Communion unless they are living in a non-sexual relationship, he was the first pope to distinguish between those who had been abandoned by their spouses and those doing the abandoning. In the past, they were all lumped together and shunned by the Church. This has not been the case for years.
It was Schönborn who led the German-speaking group of bishops during the 2015 Synod on the Family: the deadlock was unpicked in their closed meeting and a theological platform created that allowed Francis to open up the admission to Communion of the remarried. Müller was part of that group and gave his consent to the principles that have been put forward to allow for this development.
But not everyone is convinced. The Pope has admitted there are “cracks” among bishops and priests, rifts that, if left unresolved, could develop into bigger problems and damage the unity and brotherhood of the world’s bishops. The pressure is mounting in Rome, with anti-Francis posters and spoof Vatican newspaper pages mocking his handling of the critics of Amoris Laetitia.
The crisis has sparked an unusual statement from Francis’ kitchen cabinet, the council of nine cardinals and his closest collaborators. Last week, they declared full support for the Pope and, crucially, for “his magisterium”.
This is hugely significant. Francis is facing fierce criticism and attempts to undermine his authority from within the College of Cardinals; critics of Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI, on the other hand, were usually progressive lay groups and individual theologians, not those who should be the Pope’s closest collaborators. What is happening in Rome today has not been seen in centuries.
The rumblings started almost three years ago when retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper presented his proposals for circumstances under which it might be possible to give Communion to remarried divorcees. If forgiveness is possible for a murderer, he argued, it should be open to an adulterer. Kasper is a self-assured and punchy theologian who back in 1993 put forward similar proposals together with some fellow German bishops, only for their suggested way forward to be squashed by Joseph Ratzinger, then the Cardinal Prefect of the CDF. For conservatives, Kasper’s proposals reopened a long-running battle that they thought had been won.
The revival of Kasper’s proposals led to highly charged Synods on the Family in 2014 and 2015, culminating in an extraordinary letter to the Pope from a group of cardinals criticising the synod process and urging “No change” to Church teaching. Now, four cardinals are demanding that Francis answer their dubia (or questions) and clarify Amoris Laetitia; one of them, US Cardinal Raymond Burke, has threatened the Pope with a “formal correction”. A global coalition of priests has published a joint statement requesting clarification, while the respected philosophers Germain Grisez and John Finnis have warned that Amoris Laetitia is being misused to support positions contrary to the faith.
The Pope has not been thrown off his course. So far, he has refused to answer the dubia, nor has he commissioned the CDF to rule on the matter. Instead, he wrote personally to the Argentinian bishops, backing their guidelines on Amoris Laetitia, which explained to priests that in some circumstances Communion could be offered to the remarried. Francis told them “there is no other interpretation” of Amoris Laetitia. Meanwhile, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano printed the bolder guidelines of two Maltese bishops and the guidelines issued by the German bishops in full.
What is at stake here is less who can and cannot receive Communion, and in what circumstances, but “who decides” in the Church. Where does authority lie? For Francis, it is drawn from the lives of ordinary Catholics; listening to the sensus fidei – the sense of the faith – and responding. And the more bishops’ conferences that issue guidelines opening the way for giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, the more embedded the practice becomes. The harder it will then become to implement a top-down roll-back of the changes.