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October 3rd, 2014
12:04 PM ET

Debate rages ahead of Vatican synod on the family

By Delia Gallagher, CNN

Rome (CNN) - More than 200 Catholic bishops, priests and laypeople from around the world gathered in Rome this weekend to begin discussing Catholic teachings on a range of hot-button topics, from contraception and same-sex unions to polygamy and communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

The issues, which the Vatican places under the heading of “pastoral challenges of the family,” were chosen based on the results of a worldwide survey of Catholics in 2013.

Pope Francis called the meeting, known as a synod, to address modern issues facing families today - a topic that he has made a priority since the beginning of his pontificate.

The Catholic Church, the Pope has said, must make sure “it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people.”

In his short time as Pope, Francis has reached out to those who previously might have felt shunned by the church because of their family circumstances.

He has married couples who were already living together, baptized children of unmarried couples and reportedly called a woman in Argentina who is married to a divorced man and told her she could receive communion.

On this last point, communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, a debate has been raging since February when Francis asked a progressive German cardinal, Walter Kasper, to address fellow cardinals on the topic.

The current teaching is that Catholics who are divorced may receive communion, while Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried may not, because the church considers them to be committing adultery with their second partner.

It’s an issue that hits home for many Americans.

According to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, of 30 million married Catholics in the United States, 4.5 million are divorced and remarried without an annulment.

Kasper proposes finding a way to allow the civilly remarried to receive communion.

While affirming Jesus’ teaching in the Bible that “whomever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,” Kasper asserts that exceptions could be made in certain cases.

In the early church, for example, exceptions were made for remarried couples after a period of penance, Kasper has argued.

But arguments against Kasper’s proposals have flown fast and furious in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s synod opening.

“None of my brother Cardinals has ever spoken with me,” Kasper complained to Italian daily, Il Mattino on September 18.

“I, on the other hand, have spoken twice with the Holy Father. I arranged everything with him. He was in agreement. What can a cardinal do but stand with the Pope? I am not the target, but the Pope.”

“I find it amazing that the cardinal claims to speak for the Pope,” responded Cardinal Raymond Burke, the prefect of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, in a teleconference Wednesday with journalists.

“The Pope does not have laryngitis,” said Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis. “He can speak for himself.”

Burke, together with four other top Vatican officials, including Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the church’s top doctrinal watchdog, has just published a book of essays against Kasper’s proposal to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.

One of Kasper’s arguments is that receiving communion is a question of practice or discipline and not a doctrine of the church and is therefore open to change.

“It is a very deceptive line of argument,” Burke said. “There cannot be in the church a discipline that is not at the service of doctrine.”

Australian Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, has also spoken out against Kasper’s proposal.

“One cannot maintain the indissolubility of marriage by allowing the remarried to receive communion,” he writes in the preface to another newly published book in response to Kasper called "The Gospel of the Family."

“Doctrinal and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory,” Pell writes.

True to form, Pope Francis’ comments about communion for the divorced and remarried suggest affinity with both sides of the argument.

“I think this is the moment for mercy,” he told journalists last year.

“The divorced may have access to the sacraments. The problem regards those who are in a second marriage. … But, in parenthesis, the Orthodox (Christians) have a different practice. They follow the theology of what they call oikonomia and they give a second chance, they allow it."

Yet in May, Pope Francis dimmed expectations that the synod would deal decisively with the matter.

“What I didn’t like, was what some people, within the church as well, said about the purpose of the synod: that it intends to allow remarried divorcees to take communion, as if the entire issue boiled down to a case,” Francis said to journalists on the papal plane returning from the Holy Land.

“I wouldn’t like us to fall into this question: Will it be possible for communion to be administered or not? The pastoral problem regarding the family is vast. Each case needs to be looked at separately.”

On September 20, the Vatican announced that the Pope had appointed a special commission to reform and streamline the “matrimonial process.”

Some church watchers saw the move as an attempt to tamp down expectations that the synod would deal decisively with the communion issue.

“The procedures for the annulment of marriage must be looked into,” the Pope said in May. “The faith with which a person enters marriage must also be examined and we also need to make it clear that the divorced are not excommunicated. So often they are treated as though they have been excommunicated.”

But Pell, the Australian cardinal, sought to diminish the high expectations of immediate change in church rules.

“The sooner the wounded, the lukewarm, and the outsiders realize that substantial doctrinal and pastoral changes are impossible, the more the hostile disappointment (which must follow the reassertion of doctrine) will be anticipated and dissipated,” he wrote in "The Gospel of the Family."

During the synod’s first week, each day’s meetings will open with a talk by a married couple discussing their experience of family life. Participants will then be given four minutes each to speak on a chosen topic, followed by a general debate.

In the second week, there will be small group sessions to discuss proposals in detail. The synod is not expected to make any final decisions, but only to produce a report of the discussions that will be taken up again at a second synod in October 2015.

Pope Francis is president of the synod, and the Vatican says he will be present and active in the discussions.

Other voting participants (priests, bishops and cardinals, known as synod fathers) include 114 representatives of national bishops’ conferences; 13 heads of Eastern Catholic Churches; 25 heads of Vatican Congregations and Councils.

There are 38 nonvoting participants, including 12 married couples. One of the couples represents a Catholic/Muslim mixed marriage. Two couples are from the United States.

There will be one vote at the end of the synod, to approve the final document of recommendations, called the Relatio Synodi, which will be given to Francis.

- CNN Belief Blog Editor

Filed under: Bishops • Catholic Church • Christianity • Culture wars • Pope Francis • Same-sex marriage • Sexuality • Women

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.