A Bizarre Papal Move

So now we know. We knew before, really, but didn’t have explicit confirmation. The long, agonizing slog, however, is finally over: from Pope Francis’ invitation to Cardinal Kasper to address the bishops in Rome in February of 2014 to the pope’s letter last week to some Argentinean bishops affirming guidelines they had developed in a joint document that, in “exceptional cases,” people divorced and remarried (living in an “adulterous” relationship as we believed for 2000 years in Western Christianity), may receive Holy Communion. This whole affair is bizarre. No other word will do.

As I wrote on this page many times before the two Synods on the Family, daily during those events, and subsequently, it was clear – at least to me – that the pope wanted his brother bishops to approve some form of what came to be known as the Kasper Proposal. That he did not get such approval – indeed, that he got significant pushback from bishops from various parts of the globe – visibly angered him, and even led him into a bit of snark at the close of the second Synod, that some opinions had “at times” been expressed there, “unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways.”

Well, one man’s not entirely well-meaning ways is another’s conviction about remaining faithful to the words of Jesus. And since then and even after the publication of Amoris laetitia, Catholics – indeed, the whole world – have been embroiled in tumultuous and fruitless speculation on whether things had changed or not. Even the notorious footnote 351 of Amoris laetitia, for all the worries it caused traditional Catholics, did not really come out and say what the pope evidently thought.

The puzzlement was understandable. Has a pope ever changed something of such significance via confused footnotes and, now, a private letter to a small group of regional bishops? In that obscure context, he’s quite categorical: “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.” [Emphasis added.]

I say again: bizarre – both in process and substance. It took several days before it was even certain that the letter to the Argentinean bishops – leaked, only later confirmed by the Vatican – was authentic. Pope Francis has no trouble making bald public statements such as “who am I to judge,” and “if you don’t recycle go to Confession.” He rails, often rightly, against careerism and gossip and division within the Curia, but suddenly becomes gun-shy when it comes to marriage and family? As Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdö said frankly during the Synods, it all just comes down to a choice: either you give a certain group of people Communion or you don’t.


Even now that Francis has said yes, we keep hearing that there are qualifications and nuances and limits. The pope has several times refused to comment on the change in order, as he’s said, to avoid giving “a simplistic answer.” But quite apart from the fact that he’s done so on many other matters, he at least appears to believe that it will be possible in practice to finesse this process, through accompaniment, discernment, all those words that have no clear limits. The Argentine bishops themselves have warned that the change applies only to exceptional cases: “it’s necessary to avoid understanding this possibility as an unrestricted access to the sacraments, or as though any situation might justify it.”

But while they’ve recognized the danger, they haven’t avoided it. In the world today, everyone thinks he’s a special case, and pity the poor parish priest or local bishop in the future who seems “too rigid” by not granting enough people special status.

A Catholic has a right to ask for a little accompaniment and discernment of his own about what the Church teaches – particularly which principles define that “exceptional status.” To take a case that will not long remain hypothetical: what about the gay couple who are committed to one another and experienced same-sex attraction their whole lives, through no fault of their own? When the first Synod started down that path, it was regarded as extremist and quickly abandoned by the small number of bishops who wanted to push it. But without some clear principles to distinguish such cases from others, why not?

In the Church’s 2000-year history – a history of apostles, martyrs, confessors, great saints, brilliant doctors, profound mystics – none thought this new teaching Catholic. Some even died to defend the indissolubility of marriage. For a pope to criticize those who remain faithful to that tradition, and characterize them as somehow unmerciful and as aligning themselves with hard-hearted Pharisees against the merciful Jesus is bizarre.

I’ve lived long enough in Washington and spent sufficient time in Rome not to trust what a journalist says some leader – secular or religious – told him in private. But I’m convinced that when Eugenio Scalfari – the eccentric editor of La Repubblica, the socialist paper in Rome the pope reads daily – said that Francis told him he would allow all who come to receive Communion, he may not have gotten the words exactly right. But he caught the drift.

Indeed, Catholics have a new teaching now, not only on divorce and remarriage. We have a new vision of the Eucharist. It’s worth recalling that in January the pope, coyly, not ruling it out, suggested to a group of Lutherans in Rome that they, too, should “talk with the Lord” and “go forward.” Indeed, they later took Communion at Mass in the Vatican. In a way, that was even more significant. A Catholic couple, divorced and remarried, are sinners, but – at least in principle – still Catholic. Has intercommunion with non-Catholic Christians also been decided now without any consultation – almost as if such a momentous step in understanding the Sacrament of Unity hardly matters?

I say this in sorrow, but I’m afraid that the rest of this papacy is now going to be rent by bands of dissenters, charges of papal heresy, threats of – and perhaps outright –schism. Lord, have mercy.


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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.