It’s tiresome to write about Rome these days. Confusion continues, seemingly without anyone taking much notice. But some things that happen don’t allow you to ignore them. This time, it’s the meeting of German bishops in Rome last Thursday – a meeting called because there is division within the German bishops’ conference about whether to allow Communion, in some instances, to Protestant spouses of Catholics.
The conflict seemed to have been resolved a few weeks earlier. According to reports, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – the Vatican office charged with handling doctrinal matters – sent the Germans a letter saying that they could not change longstanding practice. Former CDF head Cardinal Gerhard Mueller has argued the same point at length and with great clarity. Pope Emeritus Benedict also is said to agree.
Reports also appeared that Pope Francis did not want the letter published. Instead, he called bishops on both sides to Rome. The head of the German bishops’ conference, Cardinal Marx, expected the pope’s support, since many believe Pope Francis favors such changes. But the current head of the CDF merely told the German bishops that the pope’s decision was that they go home and reach a “unanimous” decision on their own.
Now, as with many things the pope does, the meaning is unclear, and you could read that decision in several ways. The first and most obvious interpretation is that the pope is trying to further his vision of a “decentralized” Church, in which individual bishops and bishops’ conferences don’t always turn to Rome for answers to questions.
But the problems with such a decentralized, “synodal” institution are legion. After the Synods on the Family, several of us pointed out that we could get different teachings about the Eucharist on different sides of the Germany/Poland border. In Poland, it remains a sacrilege to receive Communion after divorcing and remarrying (without an annulment); but in Germany taking Communion after a “penitential period” would be regarded as wonderful progress in mercy.
It’s now clear that even this scenario was too rosy. The Germans – some, anyway – have played an unexpected role in the Vatican under the first Latin American pope. Cardinals Marx and Kasper have been pushing 1970s liberal goals and getting a hearing. But at the same time, even in Germany, Rainer Maria Woelki, the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Germany’s largest and richest diocese, and other prelates oppose such “pastoral” adjustments because they lead to different “doctrinal” positions on the Eucharist – and even the Church.
Which brings us to a second way to look at the pope’s decision. If you are committed, as he is, to a more “synodal” Church, conflicts like this are going to multiply rapidly, perhaps in the same way that doctrinal matters quickly splintered the Protestant Reformers into multiple, conflicting groups. If the German bishops all lived a hundred years, they will never reach a “unanimous” view about this question because the two sides have deep opposing positions.
It’s a bit like hoping pro-lifers and pro-abortion activists can someday reach perfect consensus. It won’t happen – can’t happen – because there’s no common ground between thinking abortion is necessary for women’s equality and thinking abortion is murder.
Perhaps the pope realizes that unanimous consensus is impossible and is content merely to let the debate go on, without intervening. It’s one of his four main principles to “start processes,” not seek to “dominate spaces.”
Which brings us to a third consideration, however: if the above is correct, do we also now have a new vision of the papacy? The pope does not and should not make every decision in a global Church. Individual bishops and bishops’ conferences have a legitimate role in deciding how the truths of the Faith are lived out locally. But their proper authority cannot be allowed to fracture the unity of the universal Church.
Local bishops can make decisions about details of liturgy, personnel matters, and so forth. But certain questions can quickly lead to schism; that is why one of the roles of the pope has always been the pontifex, the bridge builder – promoter of unity.
In my view, there cannot be divisions over the nature and meaning of the Eucharist – the sacrament of unity. Which is where we seem to be at present.
One side sees that sacrament as a kind of hospitality and welcoming of all, a “medicine not a prize for the perfect;” the other sees it as a deep sign of full unity in Christ – and with one another.
Communion for the divorced and remarried became a sore spot precisely because, in the murky way of Amoris laetitia, it seems to exacerbate the very same division about the Eucharist. Chesterton remarks in one of his essays that a person may walk right up to the edge of a precipice if the weather is clear and he can see precisely where he’s putting his feet. If he’s walking in a fog, however, the smart thing to do is to give the chasm a wide berth.
In the current Catholic fog, some are happy because personally troublesome distinctions seem to have been obliterated. But others – yes, sometimes excessively, but not without reason – fear that we are dangerously near to a fatal step on several fronts that we don’t even see.
Pope Francis is not the clearest of leaders. But what is perhaps even more disturbing in these contested matters is that we are often arguing as if the questions have never been treated earlier in the Church. They have – and were settled in ways that do not lend themselves to change via “dialogue.”
We are in a time when we are not only increasing division among existing Catholics, but with the Fathers of the Church and the great doctors and saints, martyrs, and confessors of the ages. And ultimately we have to ask ourselves, would Sts. Peter or Paul, would Jesus Himself, think that allowing these divisions to persist is what God wants for His people?