A recent post from Sandro Magister introduces his report on a book-length interview with Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller by asking a question. This is how he poses it: “The prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith refutes the ideas of those who want to permit second marriages with the first spouse still alive. He is backed up by Cardinal Sebastián, who also disagrees with Cardinal Kasper. But whose side is Pope Francis on?”
What we don’t get from Magister is an answer to his own question, so you can have one from me. Whose side is Pope Francis on? He is on Müller’s, not on Kasper’s: he will continue to defend the tradition of the Church in this matter, as he has already done.
We need to begin, however, by asking why it is that the question is being asked in the first place. The doubts over the line the Pope will take, especially at the forthcoming Synod on the family, derive mostly from the Pope’s exceptionally warm response to an address delivered by Cardinal Kasper to a consistory on the family which took place in March, in which he expounded his view that Communion should be given to the divorced and remarried. This event was not public and its proceedings were supposed to be confidential.
But there was no way they were going to remain confidential after the Pope, the following day, genially applauded Kasper’s speech (though not, it is to be noted, necessarily its conclusions) in the following words: “Yesterday, before going to sleep—although I did not do this to put myself to sleep—I read or rather re-read the work of Cardinal Kasper, and I would like to thank him because I found profound theology, and even serene thinking in theology. It is pleasant to read serene theology. And I also found what Saint Ignatius told us about, that ‘sensus Ecclesiae,’ love for Mother Church. It did me good and an idea came to me—excuse me, Eminence, if I embarrass you—but the idea is that this is called ‘doing theology on one’s knees.’ Thank you. Thank you.”
It was of course soon all over the secular press that the Pope was getting ready to allow Communion for the divorced and remarried. This conclusion seemed to be confirmed by reports that an Argentinian woman, who had written to Pope Francis to ask if she could be readmitted to the sacraments even though she was divorced and had entered into a civil partnership, was claiming that the Pope rang her up, introducing himself as “Father Bergoglio,” and after a 10-minute chat said she could “safely” receive Communion. Her partner then leaked these details on Facebook. It’s a highly dubious story, denied by the Vatican, but that too was all over the secular press.
So why am I so sure that the Pope does support Cardinal Müller’s insistence that there will be no change in the teachings of the Church, despite his warm words about Kasper’s speech? For a start, Kasper’s speech is such that you could find it interesting, even to be commended as an intellectual exercise, without agreeing with a word of it. It’s tentative, speculative; I didn’t exactly find it “serene” (incidentally, I seriously wonder if the Holy Father wasn’t teasing Cardinal Kasper when he said that “It is pleasant to read serene theology”; he’s known for his sense of humor) and if Pope Francis had actually agreed with it, wouldn’t he have used rather different wording?
In an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times on Kasper’s proposal, which is roughly that a second “marriage” might be tolerated but not accepted, Ross Douthat comments that “whatever individuals and pastors decide to take upon their own consciences, declaring the reception of Communion licit for the remarried-but-not-annulled in any systematic way seems impossible without real changes—each with its own potential doctrinal ripples—to one or more of three theologically-important Catholic ideas: The understanding that people in grave sin should not generally receive the Eucharist, the understanding that adultery is always a grave sin, and/or the understanding that a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble.”
If he actually did effect some change of the kind being fondly touted by liberal Catholics, Pope Francis would be either dissolving important Church teachings into incoherence, or else changing them in a way that mainstream Catholics firmly believe that the Pope, any pope, cannot do.
Anyway, I confidently predict that there will be no change and that the Holy Father is NOT preparing the way for one. It’s a matter of his entire attitude to the Church’s doctrinal tradition. Not once has he cast any doubt on his support for what the Church teaches. I draw your attention to one of his little sermons, preached at his daily Mass in the chapel of the Casa Santa Marta in January, and reported on this site but otherwise unnoticed, in which he made it quite clear that fidelity to Church teaching is a fundamental part of belonging to the Church and that we cannot, in his words, use Church doctrine “as we please.”
He defined the three “pillars” of belonging as “humility,” “fidelity” and “special service.” He said that fidelity was the “second pillar: “Fidelity to the Church, fidelity to its teaching; fidelity to the Creed; fidelity to the doctrine, safeguarding this doctrine. Humility and fidelity. We receive the message of the Gospel as a gift and we need to transmit it as a gift, but not as a thing of ours: it is a gift that we received.”
Quoting Pope Paul, he said it was “an absurd dichotomy to love Christ without the Church, to listen to Christ but not the Church, to be with Christ at the margins of the Church. It’s not possible. It is an absurd dichotomy. We receive the Gospel message in the Church and we carry out our holiness in the Church, our path in the Church. The other is a fantasy, or, as he said, an absurd dichotomy.”
“Fidelity to the Church, fidelity to its teaching”: it really is what he believes, as all committed Catholics do. So don’t worry about the Synod; it will come and go and be forgotten. The Church and her teachings will go on and on, in saecula saeculorum, the latest moral and intellectual fashions forever receding into the past. In Chesterton’s unforgettable words…
It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared August 5, 2014 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is Cardinal Gerhard Müller at a press conference last February announcing his new book. (Photo credit: CNS photo; Max Rossi / Reuters.)