Aim of Family Synods: Harmonize Doctrine and Pastoral Care

A recent interview of  Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga in a German newspaper underscores the stress lines surrounding the upcoming synods, in October 2014 and October 2015, “On Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”  It can help us to think more clearly about what those Synods are and are not about.

In a January l’Osservatore Romano article entitled “The Power of Grace,” the German Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith—successor to Cardinal Ratzinger, second man named to that post by Pope Benedict XVI, and confirmed highest official of Pope Francis—Archbishop Gerhard Müller had laid out with pristine clarity the many arguments for why divorce and remarriage is theologically impossible, and thus Eucharistic communion is impossible for the civily remarried, who live, according to Jesus, in a state of continuing adultery.  “The Power of Grace” to which the title of the article refers is the power of the sacrament to bind husband and wife together till death alone do them part.

During a trip to Archbishop Müller’s native Germany, Cardinal Maradiaga, coordinator of Pope Francis’s Council of eight Cardinal Advisors, made comments to the newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger that were critical of Archbishop Müller’s article.  In the one paragraph of the article reprinted in the American press, Cardinal Maradiaga says, “Yes, I read it.  And I thought, ‘Okay, perhaps you are right, but at the same time, perhaps not.’ I mean, I understand him: He is German—yes, I must say, he is most of all a Professor, a German theology professor.  In his mentality, there is only right and wrong, that’s it.  But I say, ‘The world, my brother, the world is not so.  You must be a little flexible, when you hear other truths; you cannot just hear them and say, no, this is the borderline.”  (The popular translation has said “the wall,” but that does not fit the context.)

What did Cardinal Maradiaga mean?  It says more about the popular press than about Cardinal Maradiaga that he was taken (out of context) to mean that we should give communion to the remarried.  The rest of his interview, unavailable in English, tells a more interesting story.

The context is a discussion of Pope Francis’s reform of the Curia.  The interviewer, summarizing, says, “Priority for the care of souls?”  Cardinal Maradiaga responds, “yes, more pastoral than doctrinal.”  In the popular mentality, “pastoral” means “heterodox.”  But Cardinal Maradiaga immediately clarifies that this is not what he means.  “The Church’s teaching, the theology,” he says, echoing Francis, “is established.  But we must see that we can instruct uneducated people in it.”  He cites the Pope’s reference to the road to Emmaus: “we must warm their hearts” with the truths of faith.

This is the context in which the interviewer introduces remarriage.  “But to warm hearts, don’t we need to change the doctrine? … Think of the controversy about those who are divorced and remarried!”

Cardinal Maradiaga responds unequivocally, “The Church is bound by God’s commandments.  Christ said about marriage, ‘What God has joined, let no man separate.’  This word stands fast.”  Support of remarriage is not an option.  “But,” says the Cardinal, reiterating what he has just said, “there are many ways in which we can explain this teaching.”  He mentions the frequently misunderstood topic of annulments as an example, and then says we should find ways to give a “more deeply incisive” explanation of Christ’s teaching.

“But,” he concludes, “we would be going in the wrong direction if we said that what is black today will be white tomorrow.”  Before he says that Archbishop Müller sees only in black and white, he himself says that there is a black and white, a right and wrong.  The difference is that there is more to the Church’s teaching than just right and wrong.

Indeed, in the next question, the interviewer asks him why we are having another synod (or rather, two synods) on the family now; John Paul II already had one, leading to the exhortation Familiaris Consortio, in 1980. Cardinal Maradiaga says he asked Pope Francis that question.  First, he says, the Pope cited the myriad disasters assailing the family today.  Then he said, “In this context, it is not enough to say, ‘We have already given the traditional teaching.’  Obviously, the traditional teaching will stand firm.  But the pastoral challenges today demand timely responses….  A new evangelization.”

Pope Francis has called for two synods, not on “whether we should change the practice of denying communion to the remarried”—that question would not require two synods.  Nor are the synods on “whether we should change the Church’s Biblical teaching on marriage.”  The question before the synods is on “pastoral challenges of the family, in the context of evangelization.”  As Cardinal Maradiaga says, the yes and no questions are in place: no remarriage, no communion for those who are objectively in a state of mortal sin.  The question now is what we do with that teaching.

What sort of questions might the bishops consider?  Here are some ideas I can think of, as a seminary professor who writes on the traditional theology of marriage:

  1. The processing of annulments.  Divorce is theologically impossible.  But not all marriages are valid.  There is room for better customer service, not in giving more or fewer annulments, but in making accurate judgments in a timely way, with clear explanations.  See Canon Law (CIC) 1671-91.
  2. Conditions of validity in the modern context.  Marriage requires at least a minimal knowledge that marriage is supposed to be life-long and ordered to the upbringing of children.  That knowledge is essential to contracting marriage; a couple who does not intend to enter such a marriage cannot accidentally contract one.  The Church traditionally assumes that most people know what marriage is.  But the popularity today of gay marriage, for example, suggests that we may be in a new cultural context, in which that is no longer a valid assumption.  A heterosexual couple who thinks that marriage has absolutely nothing to do with gender might be using the word “marriage” to refer to something fundamentally different from what we mean by it.  See CIC 1095-96, 1101.
  3. Canonical form.  Because marriage is essentially a public reality, the Church has the right to legislate how marriage is contracted.  Canon law already says, and always has said, that a sacramentally Catholic couple who refuses to follow the Church’s forms when contracting marriage cannot validly enter into marriage.  But this theological truth allows the Church great pastoral leeway in determining the conditions of marriage.  The Church could conceivably, for example, demand a prayer vigil the night before the wedding as a condition for the validity of marriage, or demand that the couple lie on their faces and pledge fidelity to the Pope.  See CIC 1117, also 1078, 1083-94, 1108-20, 1124-27, and 1130-33.
  4. Marriage preparation.  There are surely better ways of encouraging strong marriages, and discouraging weak ones, before marriage is contracted.  It might also be possible to include such preparation as part of canonical form, as in point 3 above.
  5. Marriage preparation personnel.  Are priests or married people the most effective people to communicate the Church’s teaching on marriage?  Are there better ways to ensure that marriage preparation and communication about the Church’s teaching are presented by the most effective, and most orthodox communicators?
  6. Support of the repentant and their children.  The unfortunate situation today is that many children are living in marriages that the Church cannot support.  It would not be unreasonable in light of this cultural crisis for the Church to undertake new forms of material support for these children.  Traditionally, in fact, the Church has done precisely that with the children of priests: rather than having men leave the priesthood, the Church has found other ways to care for their children.
  7. Support of the lay faithful.  Pope Francis often speaks of the scandal of churches with closed doors, where the faithful cannot visit the Eucharist even if they want to.  Perhaps nothing would so support marriage as simply making daily Mass, frequent confession, and Eucharistic adoration more widely available.  Perhaps better availability of the sacraments could produce a healthier, holier laity, with trickle-down effects for the troubled culture around them.

Archbishop Müller’s article speaks of “the power of grace” to bind couples in marriage.  But a full presentation of Catholic doctrine also includes “the power of grace” to help married couples and those around them through hard times, and to create holy apostles of the truth about marriage and family.

None of these pastoral questions requires the slightest hint of changing the Church’s black-and-white traditional doctrine on marriage, such as allowing remarriage or communion for those who are remarried.  But all of them go beyond the simple “black and white,” “here are the borders” presentation of Archbishop Müller’s l’Osservatore Romano article.  Pastoral care of the family in the modern world requires clarity of doctrine—but it also requires much more.  Perhaps this was Cardinal Maradiaga’s real point.

(Photo credit: Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga from 2005 / AP Photo / Peter Dejong.)

Eric Johnston


Eric Johnston is a father of five who teaches theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University. His principal work is on Thomas Aquinas's theology of marriage, as well as related topics in social thought and the theology of nature and grace. He blogs on spiritual theology at

  • Ita Scripta Est

    I have a feeling the up coming Synod is going to result in a train-wreck.

    • don Pavao

      What could possibly go wrong?Be an optimmist, even if the train-wreck happens we can always say that the problem is not with the synods because no Church doctrine on marrige was changed.

    • TheAbaum
      • tamsin

        now my head hurts even more.

        • TheAbaum


      • Objectivetruth


        I remember back in October/November during the initial rollout of Obamacare, some interesting postings on sites that were critical of the botched rollout. The “commenters” were extremely pro-Obamacare, with almost canned responses attacking posters critical of the rollout. This is scary.

        • TheAbaum

          Beyond the normal hit and run and prairie dogs that vandalize anything about sex, there’s been an influx of individuals posting as PHO’s. Pseudo-Hyper-Orthodox. (conveniently, a homophone for Faux).

          They don’t use a disqus ID and alway pitch the same thing. You aren’t Catholic unless you are totally supine to a mythical Catholic kingdom, in other words, attempting to infect people with idolatry of the state.

          • Objectivetruth

            Crafty devils. It’s almost like the current Obama administration doesn’t mind there being a Catholic Church, as long as it’s a Church that adopts the Obama magisterium. Similar to the Chinese Republic’s state sanctioned Church. I can’t recall who (Jay Carney, possibly) but an Obama minion was quoted as saying the Catholic Church needs to seriously revising several of its canon laws and doctrines.

    • fredx2

      On the contrary. It is going to be a magnificent success. Nothing could improve the church’s standing more than to be seen to be working hard to help families thrive. If you are relevant to families,and can help them confront the myriad of issues that tears them apart today, you will be listened to and respected. It will also be a two year long process where everyone focuses on the teaching of the church. Most people that disagree with the teaching of the church do so because they don’t ever hear the arguments in the other direction. The church will be explaining its teaching, and why it is correct.

      • brians

        Most people who disagree with Church teaching do so because they want to be able to do whatever they want. I’ve spend years defending Catholicism with bullet-proof argument, and it rarely does any good. Once the arguments have all been made, all that’s left is love and brotherhood. Not tolerance and equality, to be sure, but love and brotherhood.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “Canon law already says, and always has said, that a sacramentally Catholic couple who refuses to follow the Church’s forms when contracting marriage cannot validly enter into marriage.”

    Until the Council of Trent’s decree Tametsi in 1563, no formalities were required for a valid marriage. All that was necessary, providing there was no impediment, was a mutual manifestation of consent. The Council itself says, “Although it is not to be doubted, that clandestine marriages, made with the free consent of the contracting parties, are valid and true marriages, so long as the Church has not rendered them invalid; and consequently, that those persons are justly to be condemned, as the holy Synod doth condemn them with anathema, who deny that such marriages are true and valid… nevertheless, the holy Church of God has, for reasons most just, at all times detested and prohibited such marriages.” In other words, they were illicit, but not invalid. It goes on to provide for the future that “Those who shall attempt to contract marriage otherwise than in the presence of the parish priest, or of some other priest by permission of the said parish priest, or of the Ordinary, and in the presence of two or three witnesses; the holy Synod renders such wholly incapable of thus contracting and declares such contracts invalid and null,”

    “It ordains, moreover, that this decree shall begin to be in force in each parish, at the expiration of thirty days, to be counted from the day of its first publication made in the said parish.” It was never promulgated in England or Scotland, where the old law applied until Ne Temere in 1908. The same was true of parts of the United States.

    There is no reason why the law could not be changed (although I think it would be a terrible idea to do so)

    • Jerome

      On the subject of the subtlety of the Church, it is interesting to note the definition of Trent on marriage:

      “If anyone says that the Church errs in that she taught and teaches that in accordance with evangelical and apostolic doctrine the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved by reason of adultery on the part of one of the parties, and that both, or even the innocent party who gave no occasion for adultery, cannot contract another marriage during the lifetime of the other, and that he is guilty of adultery who, having put away the adulteress, shall marry another, and she also who, having put away the adulterer, shall marry another,[13] let him be anathema.”

      In the recent, 43rd edition of Denziger published by Ignatius press, on page 426 there is a footnote of the editor to this canon that explains: “The milder form of condemnation was chosen with respect to the Greeks, who follow an opposite practice but do not reject the teaching of the Latin Church.” The odd language of “if anyone says the Church errs . . . let him be anathema” with its conditional phrase therefore seems to be worded not to necessarily condemn the Eastern Orthodox canon law, which to my understanding traditionally allowed a kind of remarriage and admission to communion with continued conjugal life in certain “hard cases,” although with the expectation that the spouses will adopt a life of special penances.

      Whether this practice is good or bad, I have no particular opinion myself, and I certainly understand the need for clarity in our day and age. But sometimes, also, the wisdom of the Church is in its subtlety.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour


        The debates do make it clear that the Council wished to condemn the Reformers’ interpretation of Matt 19:9 that marriage could be dissolved for adultery, with some of them interpreting 1 Cor 7:15 to allow dissolution for desertion, too, without explicitly condemning the “economy” of the Orthodox Churches.

        That is quite different from endorsing the practice of the Eastern Churches, who, it is worth noting, treat all second marriages as a concession to human weakness and invest the ceremony with a penitential character. Perhaps, we have a relic of this depreciation of second marriages in the West, where the Nuptial Benediction can be given to a woman only once.

        • Jerome

          Fair enough! And you very right to point out that all marriages beyond the first have a somewhat penitential character in the East. It is also interesting to note that Eastern Catholic Churches have all–so far as I’m aware–adopted the Roman practice with regard to marriage law. It is interesting what would happen on this subject if there is a full and formal reunion of Catholic and Orthodox Churches (unlikely but possible). This would need to be handled in a way that would not ruin the Western canon law or theological definitions, but at the same time not create an immediate anti-western reaction among Easterners if the Western law became binding on them.

          • Jerome

            Just to clarify: “all marriages” meaning those without a previous divorce, whereas in my first post containing the definition from Trent, I mean remarriage of divorced spouses according the old eastern practice. It is my impression the Eastern Orthodox may have become rather more lax in recent times, at least in practice.

  • clintoncps

    Pray for Pope Francis and the Bishops, that the Holy Spirit will truly guide them. Our shepherd’s need our loving, prayerful support.

    Let’s not forget that this is a spiritual battle, where self-assurance can lead even the most sincere pastoral hearts to resort to pragmatic adaptability based on the pressures of demographics and the demands of consensus. Pray for us all.

  • john

    I think the problem might be less with the mentality that the Church’s teaching on marriage/divorce is out of date and more with the mentality of entitlement to holy communion. Why would a person who doesn’t believe/follow certain key tenets of the Catholic faith–especially concerning sacraments like marriage–feel so put out when refused another sacrament (the Eucharist)? Some people may earnestly desire the Eucharist as the source and summit, but I suspect it’s more about vanity–not “going up” for communion is visible to the rest of the congregation. My guess is we need to teach people anew that communion symbolizes assent to the Church in ALL matters of theology AND in conduct (where grave sin is concerned) and we may not provide ourselves personal exemptions. Presently the number of Catholics who openly dissent against Church teaching both in theory and in practice on a number of issues (mostly sexual) rivals the divorced-remarried. “Fixing” that last issue won’t solve the larger problem.

    • dd


    • Maggie Sullivan

      Come on……..Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga and the German Bishops who have never taught about the evils of contraception and divorce just want to do away with sin all together. (except sins against the environment)

      They have the ear of Francis and based on the totally goofy Francis throws out every week or two shortly after this October the, by her actions, will in essence declare Henry VIII right and Thomas More wrong and lift all restriction on Divorce.

      After all…..”who are we to judge.”

  • dd

    “Conditions of validity in the modern context. Marriage requires at
    least a minimal knowledge that marriage is supposed to be life-long and
    ordered to the upbringing of children. That knowledge is essential to
    contracting marriage; a couple who does not intend to enter such a
    marriage cannot accidentally contract one. The Church traditionally
    assumes that most people know what marriage is. But the popularity
    today of gay marriage, for example, suggests that we may be in a new
    cultural context, in which that is no longer a valid assumption. A
    heterosexual couple who thinks that marriage has absolutely nothing to
    do with gender might be using the word “marriage” to refer to something
    fundamentally different from what we mean by it. See CIC 1095-96, 1101.”

    Why would a priest agree to the couple marrying in such a case? I mean if the most basic and superficial grasp of marriage is not present why is the priest even counseling such a couple that marriage is a good idea?

    Is it really that society is totally falling apart or is it that those in authority within the Church are failing the most basic task?

  • On number 7: Consider offering a second daily mass in the evening, outside of traditional working and school hours.

  • Aliquantillus

    Card. Maradiaga is typical of the delusional attitude to marriage which has become common ground after Vatican II. If there are no clear distinctions made — and that’s the whole point of the so-called pastoral approach: erasing clear canonical distinctions — then everything is possible and and everyone will be fine. Alas, not truly so, for in that case the Church will be in conflict with the commandments of her Lord and Saviour. The pastoral approach is in effect a subversive attempt to establish another doctrine. It leads people to hell under the guise of phony annulments and other “adaptations” made “for the sake of mercy”. What is going on is nothing less but a step-by-step demolition and abrogation of Christian sexual morality. It is not hypocritical pastoral adaptations and evasions which are needed in the present crisis. What is needed is the spirit of intransigence that was the hallmark of the saints of ages past. An iron rod, and whips and scourges are need to purge the Church from apostate clergy, that is what is needed! Throw them out! Destroy them! Excommunications are needed in this situation, not the despicable mercy of the modernists.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      With annulments running at 60,000 a year, it is a curious fact, though true, that there must always be a considerable number of Catholics who could not say off-hand whether they were married or not. It is only when the question has been decided in a marriage tribunal that their doubts can be removed. But although they do not know if they are married, and no one could tell them with certainty till the case is tried, it is nevertheless true that they must be either one or the other. There is no half-way house.

      How is this to be addressed?

      • tamsin

        Basically, you can’t know you are married until you attempt an annulment.

        • TheAbaum

          I had a friend who (successfully) pursued an annulment. One of the interesting aspects of this was that the Canonical fees were required to be paid in installments.

          After some reflection, I realized that as in any marital dispute, there’s his side, her side and the truth, and the reason for requiring the installment was tease out the “assymetric” information.

          Basically, if you think there are defects in your marriage (and you aren’t just trying to dump a spouse with diminished appeal or afflicted with some transient grievance) you’ll demonstrate, through continued affirmative action, your belief that there wasn’t a valid union.

          In this case, the woman had married an alcoholic. After numerous indignities and crises, she attempted, but could not prevail upon him to seek counseling. As a “functional” alcoholic he refused, she went to al-anon herself. After a couple of years, she sought a civil divorce and an annulment.

          I suspect that if a marriage is defective, one or both of the spouses know it.

          I suppose the usual suspects will protest “usury” with regard to the installment requirement, but to me it borrows heavily from Solomon’s threat to elicit the true mother.

          • cestusdei

            There are fees for a divorce too. Does the secretary and staff of the tribunal work for free?

            • TheAbaum

              I assume that a professional staff is paid for their services. Would you expect them to work for free?

              The point wasn’t that there were fees, the point was that that they had to be paid in installments, which requires the plaintiff to reassert their grievances not once, but multiple times, that alone is enough to dissuade the insincere.

              • cestusdei

                Usually installments are meant to make it easier to pay. I know of no tribunal that refuses service based on lack of ability to pay. My diocese charges nothing and just asks for a donation. Take a guess how many make even a token donation?

                • TheAbaum

                  Once again, I’m not disputing the existence, magnitude or optionality of payment. Nor have I made any exhaustive study of various dioceses.

                  I know of one case, where the plaintiff asserted to me that her nominal payment was REQUIRED to be paid in monthly installments, with no single payment option. I suppose the individual could have lied or misunderstood, who knows?

                  Guess? 10%, if that.

                  • cestusdei

                    Try 1%, if that.

                    • TheAbaum

                      Bet you don’t see their names on envelopes in collection baskets, either.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          No. I referred to the considerable number who could reasonably have doubts, under Can 1095, for example.

  • windjammer

    Cdl Maradiaga is a modernist. Period. Just read his statements made in Dallas and Miami and it’s there in black and white. He’s telegraphing who he is again….The modernist always give themselves away if you know what to look for in the language of “Modernist Speak”. Favorites are “Pastoral Care” excuse and the “Yes/But” tactic. He uses it in the interview above. What has definite meaning is first strongly reaffirmed (the “yes”) and then gets quantified/deflated/inflated (the “but”) thereby creating confusion, redefinition, nuance etc where none existed previously. The average layman in the pew has not a clue and the demolition of the faith continues before our very eyes. Predictable train wreck dead ahead in October’s Synod on Families.
    I am reminded of what my dad used to say to wit:…It’s The Lord’s Church and He is in Charge. We are required to be faithful but we are not required to be stupid”

  • Rosemary58

    We also assume that priests know what marriage is when they prepare couples. Clearly, they do not.

    You should have included the number of annulments per year in your article. What is the situation as it stands now with how annulments are granted (or not)?

    It is embarrassing to read what Card. Maradiaga said about Archbp. Mueller. Trying to combine doctrine with personal, disrespectful remarks is counter-productive, not to mention being un-Christian as well.

    I am sure that theologians are very hard at work trying to make Christ relevant once again but doing a palatability test is not the way to go. We must accept what the Church Fathers had to accept: the world is pagan, and we must be a sign of Christ to them. While our faith is universal (while not universally accepted), we must meet people where they are and build the Church from the roots again.

  • Caroline

    Suppose there were no “church weddings”–the flowers, the gowns and all of that. Suppose the couple were just sacramentally married, took the vows with witnesses before the priest. As plain as could be. Wouldn’t a lot of
    marriages that later seek annulment or just end in civil divorce without even bothering with annulment never happen to begin with?

  • bonaventure

    It is truly amazing that the most decrepit, failed, and fallen churches in Europe (ex.: Germany and Switzerland) are given such prominence in preparation for the Synod.

    Something’s wrong.

    Please, anyone, prove me wrong.

  • kcthomas

    The parties who want marriage should know what is marriage according to the Catholic Church. The pre -marital course now compulsory in all parishes must impart all the basic knowledge about marriage and sexual ethics in married life. If the divorced and remarried people are permitted to receive Communion officially will mean that one is allowed to receive Communion without repentance and confession. This must then be applied to all mortal sins like murder, theft, adultery etc. Can the Church do so ? The protagonists for permitting Communion to such people should understand that the Church has no police power, and the believers should act according to the teachings of the Church and their conscience based on them.

  • bonaventure

    After Francis’ recent remarks about homosexual “civil unions” in the interview with Corriere della Serra (March 5th), it looks like the October Synod may get out of hand and away from its original intent.

    Not waiting to see that happen…