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.)

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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 2015; Daniel Ibañez/CNA)

  • 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

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