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Reformers v. conservatives in Rome

28 August 2015

Tensions among RCs are building up to the Bishops’ Synod, says Jonathan Luxmoore


Surrounded: Pope Francis at his general audience in the Vatican last week

Surrounded: Pope Francis at his general audience in the Vatican last week

WHEN Roman Catholic bishops gather in Rome in October to discuss “the vocation and mission of the family”, they will be in for a fraught three weeks. Anglicans should note the outcome. It could affect Christianity’s public profile by modifying the Vatican’s stance on issues such as divorce and contraception.

The 14th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will build on an earlier session last October (News, 17 October), and make recommendations to the Pope on the challenges facing Roman Catholic moral and social teaching. Summing up the 2014 discussions, Pope Francis said that none of the participating bishops had “questioned fundamental truths”. He conceded, however, that differences had emerged over the Church’s doctrine and discipline.

Since then, divisions have hardened, as supporters and opponents of change, clerical and lay, have pushed their agendas in speeches and interviews.


WHEN the Synod’s Lineamenta, or preparatory documents, were sent out in December, they included a 46-point questionnaire on topics such as homosexuality and cohabitation, the findings of which are to be included in the Instrumentum Laboris, or programme of work.

How the questionnaire was handled has reflected wider preferences, however, as conservative bishops have downplayed its importance, and more liberal colleagues have welcomed it.

Calls for change have been loudest in Germany, where the Roman Catholic Church claims the allegiance of about one third of the population of 80.6 million, but has been hit by large-scale departures.

In 2013, guidelines were drawn up by the archdiocese of Freiburg for making communion available to divorced Roman Catholics who have married again. These were roundly rejected by the German Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, who warned that the “entire sacramental economy” would be swept aside by such reforms.

They were, however, defended by other senior clergy; and, last December, a Bishops’ Conference report suggested that most of the 66 bishops in Germany now concurred with the Freiburg proposals.

In an interview in March, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, confirmed that the German Church stood ready to “go down new paths”. It was prepared to “preach the gospel in its own original way”, he said, rather than be seen as “a branch of Rome”.

Although this, too, was repudiated by Archbishop Müller, the German bishops have pressed on. In early May, they amended their employment rules so that people working for church institutions — such as 590,000 staff of its charity, Caritas, one of Germany’s largest employers — would no longer be sacked automatically for marrying again or forming gay unions.

The reform had been necessary, the Bishops explained, to reflect “multiple changes in legal practice, legislation, and society”.


ROMAN CATHOLICS who press for change are claiming inspiration from Pope Francis himself; his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was extensively quoted in the Synod Lineamenta.

This cautioned against turning Roman Catholicism into a “form of servitude”, and conceded that the papal Magisterium should not be expected “to offer a definitive or complete word on every question”. It also invited RCs to be “bold and creative” in “rethinking the goals, structures, style, and methods of evangelisation in their respective communities”.

“It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory,” Pope Francis noted. “Excessive centralisation, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.”


YET the would-be reformers face tough opposition. A “Filial Appeal”, signed by 250,000 conservatives, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American former Vatican Prefect, has urged the Pope to resist “hedonistic propaganda”. Communion for RCs who marry after divorce would mean “accepting adultery”, the appeal argues, while homosexual unions must be “categorically condemned as contrary to divine and natural law”.

In Britain, 460 priests signed an open letter three months ago in The Catholic Herald, pledging “unwavering fidelity” to traditional doctrines.

Similarly, bishops in Poland have vowed to uphold a vigorous interpretation of teachings by St John Paul II. Liberal reforms would amount to “blessing sins” and surrendering to “sentimental sympathy”, they have argued.

“The position of broad circles of clergy and faithful has been unanimous,” the Bishop of Rzeszów, the Rt Revd Jan Watroba, who leads the Polish Church’s Family Commission, told an episcopal assembly in June. The Archbishop of Poznań, the Most Revd Stanislaw Gadecki, said: “We certainly won’t be going in the theological direction presented by certain German-speaking circles.”

The Church in Poland has refused to publish its synod questionnaire responses. When the German bishops released an analysis of their responses in April, which suggested that most RCs favoured greater openness, the Catholic Information Agency in Poland (KAI) rejected the validity of the German findings.


IN GERMANY itself, some bishops and archbishops have urged advocates of change to show restraint, fearing that they could provoke a backlash.

In March, Cardinal Paul Cordes, the retired German President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, accused the reformist Cardinal Marx of “irritating theological blurriness”, and of making statements “worthy of the village pub” rather than of a serious church leader. The Catholic faith was weak in Germany, Cardinal Cordes argued; so its Church could hardly give a lead to others.

In May, the lay-led Central Committee of German Catholics, or ZdK, nevertheless voted unanimously to demand the blessing of second marriages and same-sex partnerships at the Rome Synod in October, as well as a “reassessment of methods of contraception” and “a clear stance against the exclusion of homosexuals which still exists”.

This time, it was Cardinal Marx himself who went on the offensive, accusing the ZdK of making “hasty, raw demands”, which were “incompatible with church doctrine and tradition”.

Continued wrangling looks inevitable. At the end of May, while senior clergy from Germany, France, and Switzerland argued for change during a study day at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, bishops from Eastern Europe joined Cardinal Müller at the Vatican for an “international congress” sponsored by Poland’s arch-conservative broadcaster Radio Maryja, to denounce a litany of ills from “sexual revolution” to “gender-feminism”.

Those hoping for a new consensus at the Rome Synod will have their work cut out. If the pope agrees, in the light of Synod debates, to modify aspects of his Church’s social and moral teaching, conservative Roman Catholics will feel betrayed and rejected. If he rejects any reform, liberals will be outraged and alienated. The task of leading this vast faith community could never have looked more daunting.


Jonathan Luxmoore reports on religious affairs from Warsaw and Oxford.

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