Damian Thompson

Communion for divorced Catholics: the German bishops twisting Pope Francis’s arm

Communion for divorced Catholics: the German bishops twisting Pope Francis's arm
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Just before Christmas, virtually unnoticed by the media, the German Catholic bishops made a plea for the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics (or Catholics married to divorcees) to Holy Communion.

That it should be the Germans, led by Cardinal Reinhard Marx – Archbishop of Munich, president of the German bishops' conference and coordinator of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy – is no coincidence. In 1993, the future Cardinals Kasper and Lehmann asked the Vatican to admit couples in irregular marriages to Communion – indeed, to allow these couples to make up their own minds as to whether they should receive the sacrament. Cardinal Ratzinger kicked that proposal, and with it the liberal German Church, into the long grass.

Now Pope Francis has revived the German plan, by inviting Kasper to set the agenda for the first session of the Synod on the Family last October. That ended in disarray (my accounts here and here), leaving everyone confused about what the full Synod, meeting this coming autumn, had the authority to decide.

Time is of the essence. And the Germans have got their act together, as this report for the Tablet makes clear. It's worth quoting in full (my emphases in bold):

The great majority of German bishops would like to see remarried divorcees being allowed to receive the Sacraments under certain specified circumstances.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who presented the findings of a special working group in the German bishops’ conference on the subject in Bonn on 22 December, described divorce and remarriage as 'often the beginning of a process of alienation from the Church'.

The president of the German bishops’ conference went on: 'The search for a theologically responsible and pastorally appropriate accompaniment for Catholics whose marriages have broken down and who have married again in a register office is a pressing challenge for the Church worldwide.'

The Church’s approach to those Catholics has provoked sharp and outspoken criticism both within and outside the Church, the bishops said. Even happily married, committed Catholics found the present rulings 'incomprehensible and unmerciful', particularly the fact that remarried Catholics are excluded from the Sacraments. Only very few remarried divorcees see annulment as a solution, because they do not think that their first marriage simply never existed, the bishops said.

A possible annulment of the first marriage 'is only practicable for a small minority. It does not solve the problem', they added. 'When the present pastoral approach to remarried divorcees is perceived as a scandal by committed, practising Catholics, one must seriously ask whether Scripture and tradition really reveal no other way,' the German bishops concluded, and underlined their determination to intensify their efforts for a renewed pastoral approach towards remarried divorcees.

The German bishops would like to see the findings used as guidelines in the current nationwide preparations for next October’s follow-up Synod on the Family at the Vatican.

From this we can infer three things. 1. The German Church is acting as a united lobby – the 'great majority' are pushing for change. 2. When the Germans say that devout Catholics find the bar on Communion for divorcees 'incomprehensible and unmerciful', and a 'scandal', that means that Cardinal Marx and colleagues find them an incomprehensible scandal. I'm assuming that Marx chose those words himself; he has certainly put his name to them. 3. The German bishops plan to dominate – one is tempted to say hijack – the discussions over Communion for divorced people at the coming Synod.

Why the Germans? An article in the December 12 issue of the new Catholic Herald magazine (not online) by Jon Anderson, its specialist in European Catholic politics, helps explain. Mass attendance in Germany has fallen from 22 to 11 per cent since 1989 – and that decline would be sharper if it weren't for Polish immigrants. How does the church exercise such influence? Answer: it receives £4.6 billion a year from Germany's church tax. Its charity Caritas employs 560,000 staff – the country's second largest employer after Volkswagen.

These vast budgets create a mindset in which German bishops feel entitled to dictate pastoral practice for Third World dioceses whose churches are overflowing but can't afford to replace a lightbulb. The bishops of these dioceses, who will again encounter the likes of Marx and Kasper in October, are very conservative on the matter of divorce. You might think that is hypocritical, given the prevalence of priests' mistresses in Africa, to say nothing of polygamy, but such chaos makes bishops in the developing world all the more determined to hold the line. Also, they suspect Kasper et al of subtle racism, seeking to 'enlighten' people of darker skin.

At the end of the Synod, it will be Pope Francis who has to decide whether to implement whatever it decides. Will it recommend a radical relaxation of pastoral practice so that, after some form of consultation or display of repentance or whatever, irregularly married Catholics can receive Communion? The Germans (and their allies in the Vatican) have now said that they will settle for nothing less, though they may have a fall-back position. And the bishops of Africa (and their allies in the Vatican) have made it equally clear that they will settle for nothing of the sort.

Francis's opinions are mystery – possibly to himself, one Vatican source tells me. Yes, he wants Kasper's ideas debated. But, although he's become more liberal with time, he's still a 78-year-old Argentinian Jesuit who recoils at the notions of women priests and gay marriages, neither of which innovation is entirely unacceptable to the semi-protestant German liberals.

Surely the Pope is shrewd enough to realise that he cannot deliver what Marx is demanding, even if he wanted to: some of his own senior officials plus hundreds of cardinals and bishops around the world would rise in revolt. As I said last week, Catholic teaching on matters of sexual morality is open to no more than tweaking – and arguably the Church can no longer go down the route of informal pastoral relaxation now that, thanks to Francis's Synod, it is crossed by battle lines.

The danger for the Pope is that the German-led liberals will turn on him if he fails to deliver radical change, much as their predecessors turned on Paul VI when he refused to allow them to abandon the Catholic stances on birth control, married priests or transubstantiation. At which point Francis may wish that he'd made a few friends in conservative and traditionalist circles.