The Vatican Synod of Bishops on the Family begins on Sunday amid a degree of chaos unprecedented in recent Catholic history. And I'm afraid it's the Pope's fault.
Francis kicked off proceedings in February by asking the retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper to address the world's cardinals. Kasper used the opportunity to float his proposal – which he's been advocating for years – that divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Holy Communion.
Kasper has now told the Catholic News Service:
I had the impression the pope is open for a responsible, limited opening of the situation, but he wants a great majority of the bishops behind himself.
But some of the most influential cardinals in the Church – Müller, head of the CDF, Pell, head of Vatican finances and Burke, head of the Vatican tribunal – are totally against Kasper's proposal. Not because they lack compassion but because in their opinion it drives a horse and cart through the Magisterium. And even many liberal-minded Catholics agree with them: read Louise Mensch's extraordinary Spectator piece defending the Communion ban even though it means she can't receive the sacrament herself.
Is Kasper telling the truth – that Francis wants some complicated bending of the rules so long as he has the backing of the two sessions of the Synod this year and next year? Cardinal Raymond Burke (who is being briefed against viciously) thinks Kasper is behaving outrageously in assuming the role of the Holy Father's spokesman. He says:
I cannot see how (the proposal) can go forward if we are going to honour the words of our Lord himself in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, in which he said the man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.
This is one hell of a mess. And it raises questions about the judgment of the Pope (whom I admire enormously). Kasper is an outlier, theologically speaking. It is bizarre that Francis has effectively allowed him to set the agenda for the first Synod, an 'extraordinary' meeting that will be followed by a general Synod on the Family in 2015. There could easily be a year of anger and confusion between the two meetings – manifested primarily in parishes where priests and communicants aren't sure where they stand.
We're not talking here about a simple division between liberal and conservative prelates. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, hardly a traditionalist, has said that any marriage which is 'truly the place of the conscious, willing acceptance of God’s grace can no more be dissolved than the Eucharist can be returned to bread, because it is the work of God'.
Nichols isn't committing himself to any specific position in this debate, but it's clear that he recognises that unpicking the Magisterium on the Communion ban would be nightmarishly difficult. I suspect he speaks for the majority of the world's cardinals, who have to bear in mind that Jesus himself was more 'hardline' on divorce than on any other aspect of sexual morality.
Pope Francis has opened Pandora's box before the first session of the Synod. Was that deliberate? Or had he just not thought through the consequences of putting Kasper in the driving seat? Either way, he has blundered.