The dispute between conservative Cardinal George Pell of Australia and the more liberal German bishops broke out into the open Wednesday, with the Germans saying they felt “dismay and sadness” that Pell had fostered division in the synod with his recent public remarks.
The German bishops favor a proposal put forth by German Cardinal Walter Kasper to allow divorced Catholics who remarried without an annulment of their first marriage to receive Communion, as determined on a case-by-case basis. Pell and other conservatives oppose the idea, fearing it will dilute the Church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble.
German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said Pell’s recent remarks that set up the disagreement as a battle between supporters of Kasper and followers of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was unhelpful and “contradicts the spirit of cooperation.”
The spat came in the context of the release of reports from the synod’s small-group sessions, clusters of bishops organized by language that discussed issues related to family life. An English-language group led by Irish Archbishop Eamon Martin summed up the general findings of the entire body: division on hot-button issues.
On the Communion for divorced Catholics issue, “the vote was evenly divided,” the group reported.
Regarding pastoral support to gay and lesbian Catholics, the “group was also divided.”
Other reports also say that the small groups remain unable to find general consensus on several areas, with just three days before the 270 bishops gathered in Rome are expected to vote on a final document that will then be sent for consideration to Pope Francis — who holds the only vote that matters.
During the course of the synod, one notion put forward by several bishops, from both the left and right, is to soften language the Church uses about gays, the divorced, and even couples living together outside of marriage. But ideas about how to do that remain elusive.
Another English-language group, led by Pell, for example, said any changes in language must make “the Church’s teaching more comprehensible and accessible.”
But that same report, in sections about homosexuality, used phrases some gay Catholics say are antiquated and offensive, such as “persons with homosexual tendencies” and “a person with same-sex attraction.”
An Italian-speaking group led by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco called for “direct pastoral attention” to families with gay and lesbian members.
At the same time, however, the group condemned “unjustified economic-legislative pressure for introducing laws treating civil unions as equivalent to marriage.”
A German-speaking group, led by Austrian Cardinal Chistoph Schonborn, wrote that when upholding Church doctrine, ministry has sometimes been “harsh” and “merciless,” especially toward single mothers, gays and lesbians, couples cohabiting, and the divorced and remarried.
“We ask these people for forgiveness,” the report states.
Speaking at a press conference, Marx said that all the members of the group voted in favor of proposals in their report. In the German-speaking group is both the Church’s doctrinal czar, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, as well as Kasper, who is pushing for changes on the Communion issue.
Marx said the German bishops favor easing the Communion rule because of questions they get from young people before marriage: “Will you stay with us when we fail?”
“We have to say yes, we will stay with you when you fail,” he said.
The German-speaking group suggested that these issues be addressed through what the Church dubs the internal forum, rather than through the traditional method of annulments that requires documentation and public testimony from the parties involved. Certain cases, the bishops suggested, could be judged behind closed doors, and require the level of confidentiality normally reserved for confession.
When it comes to the synod’s conclusion, some bishops said concrete action must follow.
A Spanish-language group led by Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga said the synod must produce more than “nice words.”
“We have to propose a generous movement, removing many obstacles from the path so that the divorced and remarried can participate more fully in the life of the Church,” the group said. “They can’t be godparents, they can’t be catechists, they can’t teach religion.”
“We need to show that we’ve heard the ‘cry’ of so many people who suffer and cry out, asking to participate as fully as possible in the life of Church,” it continued.
That sentiment was also shared by Bagnasco’s group, which called for “removing some forms of liturgical, educational, and pastoral exclusion that still exist.”
Other groups appeared to reject the notion of opening up the sacrament. The group led by Pell, for example, wrote that while it supports the pope’s efforts to streamline the annulment process, “the majority without full consensus affirmed the current teaching and practice of the Church.”
At least two groups suggested the creation of a commission to study the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and one group proposed holding a synod specifically about homosexuality.
On Tuesday, bishops listened to a fiery speech from Moscow Patriarch Hilarion, who implied support for Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed for refusing to comply with a court order to issue marriage licenses, citing her personal opposition to same-sex marriage.
Davis’ supporters say she was jailed because her beliefs, and some synod bishops expressed support for the idea of conscientious objection, although they did not cite her case specifically.
An Italian group led by Cardinal Franceso Montenegro said it affirms “the right to conscientious objection in a context like today, where public authorities try to limit it on the basis of a presumed common good.”
The 10 clerics chosen by Pope Francis to summarize the synod’s thoughts into a single document will present a draft to bishops Thursday, who will then debate the text and submit revisions before a final vote on Saturday.
By Michael O’Loughlin