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A conundrum for Pope Francis

  • 14 October 2014

It was unusually hot in Rome for the first week of the Synod on the Family. But that didn’t dampen the excitement surrounding Pope Francis of the unusually large crowds for October in the Piazza of St Peter’s. He has really struck a chord with people and, significantly, with the secular media.

But that enthusiasm is certainly not reflected in a sizeable minority of the hierarchy attending the synod. As a result some seasoned Roman observers are pessimistic that anything at all significant will happen. They note that those who oppose any change in issues like communion for divorced remarried Catholics, or the contraception ruling, let alone the recognition of gay unions, are out in force making their views known.

Their major thrust has been to shift the focus of the synod away from questioning previous church teaching and practice to an emphasis on the ‘threats’ and ‘dangers’ facing the family in the contemporary world. In other words the real problems originate in modern culture rather than from church teaching on morality and sexuality. Underlying this opposition is a covert hostility to the whole Pope Francis agenda. There are many clerics in Rome who have no desire to follow Francis anywhere near sheep, let alone smell them, or worse, smell like them!

But Francis is not without his supporters. Many bishops have emphasised that while doctrine will not change, pastoral approaches and applications will. As German theologian and friend of the pope, Cardinal Walter Kasper, has said: ‘Nobody denies the indissolubility of marriage ... But discipline can be changed.’ Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington took a similar approach arguing that the pastoral application of doctrines ‘are contingent and can change.’ 

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin applied the theological notion of the development of doctrine arguing that ‘the synod has to find a new language to show that there can be development of doctrine’ and he claims that ‘there has been a willingness [in the synod] to listen to what emerged in the questionnaire that went out’ late last year in preparation for the synod.

Needless to say there has been reaction to this. Some have argued that Kasper particularly has been involved a ‘con job’ that confuses doctrine with practice and that ultimately aims at changing what they see as ‘settled’ doctrine like the indissolubility of marriage or the condemnation of contraception. The leading light in this group is Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the