Pope Francis made headlines recently when he officiated at the weddings of 20 couples, including some who had been living together and a woman who has a daughter from a previous relationship.
It was the first time that the pontiff had presided over a marriage ceremony since his election and it may have also signaled a dramatic shift in Catholic Church doctrine.
For, more importantly, Francis has appointed a special commission to look at ways to make it easier for Roman Catholics to dissolve their marriages in the eyes of the church, “with the objective of simplifying its procedure, making it more streamlined.”
Now five conservative cardinals appear to be hitting back.
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In a new book to be released days before the world’s Catholic bishops gather at the Vatican for their October Synod, the hard-liners are challenging moves to moderate church doctrine on marriage and offer Communion to divorced Catholics who remarry.
Contributors to the book, “Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church,” include German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Vatican body responsible for church doctrine, and U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican’s top court.
The cardinals left comments to the book’s editor, the Rev. Robert Dodaro, president of the Patristicum Augustinianum Institute in Rome.
“The authors of this volume are united in firmly supporting the New Testament that shows Christ prohibiting any ambiguity on divorce and successive marriages,” Dodaro said.
Dodaro, a theologian, said the cardinals were not offended by the pope’s participation in Sunday’s marriage rites and were more concerned by any move to relax church doctrine. Specifically, they oppose any move to offer Communion for those who remarry after divorce.
And the book’s contributors make no secret of their desire to counter Cardinal Walter Kasper’s recent call for greater mercy from the church toward those who are divorced and remarried.
“Sin is nothing new in the Catholic Church,” Dodaro said. “Jesus encountered irregular marriages. We are talking about a change of doctrine which has a totally different magnitude.”
The changing nature of relationships — from marriage to divorce, cohabitation and gay unions — will top the agenda at the global Synod and also figure prominently at next year’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
“We are going to deal with realistic issues,” Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said. “The issues of family life will be part of this.”
Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, has expressed tolerance on a range of issues, famously asking “Who am I to judge?” about gay relationships.
In a worldwide survey earlier this year, bishops showed they were looking for new ways to deal with unmarried couples, divorced people and single parents disillusioned with the church, while opposing same-sex unions and abortion.
The first survey of 114 bishops’ conferences on family issues said many Christians “have difficulty” accepting church teachings on key issues such as birth control, divorce, homosexuality and cohabitation.
But for many Catholics, the question of Communion for the divorced remains the key issue and there is plenty of division even among conservatives.
Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin told his diocese he doesn’t know what the answer is but said any change should be adopted at a global level to stem the tide of Catholics abandoning the church.
“I often think about and truly agonize over the many divorced Catholics who have ‘dropped out’ of the church completely, as well as those who attend Mass faithfully every Sunday, sometimes for years, without receiving the consolation and joy of the Holy Eucharist,” Tobin says on his diocese site.
“The status quo is unacceptable. For the spiritual well-being of the divorced and remarried members of our Catholic family, for the salvation of their souls, we’ve got to do something!”