The Roman Catholic Church is facing the practical consequences of its “both/and” theology, as the recent synods on the family have shown. And now the contradictions of “both/and” are coming home to roost, as “Pope Francis” takes his time in making a decision about the way to move forward.
“His decision could exacerbate the church’s divisions by disappointing one side or the other—or both if he leaves the question unresolved.”
… nothing the pope has done has raised more hopes or fears within the Catholic Church than his decision to open a debate about divorce and remarriage that his predecessors had declared settled.
It is especially raising the fears of theological conservatives precisely because of the prospect that a doctrinal issue (not a “disciplinary” or “pastoral” issue) that “Pope John Paul the Great” had considered “settled”, is not so settled now.
Starting in the 1970s, some German Catholic theologians argued that people who divorced and remarried might be able to receive Communion in at least some cases.
In 1981, St. John Paul II sought to squelch that notion, forcefully reaffirming the church’s ban on Communion for the remarried unless their first marriage was annulled. Otherwise, “the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage,” he wrote.
Now “Pope Francis” is on the verge of creating “error and confusion” in one direction or another. The doctrine of “papal infallibility” was put into place precisely because of the possibility that one pope would “undo” what a previous pope had put into place. Now the excuse is available, “Pope John Paul the Great did not make this an infallible dogma”.
Three things could happen:
The pope could act unilaterally and endorse a liberalization, under the view that the change would just be a shift in pastoral practice. But given his emphasis on the importance of consultation with the bishops—another principle of Vatican II—it would be awkward for him to override the synod’s failure to endorse any change.
That is especially so because certain prominent members of the synod, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, have since stated publicly that no change on the Communion question is possible.
A third path the pope could take would be to let national bishops’ conferences decide their own practices. Many in Germany hope he will do so.
Conservatives say that would make nonsense of Catholic doctrine, “nationalizing right and wrong,” as a retired cardinal told the Catholic website Crux.
According to some liberals, if the pope fails to endorse a change, the gap between what the Catholic church teaches and what Catholics do will continue to widen. Such a result, they say, would endanger church unity in a less dramatic, yet still gravely discouraging, way.
The question is getting a huge amount of interest because the divorce-and-remarriage rates among Roman Catholics is very high, and typically such individuals leave the Roman Catholic Church rather than stay while unable to receive communion.