Cardinals and bishops leave the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 9. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Catholic bishops debate: Where does doctrine end and pastoral practice begin?

By  David Gibson, Religion News Service
  • October 12, 2014

Senior Catholic leaders meeting at the Vatican are deep into passionate debates about how the Church can respond to the realities of modern family life, yet at the same time they have repeatedly stressed that they are not going to alter long-standing doctrines, such as the teaching on divorce and remarriage.

Does that mean the hopes for real changes are DOA just a few days into the high-level summit?

Those who are pushing for reforms say no. They argue that the Church can in fact make important adaptations by changing the “pastoral application” of doctrines — how teachings function on the ground.

The pastoral practice generating the most attention is the banning of divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the Church from receiving Communion.

“The reception of Communion is not a doctrinal position. It’s a pastoral application of the doctrine of the Church,” said Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a delegate at the two-week Synod and an influential voice pushing for a new approach.

“We have to repeat the doctrine, but the pastoral practice is what we are talking about. That’s why we are having a Synod,” he said in an interview with Catholic News Service. “Just to repeat the practice of the past” without trying to “find a new direction today” is no longer tenable, Wuerl suggested.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a retired German theologian and confidant of Pope Francis, has also endorsed that approach.

“Nobody denies the indissolubility of marriage. I do not, nor do I know any bishop who denies it,” Kasper told the Jesuit weekly, America. “But discipline can be changed.”

“Discipline wants to apply a doctrine to concrete situations, which are contingent and can change,” he added.

In fact, the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s — a much larger and more authoritative four-year gathering of the world’s hierarchy – introduced a number of changes, or “developments,” in Church doctrine and in pastoral practice.

But a sizable contingent of the nearly 200 churchmen at the current Synod have forcefully rejected the separation of doctrine and practice outlined by Wuerl, Kasper and others. They say it’s simply a distinction without a difference, and a Trojan horse that could introduce de facto changes in settled doctrine.

“There can’t be in the Church a discipline which is not at the service of doctrine,” Cardinal Raymond Burke, a former archbishop of St. Louis who now heads the Vatican’s court system, told reporters on the eve of the Synod.

Burke, a canon lawyer and a leader of the camp opposing changes, said the reformers were saying: “Oh, we’re not questioning the indissolubility of marriage at all. We’re just going to make it easy for people to receive a declaration of nullity of marriage so that they can receive the sacraments.”

But that, Burke said, “is a very deceptive line of argument which I’ve been hearing more now in this whole debate.”

If that line prevails, he said, Catholics will see those who are divorced and remarried (without an annulment) taking Communion and will assume that the teaching on marriage has changed or they will conclude that the Church is hypocritical.

Burke’s opinion here is not insignificant — his court is the body ultimately responsible for processing annulment requests from Catholics around the world.

The doctrine-versus-disciple argument can sound like an arcane point of theology that could occupy bishops for years, and it often has.

But in the context of the current meeting, the concept has emerged as one of the chief ways that the bishops are able to talk about making changes in a Church that — whatever the historical record — likes to say that it never changes.

Other ideas to accomplish the same goal are also drawing some support, and they include tempering the Church’s often absolutist language and attitude toward those in “irregular” situations — such as gay and unmarried couples “living in sin” — and streamlining the annulment process to invalidate an earlier marriage that ended in divorce.

Another concept that has generated buzz is the “law of graduality,” a long-standing idea in Catholic thought that recognizes that people gradually move toward holiness and don’t always understand or accept every Church teaching at once. Advocates of change say it is important to welcome such people because the sacraments are a way to help them toward holiness; denying the sacraments has the opposite effect, they say.

As the bishops break into small groups next week to continue their discussions, the ideas could become more focused, and the debates more heated.

In an interview with The Boston Globe published Oct. 9, Wuerl said that the delegates have been “speaking their mind” and that the importance of getting doctrine “to work in the concrete order where people live” has become a central focus, just as Pope Francis wanted.

Still, Wuerl stressed that this meeting is the first stage in a long process; there will be subsequent discussions and debates in the coming months, and another Synod next October with a larger and more diverse groups of bishops, who may have the final vote on any changes.

“That’s going to be the challenge, and I think that’s what the Holy Father is calling us to do,” Wuerl said. “He’s saying, 'We know this, we believe this, this is what is at the heart of our teaching.' But how do you meet people where they are? And bring them as much of that as they can take, and help them get closer?”

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