SHAFAQNA – On Sunday, Oct. 19, Pope Francis will declare Pope Paul VI “blessed,” bestowing an honor just short of sainthood on the man who presided over most of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council and many of the modernizing changes that followed it. Paul’s single best-known act, however, was his controversial 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” a document that Pope Francis has called “prophetic,” which reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s traditional ban on artificial birth control.
The beatification of Pope Paul will come at the end of a two-week synod of nearly 200 bishops, who will gather at the Vatican Oct. 5 to discuss the “pastoral challenges of the family.” Among the topics will be birth control, an area in which, as polls and demographic evidence have made clear, vast numbers of Catholics reject church teaching. Yet the most widely discussed issue, at least outside the synod hall, is likely to be more esoteric: the eligibility of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacrament of Communion.
According to church teaching, such Catholics may not receive Communion unless they obtain an annulment—a formal decree by a church court that their first, sacramental marriage was never valid—or else abstain from sexual relations with their new partners, living together “as brother and sister.” Otherwise, they are considered to be committing adultery, hence in a state of persistent mortal sin and unworthy to receive the Eucharist.
Pope Francis has said that the predicament of such Catholics exemplifies a general need for mercy in the church today. In February, he invited German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a theologian he has praised particularly for his study of mercy, to address the world’s cardinals at the Vatican. Cardinal Kasper proposed making it easier for some Catholics to receive Communion even if they remarry civilly without an annulment.
“A pastoral practice of tolerance, clemency and forbearance” could lead to a “path beyond rigorism and laxity,” the cardinal said. That would allow the church to “tolerate something that, in itself, is unacceptable,” and give partners in second unions the spiritual food they need in the form of the sacrament.
Cardinal Kasper’s proposal has met with emphatic resistance from several bishops who will attend the synod, including two of Pope Francis’ highest-ranking aides. One is Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, head of the Vatican’s office for doctrine, whom the pope made a cardinal in February. He has written that lifting the traditional Communion ban on the grounds of mercy “runs the risk of trivializing the image of God, by implying that God cannot do other than forgive. The mystery of God includes not only his mercy but also his holiness and his justice.” According to traditional Catholic interpretations, Jesus’ words in the gospels against divorce and remarriage admit no exceptions.
Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s finance chief and one of the nine-member Council of Cardinals advising the pope on church governance, has called for a prompt reaffirmation of the ban to avoid the sort of “hostile disappointment” that greeted “Humanae Vitae.”
For defenders of the ban, the consequences of change would extend far beyond the ranks of Catholics directly affected by it. According to another synod participant, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, Italy, allowing Communion for Catholics in “irregular” unions would remove the “backbone of the Church’s teaching on sexuality,” including the categorical prohibitions of sex outside of marriage and homosexual acts.
For better or worse, change is not coming next month. This year’s synod is supposed to prepare the agenda for another, larger synod in October next year. That second gathering will then make recommendations to the pope, with whom the final decision on any change will lie.
Pope Francis could choose to leave the work of mercy in this area to a commission he established last month for the purpose of simplifying and streamlining the marriage-annulment process. The pope has suggested that as many as half of all Catholic marriages are actually invalid, “because people get married lacking maturity, they get married without realizing that it is a lifelong commitment, they get married because society tells them they have to get married.”
Focusing on reform of the annulment process could be appealing to a leader who, for all his innovations, has declared himself a “son of the church” on moral teaching. As the pope has said regarding contraception, “the question is not whether to change the doctrine, but to go deeper and make sure that pastoral care takes account of situations and of what each person is able to do.”
Yet failing to go further would inevitably disappoint the hopes Francis has raised by reopening a debate his predecessors had pronounced closed. However he rules, Pope Francis seems bound to follow in Pope Paul’s footsteps, making a widely awaited decision over which Catholics will long remain divided.
Mr. Rocca is Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service.