The Church is often criticized for requiring mindless obedience and for seeking uniformity instead of fostering an exploration of alternatives in pursuit of greater understanding and insight.
Well, I’d say that recent events ought to lay such prejudices to rest. Instead of singing from the same hymn sheet, in robotic unison, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church look more like a bunch of brawlers than the yes-men of a pontifical monarch. Instead of being of one voice, these princes of the Church are engrossed in an escalating game of fisticuffs where argument and counter-argument are generously interlaced with genteel-sounding, but under-the-hood, razor-sharp ad hominem jabs.
Before we look at the implications of this verbal brawl, or jump to its denunciation, let’s take a quick look at some of the punches that have been thrown so far. The examples I’ll refer to next all come from the run-up to this year’s synod on the family, in the context of which there is a particularly controversial topic - whether those who got divorced and subsequently civilly re-married could be admitted to the Eucharist, which sustains and strengthens, while also expressesing unity. I don’t mean to go into the question itself here,1 but it is useful to have at least an idea of the topic for the following quotes to make some sense.
The scene for our brawl has been set by Pope Francis himself, when - in the off-the-cuff interview on the flight back from the World Youth Day in Rio - he indicated a desire to look at “the larger context of the entire pastoral care of marriage,” including the “issue of giving communion to persons in a second union.” At the same time as making these remarks, Francis also pre-announced the family as the theme of the next bishops’ synod.
As soon as word came out about Francis’ desire to review this topic, the German diocese of Freiburg published a set of guidelines that essentially assumed that divorcees will be admitted to the Eucharist (while later denying such an interpretation and arguing that they were merely making a “contribution” to the discussion ...). In any case, a couple of days later, the the then-Archbishop (now, by Francis’ choice a cardinal - make a mental note of this) Müller published an extensive article on the “care of remarried divorcees” in L’Osservatore Romano, where he sets out the teaching of the Church as it stands, doing - in my opinion - a great job of being very clear, structured and direct, while also compassionate and seeking new solutions.
It is this article by Müller that lit the fuse of our verbal brawl - probably best thought of as a drawing of a line in the sand rather than a flying chair, but nonetheless very much part of the proceedings.
The first punch to kick off the brawl proper then comes from Cardinal Maradiaga - head of Franics’ council of eight cardinals, who had the following to say when asked about Müller’s move in an interview for the German daily Kölner Stads-Anzeiger:
“Yes, I have read it. And I thought: “OK, maybe you are right, but maybe not.” I mean, he is a German - yes, I have to say it, and he is a Professor on top of that, a German professor of theology. With his mentality there is only right and wrong, that’s it. But I say: “The world, my brother, the world is not like that. You should be a bit flexible, when you hear other voices, so that you don’t just listen to them and say, no, here is the wall.” So, I believe, he’ll get there, to understand other views. But now he is just at the beginning, he listens only to his advisers.”Yikes! Next, Maradiaga is quickly backed up by Cardinal Marx - another of the council of 8, saying that Müller “cannot stop the discussions.”
A couple of months later, a new pocket of altercation starts, following a talk by Cardinal Kasper addressed to the college of cardinals, on the behest of pope Francis, in which he outlines possible conditions under which remarried divorcees might be admitted to communion. As an aside, with these two texts - Müller’s exposition of the current status and Kasper’s speculation about possible new alternatives, both of which were made to order by the pope, Francis nicely brackets the discussion in the upcoming synod, ensuring both a clear picture of where we are and making sure that there are courageous new proposals in play.
Hot on the heels of Kasper’s talk, Cardinal Caffarra states, in an interview for the Italian Il Foglio, that Kasper’s proposal “negates the foundations of the Church’s teaching on sexuality.”
And finally, pulling an ace from his sleeve, Cardinal Müller (now no longer Archbishop), puts his foot down one more time, in response to a question from Vatican Radio about where he stands in the debate about remarried divorcees:
“I don’t participate [in this debate] as a private theologian, but by exercising my office. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith [whose head Müller is] is the only Roman congregation that participates immediately in the pope’s magisterium, while others, who join in here, even if they are cardinals, simply speak for themselves personally and cannot make official pronouncements.”Take that, Maradiaga! [Just kidding, your Eminence.]
This may not sound like much, but recent decades have seen nothing like any of the above direct jabs of one cardinal at another. While a possible reaction is horror and disappointment at a lack of unity among the cardinals, I would like to argue that the above is not in itself negative and may even be positive. The stakes are high here as there is an opportunity for the Church to better transmit God’s mercy, while having to ensure that she doesn’t, in the process, trample on the treasures handed to her by Jesus. That cardinals feel passionate about one alternative versus another is, I believe, a good thing, as is the fact that they are being serious about thinking the alternatives through. This is certainly not a show trial, or a staged “conversation” - the players mean it and that is as it should be. It is also good that the discussion spills out into the media, since the cardinals have an opportunity here to give an example for how serious discussion among peers should be conducted. If they just kept themselves out of the open, the result would appear simply as a dictate, received from the pope and blindly recited by his minions. Like this, we at least see a bit of the process in action. And finally, the only caveat to these differences of opinion being a good thing that I’d like to put on the table comes from Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium:
“Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.” (§40)
1 For its discussion see an earlier post, as well as two posts on Cardinal Walter Kasper’s address to the latest consistory of cardinals here and here.