A guide to the harder-to-grasp aspects of Catholic news stories

Welcome to The Explainer: a new Catholic Herald blog that attempts to clarify some of the more puzzling aspects of Catholic news stories.

I emphasise the word “attempts”: the topics we cover here will be too complex and controversial to pretend we are offering anything but a provisional guide.

Nevertheless, I hope it will be worthwhile and help readers find their way round some of the harder-to-grasp features of the contemporary Catholic Church.

I thought we’d begin with what may be the biggest Catholic news story of the year: the synod of bishops this October.

Why did Francis call a synod on the family?

By his own account, it was something of an accident. Here’s how he recently described the family synod’s origins:

During my second year as Pope, Archbishop Eterović, then the secretary [general] of the synod, approached me with three themes that the post-synodal council had proposed for the forthcoming synod.

The first was very striking, very good: what Jesus Christ brings to contemporary men and women. That was the title, following up on the synod on evangelisation. I agreed. We spoke for a bit about changes in the method of the synod, and at the end, I said: “Let’s add something else: what Jesus Christ brings to contemporary men and women and to the family.” Good.

Then, when I went to the first meeting of the post-synodal council, I saw that the title was there in full, but gradually people were saying: “Yes, yes, “what he brings to the family”, “what Jesus Christ brings to the family”. And so, without realising it, the post-synodal commission ended up speaking about the family.

I am sure that it was the spirit of the Lord guiding us even to the choice of this title. I am sure of it, because today the family truly needs so many forms of pastoral assistance.

Why is everyone talking about Cardinal Kasper?

Francis invited German theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper to address the world’s cardinals at their meeting in Rome this February.

In a wide-ranging reflection on 21st-century family life, Cardinal Kasper suggested the Church might adopt a new approach to divorced Catholics who remarry civilly. They are not permitted to receive Holy Communion because, the Catechism says, they are “in a situation of public and permanent adultery”. But Cardinal Kasper said the Church could offer some form of “canonical penitential practice” that would ultimately permit some remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.

He insisted this idea was in harmony with Catholic teaching on marriage:

The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage and the impossibility of a new marriage while the other partner is still alive is part of the binding tradition of the faith of the Church and cannot be abandoned or dissolved by appealing to a superficial understanding of mercy at a discount price.

Catholic heavyweights have queued up to take a pop at the cardinal’s thesis. They include Cardinal Raymond Burke, Robert Fastiggi and John Rist,

But Cardinal Kasper also has prominent supporters in Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, members of the eight-man Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis on Church governance.

What does Francis think of the focus on Communion for the remarried?

He doesn’t like it. Last month he expressed concern that the Communion debate was overshadowing the synod:

I have not been happy that so many people – even Church people, priests – have said: “Ah, the synod will be about giving Communion to the divorced”, and went straight to that point. I felt as if everything was being reduced to casuistry. No, the issue is bigger and wider.

Today, as we all know, the family is in crisis, it is in crisis worldwide. Young people don’t want to get married, they don’t get married or they live together. Marriage is in crisis, and so the family is in crisis. I don’t want us to fall into this casuistry of “can we” or “can’t we”?

What does Francis think of Communion for the remarried?

As far as I can see, he has never expressed an outright opinion.

It’s true that he praised Cardinal Kasper’s address the day after it was delivered, saying it was a “profound” and “serene” theological reflection.

But when he last touched on the topic he implied that Benedict XVI was deeply influencing his thinking:

Something Pope Benedict had said on three different occasions about the divorced has been very helpful to me. First, in Valle d’Aosta, another time in Milan, and the third time in the consistory, the last public consistory which he called for the creation of cardinals.

[He said that there is a need] to study the annulment process; to examine the faith with which people enter marriage and to make clear that the divorced are not excommunicated, [even though] they are often treated as if they were. This is something serious: the casuistry of the problem.

Why did Francis cite Benedict XVI?

Francis seems to want the world’s bishops to take on board Benedict XVI’s thoughts before they arrive at the synod in October. Let’s see what Benedict said on each of those occasions.

Speaking to priests at Introd in 2005, Benedict XVI said he had long wondered whether a lack of faith might invalidate marriages:

When I was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I invited various bishops’ conferences and experts to study this problem: a sacrament celebrated without faith.

Whether, in fact, a moment of invalidity could be discovered here because the Sacrament was found to be lacking a fundamental dimension, I do not dare to say. I personally thought so, but from the discussions we had I realised that it is a highly complex problem and ought to be studied further. But given these people’s painful plight, it must be studied further.

He then explained that, even if the remarried are forbidden to receive Communion, their participation in the Mass is “not the same as nothing”. In fact, he said, they enjoy a special form of communion with the Crucified Jesus:

Since it is the Sacrament of Christ’s Passion, the suffering Christ embraces these people in a special way and communicates with them in another way differently, so that they may feel embraced by the Crucified Lord who fell to the ground and died and suffered for them and with them.

Consequently, they must be made to understand that even if, unfortunately, a fundamental dimension is absent, they are not excluded from the great mystery of the Eucharist or from the love of Christ who is present in it.

Speaking at a World Meeting of Families in Milan in 2012, Benedict asked parishes to make remarried Catholics feel more welcome:

I see here a great task for a parish, a Catholic community, to do whatever is possible to help them to feel loved and accepted, to feel that they are not “excluded” even though they cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist; they should see that, in this state too, they are fully a part of the Church.

Perhaps, even if it is not possible to receive absolution in Confession, they can nevertheless have ongoing contact with a priest, with a spiritual guide. This is very important, so that they see that they are accompanied and guided.

He suggested, once again, that those who cannot receive the Eucharist can nevertheless commune with Jesus, offering their suffering as a “gift” to the Church:

It is also very important that they truly realise they are participating in the Eucharist if they enter into a real communion with the Body of Christ. Even without “corporal” reception of the sacrament, they can be spiritually united to Christ in his Body.

Bringing them to understand this is important: so that they find a way to live the life of faith based upon the Word of God and the communion of the Church, and that they come to see their suffering as a gift to the Church, because it helps others by defending the stability of love and marriage.

They need to realise that this suffering is not just a physical or psychological pain, but something that is experienced within the Church community for the sake of the great values of our faith. I am convinced that their suffering, if truly accepted from within, is a gift to the Church.

They need to know this, to realise that this is their way of serving the Church, that they are in the heart of the Church.

Pope Francis also referred to Benedict’s words on marriage at “the last public consistory which he called for the creation of cardinals”. But I can find no trace of this. I think Francis may have meant Benedict’s address to the Roman Rota in January 2013, not long before his resignation.

In that speech Benedict once again pondered the possible connection between “between the lack of faith and the invalidity of the matrimonial union”.

He cited a statement by the International Theological Commission in 1977:

Where there is no trace of faith (in the sense of the term ‘belief’ – being disposed to believe), and no desire for grace or salvation is found, then a real doubt arises as to whether there is the above-mentioned and truly sacramental intention and whether in fact the contracted marriage is validly contracted or not.

He said the question needed “further reflection”.

Francis’s citation of Benedict suggests he wants the synod to focus less on the Communion question and more on the nature of annulments.


Francis is clearly hoping the synod will not be dominated by a single issue. As he said last month:

The synod will be on the family: both the rich reality of the family and the problems faced by families. Solutions, annulments, all of this. This problem [Communion for the remarried] too, but as part of a larger picture.

Will the synod address the “larger picture” or become a pitched battle over Communion for the remarried? Well, that’s a question for another time.

If you have a topic you would like The Explainer to address, please email me at editorial@catholicherald.co.uk