Bishops Synod on the Eucharist
Posted Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2005 at 3:00 p.m. CDT

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Coverage of Bishops Synod on the Eucharist

Report #4:
Divorced, remarried Catholics topics of frank synod discussions


John L. Allen Jr.


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By John L. Allen Jr.

If history is any guide, observers looking for a Synod of Bishops to produce some great result are destined to be disappointed. By design, the synod is not a deliberative body, and the recommendations it makes are usually compromise formulae that fully satisfy no one. Whatever the results, however, the opening discussions of the first synod of Pope Benedict XVI’s watch have been surprisingly frank and have ranged over some difficult topics.

What ultimately happens to those suggestions is another matter, for the pope is free to do with them what he likes, when he likes.

Because the results of a synod can be far removed in time and content from what is actually said during the session, interest in a synod is generally not at the end, but the beginning. During the early days, when the bishops and other participants are free to raise any topic they like, the drama lies in who steps forward to put important issues on the table. Which speakers shatter taboos, break polite silences, and insist that the synod acknowledge the serious challenges facing Roman Catholicism?

Over the first two days of this synod, which runs Oct. 2-23 and is dedicated to the theme of the Eucharist, taboos have fallen: the topic of the priest shortage and celibacy -- long considered a closed subject under Pope John Paul II -- was the best example of a newly reopened conversation.

Tuesday night, the breaking of taboos continued with a speech by the Archbishop of Wellington in New Zealand, John Atcherley Dew, who suggested that the church rethink its discipline on communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, and for the Protestant partners of Catholics in mixed marriages.

“Our church would be enriched if we were able to invite dedicated Catholics, currently excluded from the Eucharist, to return to the Lord’s table,” Dew told the assembly.

“There are those whose marriages ended in sadness; they have never abandoned the church, but are currently excluded from the Eucharist,” he said.

The Vatican has several times reaffirmed the ban on reception of communion by divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment, most recently in a July 6, 2000, document from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

Though there are no official statistics on the number of such Catholics, the conventional estimate in the United States is that there are 6 million to 8 million divorced and remarried Catholics, only 10 percent of whom have received an annulment. Thus some 5 million to 7 million American Catholics are theoretically banned from the Eucharist, though anecdotal evidence suggests that some pastors quietly encourage them to come forward.

Read more NCR coverage of the synod on the Eucharist
  • Report #17: Final draft rebuffs Latin Mass; priest shortage, divorce squarely on church’s pastoral agenda Posted Oct. 20, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #16: Gregory: Little change expected but synod had honest talk of pastoral realities Posted Oct. 19, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #15: Draft propositions do not recommend changes in church discipline Posted Oct. 18, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #14: Women’s voices heard through interventions of 12 synod auditors Posted Oct. 17, 12:15 p.m.
  • Report #13: Statement on married priests likely in final list of proposals Posted Oct. 17, 12:00 p.m.
  • Report #12: Outreach to Latin Mass Catholics proposed for final message Posted Oct. 15, 9:32 a.m.
  • Report #11: Problems acknowledged, synod bishops seek middle ground solutions. Posted Oct. 13, 1:15 p.m.
  • Report #10: Despite frank talk, few breakthroughs expected from synod. Posted Oct. 12, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #9: Key synod themes seem clear, but consensus may be elusive. Posted Oct. 11, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #8: Inculturation of liturgy sparks debate at this and past synods of bishops. Posted Oct. 10, 11:30 a.m.
  • Report #7: Bishops of Global South link Eucharist and justice, local cultures. Posted Oct. 8., 9:52 a.m.
  • Report #6: Discussion of celibacy and marriage clergy continue to hold center stage. Posted Oct. 7, 10:21 a.m.
  • Report #5: Environment, social justice emerge as eucharistic themes. Posted Oct. 6, 10:30 a.m.
  • Report #4: Divorced, remarried Catholics topics of frank synod discussions. Posted Oct. 5, 3:00 p.m
  • Report #3: Priest shortage continues to roil synod of bishops. Posted Oct. 4, 2:01 p.m.
  • Report #2: Movements appeal for changes to make Eucharist more accessible. Posted Oct. 4, 2:00 p.m.
  • Report #1: Priest shortage takes center stage on synod's first day. Posted Oct. 3, 3:04 p.m.
  • Read The Word From Rome columns
  • The final set of propositions; The case of viri probati; Some worry the synod lacked theological heft. Posted Oct. 21, 2:07 p.m.
  • Latin Mass a non-issue; Interview with Bishop Skylstad; Scola's 17 questions to guide the synod. Posted Oct. 14, 10:46 a.m.
  • The synod so far; How to report on a synod; A view from Moscow; Document on homosexuals in seminaries will not create an absolute ban; Catholic left and right square off. Posted Oct. 7, 11:55 a.m.
  • Preview of the synod on the Eucharist. Posted Sept. 30, 8:05 a.m.
  • Pope Benedict XVI has already signaled some uncertainty on this issue. In late July, during a meeting with priests in the Val D’Aosta region of northern Italy during his summer vacation, he took a question about divorced and remarried Catholics.

    “The pope is not a prophet,” Benedict said. “He is infallible in very rare circumstances, as we all know.”

    “I share your questions,” he said. “I, too, suffer.”

    “None of us has a ready-made solution, because each person’s situation is different,” the pope said.

    “I would say that a particularly painful situation is that of those who were married in the church, but were not really believers and did so just for tradition, and then finding themselves in a new, invalid marriage, they convert, find the faith and feel excluded from the sacrament,” he said.

    At the same time, the pope said, if a priest acting out of compassion gives them the Eucharist, he risks undermining the dignity and indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage.

    In his synod speech, Dew also took up inter-communion in mixed marriages.

    “There are Catholics married to people baptized in other Christian faiths,” he said. “We acknowledge them to be baptized in Christ in the sacrament of marriage but not in the reception of the Eucharist.”

    Dew appeared to argue for a relaxation in these rules.

    “This synod must be pastoral in approach; we must look for ways to include those who are hungering for the Bread of Life,” he said. “The scandal of those hungering for eucharistic food needs to be addressed, just as the scandal of physical hunger needs to be addressed.”

    “None of us can ignore the pastoral pain of this spiritual starvation,” a briefer quoted Dew as saying. “We have an obligation before God to discuss, debate, and seek new ways to overcome the difficulties burdening so many of our people.”

    The synod took a break from the daily round of six-minute speeches on Wednesday morning in order to meet for the first time in the 12 small groups that will eventually help produce the propositions to be presented to the pope. According to participants, discussions in these groups ranged widely across all the topics that have been mentioned so far, from the priest shortage and celibacy to the placement of the tabernacle in churches.

    At least one of the Spanish groups, according to synod sources, took up the discussion about divorced and remarried Catholics launched by Dew. Though no consensus was reached, one source said that several participants expressed a preference for a “pastoral” rather than “legalistic” response.

    Other themes that seem to be emerging in synod discussions, according to sources, include:

    • The need for effective catechesis
    • Norms regulating celebration of the Eucharist
    • The link between the Eucharist and social justice
    • The link between the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist
    • The “right” to the Eucharist enjoyed by the faithful

    The last point apparently emerged in response to the opening address delivered by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, Italy, the relator of the synod, who argued that the Eucharist is a gift rather than a right. In response, some participants pointed to canon 213 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that “Christ’s faithful have the right to be assisted by their pastors from the spiritual riches of the church, especially by the Word of God and the sacraments.”

    Commenting on the apparent discrepancy, several speakers have suggested that this “right” applies wherever the sacrament is available, meaning that no one who is eligible to receive the sacraments can be turned away. It does not mean, these participants appeared to say, that the church has a duty to provide sacraments wherever someone may desire them.

    This would have implications in the debates over the priest shortage and mandatory celibacy in the Western church. Some observers believe the Catholic Church would have more priests, and hence a greater capacity to deliver the sacraments, if it did not require celibacy.

    On another contentious issue, Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, invited the synod on Monday night to discuss the question of communion for politicians whose voting record is not consistent with the moral doctrine of the church.

    Levada’s rather innocuous call Monday night for discussion illustrates the volatility of the issue. His statement drew wide notice in the Italian press, since Italy is facing national elections in 2006, and several candidates of the center-left parties are expected to be Catholics whose positions on issues such as in-vitro fertilization and gay marriage differ from the church.

    In July 2004, while still archbishop of San Francisco, Levada took a nuanced stance. While insisting that opposition to abortion and euthanasia is “non-negotiable” for a Catholic to be in good faith with the church, he also urged caution about a communion ban.

    “It seems important that we not rush to judgment about the state of our neighbor’s soul and his worthiness to receive Holy Communion,” he wrote in a column in his archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic San Francisco.

    Two other synod fathers so far have echoed the need for discussion on the issue: Cardinal Edmund Szoka, an American who heads the Vatican city-state, and Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, a Colombian who serves as president of the Pontifical Council for the Family.

    Prior to the opening of this synod, Benedict XVI decreed that one hour each evening should be dedicated to open discussion rather than speech-making. An indication of the novelty of that change is that after day one, a decision was made that only the themes upon which people speak in those sessions, and not the content of their remarks, should be disclosed to the press.

    The decision apparently came in response to news leaks about an exchange between Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham and Scola on Monday night, in which Laham questioned the theological basis of celibacy. Some synod fathers felt that the discussion would not be truly open if participants have to worry about seeing their comments in the next day’s newspaper.

    John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

    October 5, 2005, National Catholic Reporter

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