A top Vatican canonist argues for pastoral flexibility

It sounds like the Synod of Bishops on the family has let loose with some of the “frank and open” talk encouraged by Pope Francis. Over the last two days, reports from the inside speak of spirited, impassioned at even at times confrontational discussion, with bishops answering bishops directly on the synod floor.

In its discussion of “irregular” and difficult family situations, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said there were two general lines of argument: one emphasizing a need to defend the church’s traditional teachings, and the other focusing more on finding pastoral solutions for estranged Catholics.

That’s not surprising, and Lombardi said it was impossible to say which group held the upper hand at this point in the assembly. We may have a better sense of where this is going at the end of next week, when concluding documents are issued at the close of the synod’s first phase.

But meantime, some very interesting comments came today from an unlikely source. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, reviewed with reporters some of the pastoral options that are being proposed for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.

He noted the suggestion that the church should look into the Orthodox Church practice of accepting, to some degree, second and third marriages, and said it deserved study. But he foresaw problems, and did not appear at all convinced that the Catholic Church would go down that road.

Instead Coccopalmerio favored streamlining the annulment process. He is a key member of a commission recently named by Pope Francis to study that very issue.

Coccopalmerio said one of more intriguing ideas was to establish an “administrative” procedure whereby a local bishop, after careful consideration based largely on the credibility of the couple, could simply declare a marriage annulled – thus avoiding the sometimes lengthy and costly treatment by marriage tribunals. Care would be needed to ensure this procedure did not become superficial, but he said he was “very much in favor” of this approach. It was significant that such an endorsement came from the Vatican’s top canon law official.

read more