The war of interpretations has begun over Pope Francis’ yet-to-be-published post-synodal exhortation. And this war is taking place in the press.
Three articles published in the past week in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and in two prominent Italian newspapers presented differing views of the document. The papal document will summarize the Synod on the Family, held in October 2015 amid controversies and rumor.
If the latest claims are true, Pope Francis signed the post-synodal exhortation March 19. However, the text will be released only when all the translations are completed. It is not expected before Easter. The text’s first draft was examined and amended by the Theologian of the Pontifical Household, Fr. Wojcieh Giertych, O.P., and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to a source close to the congregation, it sent the text back with remarks 30 to 40 pages in length. At the moment, no one knows if the Pope has taken these remarks into consideration, as the exhortation has not left Pope Francis’ inner circle.
However, there is certainly agitation among those who supported a break in Church doctrine on marriage, in particular the possibility for the divorced-and-remarried to receive Holy Communion.
Some report that the document is 200 pages long. It is hard to think that all of these pages will be dedicated to pastoral care for the divorced-and-remarried. “Focusing on the issue means that they really want to drive forward and misinterpret the document,” a churchman and a source close to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told CNA. This agitation might indicate that the post-synodal exhortation will not contain any doctrinal novelties or breaches. Rather, the text will focus on pastoral recommendations for the integration of the divorced-and-remarried. This agitation was evident in the three articles published during the last week. One article is by Enzo Bianchi, a layman who in 1965 established the Ecumenical Monastic Community of Bose in Italy. Brother Bianchi wrote a March 14 commentary in L’Osservatore Romano about the gospel account of the woman caught in adultery. In general the commentary gave an ordinary interpretation of the text. But at its very end, Brother Bianchi stressed that “Jesus did not condemn her, because God does not condemn, but he gave her the possibility to change with his act of mercy.” Brother Bianchi added that the Gospel “does not say that she changed her life, that she converted or that she became a disciple of Jesus. We just know that God forgave her through Jesus and delivered her to freedom, so that she could return to life.” Vatican internal observers have interpreted this phrasing as an open door to the reception of Communion by Catholics who have divorced-and-remarried. A source told CNA March 22, “Brother Bianchi emphasizes God’s forgiveness, no matter what she will actually do,” as if “Communion might be given, no matter what you had done.” Another article appeared the in Italian newspaper La Repubblica on March 19, the very day Pope Francis was supposed to have signed the post-synodal exhortation.
The article was co-authored by Alberto Melloni and Claudio Tito. Tito is a journalist who sometimes covers church issues, but Melloni has particular weight in the global ecclesiastical debate. He is the leader of the Bologna School, which promotes the notion that the Second Vatican Council broke with Church tradition.
Their article appears intended to anticipate some of the contents of the post-Synodal exhortation. According to Melloni, the aim of the document is clear: “to avoid break ups and to disarm the antagonists.” Melloni characterized the synod as a fight between “rigorists” and “progressives.” He said that the fight was “very tough.” He believes Pope Francis wants to open up the path to the sacraments for those who live in irregular marital situations. Melloni claimed that “in the end, just one third of the synod fathers voted against the Pope.”
The article also reports that the Pope was impressed by Cardinal Robert Sarah’s rigorous approach.
Melloni underscored that “for what concerns communion for the divorced and remarried, no news is expected. The issue is to legitimate a practice, and to give it theological roots.”
If Alberto Melloni is the director of the Bologna School, Brother Enzo Bianchi is widely considered one of its more prominent representatives.
Some more detail about the exhortation was provided March 20 by Luigi Accattoli, former Vatican journalist and sometime columnist at the prominent Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. According to Accattoli, the exhortation will include indications of the role that the divorced-and-remarried can have in the community and under which conditions they can receive the sacraments. He also stressed that “there are many options” for those who live in irregular situations, acknowledge this, and want to be active in parish life. He said that they can be catechists, lectors, godparents and sponsors in baptisms and confirmations, and witness at marriages. All of these activities are “mostly forbidden, or discouraged,” Accatolli said. But regarding their admission to the sacraments, Melloni excluded the possibility that the Pope will provide “a general rule” for those who live in irregular situations. Rather, he predicts that the Pope will “give indications on how to discern case by case, according to the penitential path completed, once the possibility of correcting the situation generated with a new partner cannot be corrected.” Such an example would be the case of a couple in an irregular situation who has children.
In the end, Accattoli said that no change in doctrine will be made, though local bishops will receive more power to discern situations. In fact, this is exactly what happens nowadays. Local bishops are always called upon by their parish priests to help them decide whether to let a couple access the sacraments. In the end, no substantial changes will be made to doctrine. However, CNA’s source close to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Church said “if there will not be in the document any explicit sentence that states that divorced and remarried cannot access communion — and there will not be — a narrative will be built around the possible papal breaks with doctrine.” In a wider picture, we can assess that Brother Bianchi provided the theological framework which would allow Communion to the divorced-and-remarried. Melloni tackled the issue and said that reforms are not over, and that no doctrinal reform might be expected now. Finally, Accattoli provided details of the new norms, though he acknowledged that there is not much new in entrusting bishops with powers of discernment. The three articles can be in the end read as part of the same piece. But the facts suggest they are aware that nothing that they had predicted will happen in the exhortation.
In the exhortation, there will be no Communion for the divorced-and-remarried, no canonical recognition for homosexual couples, but also a refusal to exclude the divorced-and-remarried from the life of the Church.
But the Bologna School cannot miss the chance to drive the discussion and reiterate its interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. In the end, Melloni tried to drive the discussion on one particular side, but he neglected to account for all the other views.
CNA’s source close to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the exhortation is “not a full victory for the supporters of the traditional teaching on marriage, but it is not a defeat.”
“Melloni and his fellows know it. And they have just started to prepare the media ground for when the Pope will finally release the exhortation.”
Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, set the possible date of publication within the second week of April.