Pope Francis has called an extraordinary synod of bishops on the family in October. The hot button issue for the gathering is already well known -- whether divorced and remarried Catholics can or should be able to receive the Eucharist.
Battles lines at the Vatican have already been drawn in the differing views expressed by the German cardinals Walter Kasper and Gerhard Mueller. How this plays itself out in Rome in October was spelled out in Manila earlier this month when the secretary of the Vatican’s Council on the Family, Archbishop Jean Lafitte, restated the failure of some Catholic authorities to engage with the reality of the family today.
The views were given at a conference in the Philippines, a country that is 86 percent Catholic. It is atypical of the Church in Asia and most of the world, as it remains perhaps the only country in the world where the Church's influence is such that there is no civil divorce.
But on display in Manila were how one section of the Church's leadership sees the issue and will propose defense of the family in October:
This section of the Church wants all the Church to confront a relativistic culture out to destroy the family. It believes that the term "family" doesn't need to be defined and can be assumed, despite plain evidence that there is no such thing as an abstract, universally applicable and accepted understanding of what the family is. It also maintains that, while less than 20 percent of the world's population are obliged by the Church's sacramental understanding of lifelong monogamous marriage, no one should question a group of Catholics proposing a legal universal application based on Church rules.
What is frequently heard when a debate is cast in these terms, as it was in Manila, is that any slackening in opposition to same-gender partnerships or to divorce undermines the time-honored and Church-sanctioned understanding of marriage, and that same-gender partnerships are a threat to lifelong monogamous heterosexual relationships.
The weakness in this line of argument is that there is no evidence to support it. How does someone else's divorce undermine my commitment? How does the same-sex attraction and commitment of a same-sex couple undermine the commitment of a committed heterosexual couple?
I don't know and can't see the evidence. Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, it's an argument that does little to further what the Church actually wishes to foster in sacramentally confirmed, lifelong monogamous marriages. And that, after all, is the only thing the Church really has at stake anywhere in the world in the marriage debate.
Rather than simply lament that the abstract understanding of Catholic marriage isn't universally endorsed by the mostly non-Catholic world, Church leaders will do a lot to help people if they can suggest some constructive ways of engaging with the real dilemmas and choices people actually face.
However, what will galvanize the debate in October is not gay partnerships or threats to the abstract Catholic understanding of marriage as constructed by senior male clerics.
It will be what pastors throughout the world know: how to meet the pastoral challenge of people who have failed relationships, regret the failure, still see the Catholic faith as their core and center but are told they cannot receive the Eucharist if they have remarried without going through the Church’s courts.
The issue is often portrayed as a conflict between what the Church teaches and what ordinary Catholics want. Conceived that way, it is really a phony war. There are two main ways that failed marriages can be resolved in the Catholic Church.
The first is the well known and invariably long-winded and difficult process of annulling a Catholic marriage through the Church's court procedures, called "the external forum".
It is called "external" because it is public and can work only if certain conditions are fulfilled. But it may fail for any number of reasons, some of which include: one party not participating in the process, lack of evidence and qualified canon lawyers and excessive Vatican regulations that cause parties to abandon the process.
The other, and commonly unmentioned, approach is what is called the "internal forum", which the bishops of Germany have highlighted in their procedures for their dioceses, much to the chagrin of the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Mueller, as reported frequently in ucanews.com and elsewhere in the Church’s media.
The "internal forum" is another word for how an informed conscience becomes part of pastoral practice and where Catholics work out their relationships with God and the Church. Conscience is, in the teaching of Vatican II, that inner core of a person's life where moral and religious norms are discovered for their application to actual life situations.
It was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who underlined the significance of conscience in the operational life of the Church when he wrote before he became Pope Benedict XVI: "Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of Church authority, stands one's own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of Church authority."
At the conference in the Philippines earlier this month, we got an insight into just where the Catholic Church has been on this subject for the last 30 years and where the opposition to more pastorally flexible approaches to dealing with marriage and divorce is coming from. It will doubtless surface in Rome at the bishops' synod in October.
Jesuit Fr Michael Kelly is executive director of ucanews.com