Magazine article The Spectator

The Battle of Pope Francis's Footnote

Magazine article The Spectator

The Battle of Pope Francis's Footnote

Article excerpt

What the Pope didn't just say about divorce

Last week we reached the beginning of the end of the pontificate of Jorge Bergoglio -- the 'great reformer' of the Catholic church who, it appears, has been unable to deliver the reforms that he himself favours. This despite being Pope.

On Friday, he published a 200-page 'exhortation' entitled Amoris Laetitia, 'The Joy of Love' (or 'The Joy of Sex', as English-speaking Catholics of a certain vintage immediately christened it). This was Francis's long-awaited response to two Vatican synods on the family, in 2014 and last year, which descended into Anglican-style bickering between liberals and conservatives.

At the heart of the disputes lay the question of whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics could receive Holy Communion. Until now they have been banned from doing so because the Church teaches that their first marriages are still valid and therefore their current union is (though the word is diplomatically avoided) adulterous. Also, though this is one bit of the New Testament that Protestants seem to have forgotten, if there was one thing Jesus couldn't stand it was divorce.

Even traditionalists don't like refusing the sacrament to devout Catholic couples, when one of the pair had a disastrous 'trial marriage' many years earlier. But they do refuse, because they believe that is God's teaching. Meanwhile, more easygoing priests have adopted a policy of 'don't ask, don't tell'.

Most cardinals at the two synods didn't want to waste time on the ban on Communion for divorcees. But one ancient German prelate did. Cardinal Walter Kasper has been worrying away at this problem for half a century, proposing this or that 'route' by which the ban could be relaxed.

No one paid much attention. Then -- in what I think will be seen as the defining disastrous moment of his reign -- the newly elected Pope Francis decided to make Kasper's long-forgotten plans the basis for discussion at the 2014 synod. Eighteen months of chaos followed. To cut a long story short, the 2015 synod told the Pope that the Kasper plan was unacceptable, especially to the conservative churches of Africa.

This left Francis with a fallback position that would have somehow devolved divorce-and-Communion questions to local bishops. But he'd have to impose it on the Church with no mandate from the synod. As last Friday approached, everyone was asking: will he or won't he?

Like many Catholic journalists, I was sent a copy of Amoris Laetitia on Thursday night. I checked, several times, the bits where Francis could have dismantled the ban or devolved the power to do so to bishops' conferences. He didn't. Instead, we were told that priests should 'accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop'.

In other words, yadda, yadda, yadda, since the Pope was just quoting existing teaching. I couldn't resist tweeting: 'It's Cardinal Kasper here. Could I cancel that order for champagne tomorrow?'

When Amoris Laetitia came out at noon, there was lamentation from 'progressive' Catholic commentators. Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent of the Tablet, who instead of reporting had acted as a mouthpiece for Kasperites during last year's synod, said it looked like Francis wanted to make changes but his bishops wouldn't let him.

Then the conservatives made a discovery. 'Footnote 351!' they yelled. 'That is where the devil lurks! …

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