Pope Francis wanted open debate. With clashing cardinals, he's got it

(RNS) Leading up to a Vatican summit on family life that Pope Francis opens on Sunday (Oct. 5), high-ranking churchmen have fiercely debated church teaching -- and criticized each other -- in sharp exchanges that offer a ringside seat to the kind of battles that Rome used to keep under wraps.

But amid all this verbal sparring, the opposing camps have found one point of consensus: Airing their differences is good for the Roman Catholic Church.

(Left) Cardinal Walter Kasper speaks with media in New York. Photo courtesy of Trace Murphy. (Right) Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis. RNS photo by David Gibson

(Left) Cardinal Walter Kasper speaks with media in New York. Photo courtesy of Trace Murphy. (Right) Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis. RNS photo by David Gibson

“Everybody is free to express his opinion. That is not a problem for me,” Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian who has emerged as the point man for the reformists, said in an interview published Monday in America magazine.

“The pope wanted an open debate, and I think that is something new because up to now often there was not such an open debate. I think that’s healthy and it helps the church very much.”

A day later, Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who heads the Vatican's highest court and a vocal exponent of the conservative camp opposing Kasper, spoke to reporters to toss back a few barbs. But he, too, praised the frankness of the exchanges.

“For everyone to simply be silent while they see things being said that are not true, how can this be construed as being charitable or being good for the church?” Burke said in a conference call from Rome. “So I don’t see this (debate) as being a harmful thing at all.”

That’s a big change, and apparently what Francis wanted.

Synod snooze-fests

Since his election in March last year, the pope has repeatedly said that the church needs to be more collegial and transparent. “Fraternal and open discussion help develop theological and pastoral thinking,” Francis has said. “I'm not afraid of this. On the contrary, I seek it.”

One way to do that was an overhaul of the system of synods, the periodic summits of bishops and some priests and lay people from around the world that were originally designed in the 1960s to promote collaboration and broader discussions of pressing issues.

Yet starting in the late 1970s under Pope John Paul II and continuing with Pope Benedict XVI, the synods instead became weekslong snooze sessions where spontaneity and open discussion were discouraged. The meetings generally ended by rubber-stamping predictable conclusions that had been crafted by curial officials.

The two-week synod that Francis convenes on Sunday, on the other hand, was intentionally designed by organizers to be “more dynamic and participatory," as they put it, and they say the pope will introduce changes on the fly if that is what’s needed to keep things moving.

Francis also made this a preliminary meeting, with another synod, featuring more bishops and other participants, to follow in 2015.

For Francis, it seems the process is almost more important than the outcome.

Hundreds of bishops and cardinals look on at St. Peter's Basilica, as Pope Francis formally appoints 19 new cardinals on Feb. 22, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson

Hundreds of bishops and cardinals look on at St. Peter's Basilica as Pope Francis formally appoints 19 new cardinals on Feb. 22, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

That became clear in February, when the pope summoned the world’s cardinals for several days of preliminary talks to get the ball rolling in what is expected to be a two-year journey of churchwide discernment.

To observers and participants of that February meeting, it was as if Francis was trying to retrain the churchmen to speak openly after so many years of looking over their shoulders in fear of Rome’s disapproval. “We’re here to learn today. It’s back to school!” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston said with a laugh at the start of one of the sessions.

At that meeting, Francis asked Kasper to deliver a lecture to frame the discussions about church teaching and the challenges of modern family life. With Francis’ support, Kasper floated ideas for allowing Catholics who have divorced and remarried without first obtaining a church annulment -- a complicated and sometimes expensive venture -- to receive Communion.

While the synod will discuss a range of issues, the question of Communion for the remarried has become a focus of the debate. It's a widespread pastoral problem that alienates otherwise faithful Catholics, and something that many say could change without altering the church’s doctrine on marriage.

Kasper’s ideas went viral and prompted sharp rejoinders and also extensive, thoughtful rebuttals by ranking prelates in the Roman Curia and elsewhere. It’s the kind of buzz that most Vatican meetings never attract.

“I see so much good coming out of this that I suspect, as a fellow Jesuit, that maybe the Holy Father shrewdly tried to stir up a hornet’s nest in order to get some attention,” said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, editor of Ignatius Press, which has published several books responding to Kasper.

Fessio and Burke noted that throughout the history of the church, apostles and bishops and theologians have often clashed, publicly and sometimes fiercely, to reach a conclusion.

Early on, Paul and James clashed over whether Gentile converts had to follow Jewish law. Centuries later, delegates at the Council of Nicea battled over the nature of Jesus as God and man. More recently, the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s featured open arguments, many of which are still going on.

The danger of high expectations

There are, however, real dangers to all the hype and cardinal clashing, as entertaining as it can be for church geeks.

Both sides worry, for example, that the discussions are raising expectations among the faithful that some change in doctrine is inevitable. If the reforms don't materialize, or don't go as far as many want, they worry that the faithful will become disillusioned with the church.

Another fear is that by laying down such clear red lines against any changes, conservatives have painted themselves into a rhetorical corner if the synod eventually decides to adopt some reforms.

Starting on Sunday, the world will start to get a sense of how the process may play out as the antagonists will finally gather in the same room.

“The discussions won’t be easy, that’s for sure,” Burke said in what may be one of the few understatements of the entire debate.

Then again, it’s unlikely the bishops would resort to beard-pulling, as happened in an intense debate over the doctrine of justification at the Council of Trent in the 16th century -- though that may be thanks to the fact that Burke and Kasper and most of the others are clean-shaven.



  1. Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian who has emerged as the point man for the reformists,

    ‘Reformists’? Is there a rhetorical base you people will not try to steal.

    And, no, there is nothing lovely about long settled teaching being ‘open to debate’. It’s another one of Francis’ silly escapades. I wish he’d stick to cold calling random housewives. We’d be better off.

  2. And then there is the media’s Big Foot doing its dirty work. Funny how so very few articles or reports mention that the Church’s practice is based on the words of Christ as recorded in the Bible where Christ calls re-marriage after divorce adultery. But people living in serious sin of any kind are not supposed to receive the Holy Eucharist.
    Virtually all the mainstream media stories I have read on this issue somehow avoid mentioning Christ’s words as though they are not part of the debate—and the media seems to want it that way But censoring out Christ’s words on this issue badly skews the debate in favor of what would be a radical change in Catholic practice.

  3. Note: Very frequently the media makes the issue solely divorce. It is not. A divorced person who has not re-married may receive Holy Communion. It is the re-marriage that is the problem–especially for “the children of divorce.” Some modern research shows that “children of divorce” find themselves in a horrendous and damaging competition for a parent’s attention and affection if the parent enters the dating scene.

  4. So what’s new about that? They have lacked both unity and truth for so long!!

  5. Debate is all nice and good, but please notice how Francis and Kasper are making sure that THEIR positions are the law of the land, no matter who says what in any debate. And THEIR main #1 position is (on a gradual, de-facto basis), legalized gay marriage.

  6. The only way churchmen like Vatican II man Walter Kasper and Vatican I man Raymond Burke would have a chance to air their differences now is because of a man with the title Pope Francis has again opened church windows to let the musty archaisms of men like Burke to be aired out.

    Burke never accepted Vatican II. He publicly thumbed his nose at the fresh air of Vatican II and slammed shut the windows that John XXIII opened to allow fresh air. All the while Burke was advanced from priest to bishop to archbishop and cardinal by John Paul II and Benedict, men just like Burke.

    Burke has a minority following, kneelers in a dying church. The People of God now sit in pews, stand for what they believe, and untold numbers have left the church of Burke because it was his type of leadership that was responsible for the sex scandal, having worked to hide it, showing he cared nothing about children whose innocence was being murdered by clerical predators.

    Burke should be very happy in his ceremonial post with the Knights of Malta. It should fit his need for royal ceremony. Kasper, on the other hand, is a theologian who constantly strives to advance spiritual meaning for the People of God, synchronizing it with everything else we gather in advancing knowledge about our world.

    Burke and Kasper are opposites. The style of Burke is dying with ancient mythology. The style of Kasper is growing in harmony with all new knowledge.

  7. Deacon Bresnahan: You presume too too much in claiming that re-marriage is a problem for children any more than troubled first marriages from which they issue. When you go on to assert that “some modern research” displays problems for children of re-marriage, you are totally out of sync with any rational use of research. You are guilty or presumption. Presumption is not based on fact.

    You should study the real findings of problems for children because of the marriages in which they live. They will not support your presumptions. Unhappy parental relationships can affect children, but you make the awful errors of simply asserting that remaining in a troubled marriage is not a problem and that moving beyond troubled relationships, even in shared time, is a problem.

  8. Don’t forget, Deacon, Jesus was a man of a very different time, a time when knowledge was worlds different than what is available to us today. The bible was not history. The bible was not science.

    And you are totally wrong to assert that the media or anyone else, is bound to subscribe only to your interpretation of ancient writings–the origins of which cannot be ascribed with any precision, the originals of which, whatever they might have been, have been missing for millennia.

  9. It certainly is a form of Art Deco to presume today that mythological claims of former millennia are historical or scientific facts. Remember, the earth was flat. And that had a lot to do with the invention of notions in antiquity like hell–and heaven.

  10. I don’t think that both sides should “worry that the faithful will become disillusioned with the church” because of this issue. I mean if the faithful have not become disillusioned with the church while it allowed predator priests to take advantage of their children, I highly doubt this issue will clear the haze of religion from their brains.

    They are locked into an ideology that gives them social acceptance, and a way to believe they will live forever, which is so comforting, they are willing to surrender almost anything for it, even the innocence of their children.

    This organization is corrupt, and immoral, and those who still are members of it, and give support to it can’t do so without getting the slime of immorality on them as well. They should be ashamed to call themselves catholic.

  11. “But people living in serious sin of any kind are not supposed to receive the Holy Eucharist.”

    Jesus, peace be upon him, on the contrary would say they should receive the Holy Eucharist, for they need it most.

    Gospel According to Luke 15: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

    Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

    Your complaints of Francis, friend, are that “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” But welcoming sinners and eating with them is commanded of you to do as well. Be the shepherd, welcome the lost sheep. Like you yourself say above, we should not ignore nor censor Jesus’s (PBUH) words.

  12. If Francis, Kasper and the Cardinals all shared your skepticism towards the Bible, they would all need to resign (or be excommunicated if they preferred), and simply let some ordinary believing work-a-day Catholics take over their positions. It’s just time for some Christian leaders who believe the Bible.

  13. Hmmm…when +Benedict came into the Office, wasn’t the term used by the far right “Reform of the Reform?”

    “Long settled teaching”…Doctrine doesn’t change but Discipline can. Sometimes, however, in my opinion, the reformers of the reform can’t tell the difference. These same people even sometimes tend to overlook reforms made by their own beloved Pius XII. They ramble on saying stuff like “Trent said this, Trent said that, St. Thomas said this, St. Thomas said that, while ignoring things like Paul VI said this John XXIII said that. It’s convient to proof text for and against things one likes or dislikes, but don’t make me see or agree to the parts I want to ignore.

    When someone who thinks differently than their own wants and desires, it then becomes an abuse, and the Church shouldn’t even THINK about those issues, saying it’s keeping orthodoxy. Thinking about issues and making people uncomfortable-so they HAVE to think-is not a bad thing. I personally think that’s what the author was trying to say. The bureaucracy of the vatican may not want their world shaken. It needs it to wake and get their minds and bodies working again.

    Let’s face it everyone does it, Left and Right. Until items are really discussed, let’s not put the cart before the horse.

  14. So you say it’s okay for people to take Holy Eucharist while living in serious sin??

    Well, I understand the “welcome the lost sheep” thing. But doing Communion while you’re still walking in unconfessed, unrepented, serious sin, is NOT what the Bible that you are quoting says. You can’t just quote the Bible on Jesus’s words, and then ignore the rest of the Bible.


  15. I would like to share that I enjoy reading these posts. Thank you article author, and the posters so far commenting. I was going to comment but decided it would be better for me to see what transpires.

    Keep up the fluid sharing!

    Thanks everyone 🙂

  16. “You can’t just quote the Bible on Jesus’s words, and then ignore the rest of the Bible.”

    Exactly. If Jesus (PBUH) can, knowing full well his betrayal, offer the Holy Eucharist to Judas Iscariot, then it should be obvious that this blessing, which sinners need most of all, can be given to sinners.

  17. I did not say that a person should stay in a marriage that is doing harm. Civil divorce is not a bar to receiving communion (a bit of fact the media rarely reports).
    The question then becomes re-marriage.
    The research article I saw a number of years ago stuck in my mind, but I did not save it because the issue was not being debated then.
    However, I am sure many here have read articles that surveyed “children of divorce” and found the common refrain that very frequently the children blame themselves for “driving away” one of the parents. It doesn’t take much common sense to realize the further trauma a “child of divorce” must experience if he or she finds their parent directing all his energies and affections directed toward the dating scene (and in this day and age maybe bringing the “date” for an overnighter.

  18. Whether one asserts or denies that doctrine can change, in large part, depends on what one means by change. There is, of course, development of doctrine; and development involves change, does it not? If by ‘change’ one means repudiation of past teaching, then certainly not.

    Of course, opponents of any particular ‘development’ will insist that it would necessarily involve precisely such repudiation. That doesn’t mean their right.

    All of which is simply to suggest that your blanket assertion that “Doctrine doesn’t change” needs some qualification.

  19. What is amazing about the debates that will take place in this synod of bishops in the next two weeks is – every cardinal and bishop would be given the freedom and be able to participate like a “thinking” adult with valid views and opinions that have to be heard, considered and respected. Unlike in the past where opposing (often liberal) views were automatically silenced completely, if not punished like coming from misbehaving children. Someone has said before “only fools don’t change”. Life is about change. Stagnancy isn’t healthy no matter which way you look at it. Critical thinking, reflection, and prayer about many issues facing the Church today is important at this juncture so that better decisions can be made that will benefit the whole people of God. God bless the bishops’ synod in this endeavour.

  20. To E. Gunter. What a harsh and unfair judgment, lumping all into good and bad together, Please don’t forget the fact that so many of the missionaries tending to the needs and sufferings in so many parts of the world are many unknown Catholic priests, nuns and lay missionaries – devoting their entire lives to help the forgotten and the oppressed. The great things they do and their heroism don’t get published in mainstream media. Sadly, only the scandals and crimes of the bad ones do.

  21. I think equating remarriage for a divorced Catholic to adultery is grievously unjust, especially if these couples try to lead good Christian lives and do good for the Church in their second marriages. Why should the Church be so hung up on the first marriage that had ceased to exist long time ago? Why recognize only the first marriage that didn’t work, often, because of miseries and abuse? This lack of understanding and mercy for the divorced and remarried is hard to understand. Example, why should a woman be made forever bound to a man who happened to be a criminal just because he’s the husband of her first marriage? Twenty years of bliss and fidelity to a second husband would be considered adultery?! And be deprived of the Eucharist? Where’s the logic in that?

  22. Preciosa,

    I understand what you say in your comment to Earold, but what the Roman Catholic Institution (and recall Pope Fran called it an “institution”) does not realize is that people are reacting to what this ideology started, instituted and forced on the people long ago … which has affected the world at large (think about this please and how history repeats). You cannot deny that the Roman Church was a power-mongering, greedy, lusting, murderous dynasty at its start … as a religious organization … which bore very little resemblance to the Christ Figure of the Parables. I am gnostic, and the Roman Church made sure, through various indecent and egregious means, that this voice, and others, did not have life. And from their system came offspring often in defense of their own ideologies … also forming into religious institutions that oppressed and demanded its own way, and not an impartial medium of demonstrating the Christ Way. Many people are still asking: Why is this organization still permitted to have voice in our societies given what it had instituted? And with its incessant need to be in the public spotlight and involved in politics (often affecting many lives, especially women) … it appears very much like it wants the attention it is getting, even if bad. Step back and take a look at the broader picture. Many of the Vatican’s moves where the spotlight lands on them seems like strategic planning on their part … sending messages that so many Catholic members fail to see. I see that you are being betrayed by your leadership. If you do not care, well then … that is your choice.
    Now, the Mystical Tradition/the Arts, which seem to have been neglected by your leadership for politics, is another matter, and Earold would not understand these traditions as this too has been silenced in its more pure and pragmatic form. So many Catholics tell me, and trust that we (Spirrealism Movement—which includes Catholics) have been studying this for a while, and researching in this, say that they do not bother with what the hierarchy says, and yet, they still pay into the system, and if you actually went to some of the charitable organizations that you praise in your comment to Earold, like Missionaries of Charity … how the donated money sat in a bank not being used for the children, and the boxes of medical supplies not being used … you, I hope, would be ANGRY … and would do more than scold non believers who see the hypocrisy and the errancy. Do your homework, Preciosa … listen to what Teresa’s successor had to say. It is truly mind boggling.

    Someone on the prayer article said they were more offended by me because I called out the RCC than they were offended by Atheist Max’s (virulent) posting. Clearly, this person has not read enough posts to understand WHAT I work towards. When a believer is more concerned with his religious organization and not advising and showing the impartial synergia of the relationship one has with Spirit … but rather praising what seems to Earold a failed mission to the world … you gotta wonder about your institution’s PRIMARY interests.


  23. and another point that needs to be heard here …

    I read repeatedly from Roman Catholics telling “Protestants” that they were responsible for the writing of the Bible. They wanted all the credit for what is WRITTEN in the Bible. Okay, what did the Roman Catholic Church write that makes up the Bible most people, including Atheists, have read?

    You might want to consider this … long and hard.


  24. Preciosa vanidoso.

    No good with bad, just all bad. I won’t get in to all the terrible things done by the missionaries, and nuns of this criminal organization. All this filth can be looked up, if you really want know about it. However I would speculate you won’t, because you really don’t want to know, but I hope I’m wrong.

    Until they deal with the crimes, and criminals they protect, anyone who continues to support this criminal organization in any manner should be ashamed. Nothing they can do of a positive nature can wash away the filth of belonging to this criminal organization.

  25. “Fraternal and open discussion help develop theological and pastoral thinking,” Francis has said. “I’m not afraid of this. On the contrary, I seek it.”

    Pope Fran is not afraid, why would he be? It’s fraternal.

    One of their biggest fears is women. Isn’t this obvious by the establishment? I am surprised the RCC did not censor the Woman at the Well story. It demonstrates a very important element of REASON within the Godhood, which would have saved them a load of heartache. Interesting that Jesus seemed to not have an issue in asking her for a drink, and she had no issue in giving it.

    What’s the passage …

    And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”


  26. Homosexual BISHOPS promoting TRADITIONAL family values is an oxymoron!
    A Look at Roman Catholic BISHOPS . . the so-called “princes of the church” . . those who are the official voice of the Roman Catholic church in matters of faith and morals!
    From the Article: ‘Will Seminary Document Stay Straight?’ /  by RC writer: John Vennari / Source: Catholic Family News / November 2005
    EXCERPT: “Catholic World Report recently listed the names of homosexual bishops whose proclivity only came to light through the offices of the Civil Justice System or the media: Retired Bishop Dan Ryan of Springfield, IL; Retired Bishop Tom Dupre of Springfield, MA; Retired Bishop Patrick Ziemann of Santa Rosa, CA; Retired Bishop Kendrick Williams of Lexington, KY; Retired Bishop Keith Symons of Palm Beach, FL; Retired Bishop Lawrence Soens of Sioux City, IA; Retired Bishop Joseph Hart of Cheyenne, WY; Retired Bishop Anthony O’Connell of Palm Beach, FL; Non-Retired Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, FL; and Retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee.
    CWN observed, “This isn’t a [complete] roster of gay bishops. This isn’t even a roster of gay bishops who have misbehaved. This is list of only those gay bishops whose misbehavior has gotten them in trouble with the law — and that so deeply that their proclivities were objectively undeniable.”45 Can such bishops be counted on to enforce a homosexual ban if they are unwilling, too weak, or blackmailed to disregard Vatican orders? What about the chanceries, also infested with pro-homosexual clergy and staff?”
    45. “Trust Us to Fix it,” Catholic World News, June 16, 2005. CWN reported this in an attempt to answer the question: Why at the June 2005 US bishops meeting did the bishops sidestep addressing whether or not homosexuals should be admitted to the seminary? CWN answers: “Because the question of whether gays should be ordained cannot be addressed without first addressing a considerably more explosive question: the number of bishop-disputants who are themselves gay and have a profound personal interest that there be no public examination of the connections between their sexual appetites, their convictions, and their conduct of office.”

  27. The last supper was prior to Judas betraying Christ.

  28. Jesus is for all time. Jesus is also the most knowledgeable human of all time.

  29. “Jesus is also the most knowledgeable human of all time”

    Really? Sorry but Jesus is nonsense.

    “The smallest seed is the Mustard seed” – JESUS

  30. Their will be no middle road with C Burke., It is as he say’s, or he will excommunicate all that disagrees. Its his way or the highway…The Pope should show him the highway back as a Parish Priest under a current Pastor at St Stanislous St. Louis, Mo.. Forget Malta he just will get in trouble there.

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