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Catholic bishops debate: Where does doctrine end and pastoral practice begin?

(RNS1-SEP28) A survey released Sept. 28 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that four in 10 Roman Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used at Communion become the body and blood of Jesus during Mass. For use with RNS-FAITH-KNOWLEDGE, transmitted Sept. 28, 2010. RNS file photo by Peter Sachs.

(RNS) Senior Catholic leaders meeting at the Vatican are deep into passionate debates about how the church can respond to the realities of modern family life, yet at the same time they have repeatedly stressed that they are not going to alter long-standing doctrines, such as the teaching on divorce and remarriage.

Does that mean the hopes for real changes are DOA just a few days into the high-level summit?

Those who are pushing for reforms say no. They argue that the church can in fact make important adaptations by changing the “pastoral application” of doctrines — how teachings function on the ground.

The pastoral practice generating the most attention is the banning of divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the church from receiving Communion.

“The reception of Communion is not a doctrinal position. It’s a pastoral application of the doctrine of the church,” said Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a delegate at the two-week synod and an influential voice pushing for a new approach.

“We have to repeat the doctrine, but the pastoral practice is what we are talking about. That’s why we are having a synod,” he said in an interview with Catholic News Service. “Just to repeat the practice of the past” without trying to “find a new direction today” is no longer tenable, Wuerl suggested.

Cardinal Walter Kasper greets parishioners after mass at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. Photo courtesy of Trace Murphy

Cardinal Walter Kasper greets parishioners after Mass at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. Photo courtesy of Trace Murphy

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a retired German theologian and confidant of Pope Francis, has also endorsed that approach.

“Nobody denies the indissolubility of marriage. I do not, nor do I know any bishop who denies it,” Kasper told the Jesuit weekly, America. “But discipline can be changed.”

“Discipline wants to apply a doctrine to concrete situations, which are contingent and can change,” he added.

In fact, the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s — a much larger and more authoritative four-year gathering of the world’s hierarchy — introduced a number of changes, or “developments,” in church doctrine and in pastoral practice.

But a sizable contingent of the nearly 200 churchmen at the current synod have forcefully rejected the separation of doctrine and practice outlined by Wuerl, Kasper and others. They say it’s simply a distinction without a difference, and a Trojan horse that could introduce de facto changes in settled doctrine.

“There can’t be in the church a discipline which is not at the service of doctrine,” Cardinal Raymond Burke, a former archbishop of St. Louis who now heads the Vatican’s court system, told reporters on the eve of the synod.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis has quietly become an influential player in Rome. RNS photo by David Gibson

Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis, has quietly become an influential player in Rome. RNS photo by David Gibson

Burke, a canon lawyer and a leader of the camp opposing changes, said the reformers were saying: “Oh, we’re not questioning the indissolubility of marriage at all. We’re just going to make it easy for people to receive a declaration of nullity of marriage so that they can receive the sacraments.”

But that, Burke said, “is a very deceptive line of argument which I’ve been hearing more now in this whole debate.”

If that line prevails, he said, Catholics will see those who are divorced and remarried (without an annulment) taking Communion and will assume that the teaching on marriage has changed or they will conclude that the church is hypocritical.

Burke’s opinion here is not insignificant — his court is the body ultimately responsible for processing annulment requests from Catholics around the world.

The doctrine-versus-disciple argument can sound like an arcane point of theology that could occupy bishops for years, and it often has.

But in the context of the current meeting, the concept has emerged as one of the chief ways that the bishops are able to talk about making changes in a church that — whatever the historical record — likes to say that it never changes.

Other ideas to accomplish the same goal are also drawing some support, and they include tempering the church’s often absolutist language and attitude toward those in “irregular” situations — such as gay and unmarried couples “living in sin” — and streamlining the annulment process to invalidate an earlier marriage that ended in divorce.

Another concept that has generated buzz is the “law of graduality,” a long-standing idea in Catholic thought that recognizes that people gradually move toward holiness and don’t always understand or accept every church teaching at once. Advocates of change say it is important to welcome such people because the sacraments are a way to help them toward holiness; denying the sacraments has the opposite effect, they say.

As the bishops break into small groups next week to continue their discussions, the ideas could become more focused, and the debates more heated.

(RNS) Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington says the Vatican's new rules on abuse make an important distinction between ``structural?? crimes, such as attempting to ordain women, and moral crimes, such as abusing children. Religion News Service file photo by Jay Premack.

(RNS) Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington says the church needs to find a way to “meet people where they are” when applying church doctrine. Religion News Service file photo by Jay Premack.

In an interview with The Boston Globe published Thursday (Oct. 9), Wuerl said that the delegates have been “speaking their mind” and that the importance of getting doctrine “to work in the concrete order where people live” has become a central focus, just as Pope Francis wanted.

Still, Wuerl stressed that this meeting is the first stage in a long process; there will be subsequent discussions and debates in the coming months, and another synod next October with a larger and more diverse groups of bishops, who may have the final vote on any changes.

“That’s going to be the challenge, and I think that’s what the Holy Father is calling us to do,” Wuerl said. “He’s saying, We know this, we believe this, this is what is at the heart of our teaching. But how do you meet people where they are? And bring them as much of that as they can take, and help them get closer?”

KRE/MG END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

23 Comments

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  • Doctrine is so very important because so many people today try to twist the
    Bible. Every preacher needs to stick to the Bible/preach the whole Truth not
    just part of it. Gay marriage and abortion seem to get most of the focus but
    1 Corinthians 6:9-12 lists other sins right along with homosexuality that send
    people to hell unless they Repent. We all must Repent and for people to do
    that we must confront all sin so people get convicted and know how much
    they need to Repent. Getting drunk,gambling,gossip,lying,thieves,coveting,
    greed,jealousy,premarital sex,idolatry in any form,pride,being mean and/or
    sharp tongues need to be confronted because most people only talk about
    gay marriage or abortion so they don’t have to face their own sin. All sin is
    bad! Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that
    all drunkards go to hell. The wine that Jesus made was new wine and diluted
    plus the Bible says don’t get drunk on strong wine so people who still get
    drunk with strong wine are also wrong/go to hell. If you say you love Jesus
    and then don’t follow the Bible/religion no Truth is in you! We must Repent!

  • I always find it fascinating that the number of people in the Catholic Church whose marriages are no longer considered valid is equal to the number of people outside the Catholic Church who simply say they had bad marriages and want a divorce. Funny how that happens.

  • Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, DC, seems to adjust to whoever is pope at the time, John Paul II, Benedict, or Francis. Ok, oh well, so what. At least he’s more adapting now than when he was in charge of the U.S. bishops doctrinal committee when they dumped on Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s rightful adaptations in her “Quest for the Living God.” Humans should never presume they know the Almighty.

    There is room for more than one idea–and also a time to simply shut up and say, “No way I could know. No way we could know.”

    Such a time is now while the two camps of bishops go to Rome to decide for others when it is appropriate for them to participate fully in the Holy Communion. Why not just have everyone decide for self. No one is better qualified to make that judgement than the participant/recipient.

    The same can be claimed about all ancient doctrines proclaimed over millennia by popes and bishops who presumed they knew best, presumed they knew God.

    Open this church, as was hoped and intended by John XXII through Vatican II. Let the musty air out and fresh air in. Let each person decide what they believe and how they should act upon that belief. They do anyway. And God hasn’t seen fit to drop out of heaven and begin slaying people as bishops and other church members did of old as their way of “evangelizing.”

    While we’re at it, let’s get rid of all the ancient creeds formulated by small minds who presumed to know the Divine so intimately that they actually made gods of themselves. They are all recited with grand mental reservations, anyway.

  • Funny and very real. Relationships do not remain the same over time any more than those in the relationship remain the same. And as long as sex is considered such a sacred part of marriage, you are bound to run into problems over time–unless you are ready to pretend that people grow the same way sexually, which they don’t, or that everything is hunky-dory when it ain’t.

  • What Karla writes might work if it weren’t for the fact that the Bible she touts is so loaded with vicious exhortations, and if people never interpreted all the contradictory pieces of the Bible in different ways.

  • DOCTRINE.

    The worst word in religion.

    It means:

    “Believe this for the rest of your life with absolute CONVICTION – enough to bet your life on it – until we change our minds about it – which we always do someday later on and then we’ll need you to change your minds too… or else!”

    – All the Popes in History

    Shame on preachers who don’t respect their doubts about this crap.

  • You are extrapolating things from the text regarding the wedding at Cana that clearly aren’t supported by the biblical evidence.

  • What is most amusing to me as an orthodox believer in this discussion is that these prelates who are putatively expert in the field (after all, they have devoted their entire lives to the life of faith) are only now attempting to correlate doctrine to practice, this is Theology 101.

  • Karla, why is it that your pathetic sky creature, your “god”, a purportedly omnipotent creature, can’t do better than a book to get its message out, especially one for which the words can be so readily twisted, as you have admitted. Where is your god’s website (and no, religious shill sites don’t count), and why can’t he even push a few tweets out? Furthermore, 2000+ years without a peep from him is more than sufficient grounds for doubt, to say the least.

    Pretty pathetic “god” that you’ve made for yourself there.

    Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
    Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.
    http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

  • Bob-How did the world get here? Look at the design of the whole universe.
    Look at planet earth and then explain how the earth came about? For you
    to say there is no God and that this whole universe came about just by
    some random chance it takes more faith to believe in that than to believe
    in God. Most people who don’t want God to real don’t because they don’t
    want to be told how to live. You have a ton of hurt but Psalm 118:8 says
    it’s better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man! People will let
    you down so if you always look at people you will be hurt/let down. The
    prophecy in the Bible coming true with 100% accuracy proves what the
    Bible says is true. God gave us creation,Bible prophecy,our conscience
    and conscience means with knowledge so God gave us our conscience
    to know what is right and what is wrong. Thank you for the feedback.

  • Bob-If Jesus never rose from the dead why would the Roman Soldiers and
    people who didn’t believe in Him lie and say the body was stolen if He was
    still in the grave? If Jesus was still in the grave/dead people that didn’t even
    believe in Him never would have lied/said the body was stolen. The Case for
    Christ by Lee Strobel is a book worth reading.

  • Bob-Psalm 22 describes in detail things in the future so Bible prophecy
    that came true with 100% accuracy is why you can trust the Bible.

  • Karla, that wasn’t what I asked, and supposed statements by supposed eyewitnesses from 2000 years ago are pretty weak material to base belief on. Again, the questions. Do try to comprehend them this time. and for a change, try to respond to what you were asked about, stupid:

    Karla, why is it that your pathetic sky creature, your “god”, a purportedly omnipotent creature, can’t do better than a book to get its message out, especially one for which the words can be so readily twisted, as you have admitted. Where is your god’s website (and no, religious shill sites don’t count), and why can’t he even push a few tweets out? Furthermore, 2000+ years without a peep from him is more than sufficient grounds for doubt, to say the least.

    Pretty pathetic “god” that you’ve made for yourself there.

    Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
    Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.
    http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

  • As for prophecy in the bible, that is a totally unfounded claim that you are making, as usual, Karla. General, supposed prophecies with no specifics and no dates in the future for which events can later be verified are worthless; anyone can say “bad stuff is going to happen”, and eventually be correct, because enough happens over time that any such claim will eventually be right without it having any real prophetic merit.

    Your horrid Christian book of nasty AKA the bible, re your vicious, vengeant sky jerk, is of no worth regarding prophecy, and it is not of much other use other than as a historical curiosity representative of the poor world understanding of the people who span its centuries of authorship and re-re-re-editing.

  • Pastoral practice!… The celibates should just admit; that whole experiment was a big mistake and call it a day! The thousands of messed up lives by clergy, sanctioned by administrators and ignored by the those at the top makes me vomit!
    As for pastoral practice who can tell what that is! On this subject A Max is right – did I just type that!!! Come out of Babylon My people!

  • “But discipline can be changed.”

    Again?
    Manmade punishments for manmade violations of manmade interpretations of what men thought a god might have meant – thousands of years ago.

    Oy!
    No stoning, I hope.

  • “They argue that the church can in fact make important adaptations by changing the ‘pastoral application’ of doctrines”

    Man made. It is completely transparent.

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