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Big win for Pope Francis

An Argentine-German axis enables an opening to the divorced and remarried.

Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller

Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller

Proving himself to be the best politician on the world stage today, the Pontiff of Immigrants succeeded in getting a fractious assembly of bishops from around the world to sanction a path to full ecclesiastical citizenship — i.e. Communion — for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Whether he was aided and abetted by the Holy Spirit I leave for others to determine.

During the three-week Synod of Bishops on the Family, those belonging to what the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters christened “Team Javert” weighed in early and often against any relaxation of the rules. “Team Valjean,” by contrast, held its fire until the final week, and then unloaded.

The key player, besides Francis himself, appears to have been the powerful head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller. A theological stickler appointed by Pope Benedict, he was among the 13 cardinals who signed a Javertian letter to the pope protesting the Synod’s ways and means. The letter was leaked to Sandro Magister, Francis’ leading critic among Vaticanistas and the journalist who became persona non grata at the Vatican after he published an almost final version of the pope’s environment encyclical Laudato si’ ahead of its embargoed release date.

I figured that if the Gang of 13 included Müller, any significant opening to the divorced and remarried had to be DOA. And then, at the crucial moment, Müller joined Team Valjean. The “circle” of German-speaking bishops, which included arch-progressive Cardinal Walter Kasper and learned aristocrat Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (make that Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert, Count of Schönborn) along with Müller, unanimously approved a proposal to allow the divorced and remarried access to the Eucharist by way of “the internal forum” — a canonical mechanism whereby determinations are made without publicity.

That proved to be the approach taken in the the final report’s crucial paragraph 85, which achieved the necessary two-thirds’ support with just one vote to spare. Wrapping up the Synod afterwards, Francis bluntly informed the bishops that the gathering had been about, among other things, “laying bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.” Ouch. No one should think that he will fail to cash the check that the Synod has handed him.

At the end of the day, the pope’s side proved that it has learned how to round up votes and do a whip count, and under the circumstances my advice to Paul Ryan would be to consult with the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in preparation for becoming the next Speaker of the House. Of course, Ryan will not be able to rely on the Holy Spirit. That always makes things more difficult.

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