Brendan Hoban: Pastoral solutions to pastoral problems             

Western People 14.11.2023

It appears that the experience of participants in the recent October synod created something of an unlikely buzz in Rome. Usually, synods are fairly predictable in their formalities: an opportunity for the pope to focus on a particular teaching, a series of lectures by delegated speakers, an unsurprising step-by-step process, an ‘oven-ready’ final document, and so on.

This time it was different: not just cardinals and bishops present but ‘lay’ people, even women, and with voting rights too; instead of serried ranks of attendees in formal lecture mode, there were small discussion groups sitting in small circles; instead of just pre-packaged speeches moving the process in a predictable direction, everyone had a say; instead of speakers cautiously following expected outcomes, participants were encouraged to say what they thought, to be honest  and truthful.

As well as that, while no effort was made to control the agenda or to moderate opinions, the small group structure followed very precise rules of engagement. For example, participants talked for a maximum of three minutes without interruption and were listened attentively to by the others; and everyone in the group (whether pope, cardinal, bishop, priest, ‘lay-man’ or ‘lay-woman’) was held in equal status.

Rome had never experienced anything quite like it and even though some ‘senior’ bishops had a few hissy-fits which involved temporary withdrawal, remarkably there was almost general assent that the synodal pathway process – for that’s what it was – was effective and useful. In fact, some bishops who had opposed it before the synod were ‘converted’!

There was too a gathering sense that bishop-only synods would in the future (as some cardinals publicly agreed) be now unimaginable.

That’s not to say that everything went smoothly because some issues that had emerged right across the diocesan, national and continental surveys ran into difficulty. Thus, while ‘inclusion’ of all remained a central concern, apparently the organising committee felt unable in the final document to actually use the acronym, LGBTQ+, and substituted ‘inclusion’ to cover it – in deference to hostile opposition even to the use of the acronym from other cultures like Africa.

It seems what’s beginning to emerge is that change in a number of areas that received an unprecedented level of support in the worldwide survey of expectations – ‘hot button’ issues like an enhanced role for women, the blessing of LGBTQ+ relationships, mandatory celibacy for priests and the ordination of women deacons – may not be as easy to deliver as was imagined.

That said Pope Francis seems unfazed by the problem. It may be that his awareness of the distinction in Catholic theology between the technical terms, ‘external forum’ and ‘internal forum’, may allow enough space to progress change even with ‘hot button’ issues.

Take the long-standing demand for those in irregular marriages to be permitted to receive Communion. In assessing what is permissible in this area, Church practice that effectively bans such permission presents as the ‘external forum’. But this position looks different if it is countered by an ‘internal’ forum – a different perspective based on individual conscience and a community or parish frame of reference. So even though the external forum seems to allow no exception to current church law on this issue, the internal forum mechanism can give the green light in particular cases.

In other words, even though church teaching (on whether those in irregular marriage situations can receive Communion) gives the impression of a large door slamming shut in the faces of those who ask the question, an important truth is that the detail of a specific case can provide the internal forum with room to operate effectively and sensitively at parish level.

In other words, the answer to the question as to whether those in irregular marriage situations can receive Communion is not automatically ‘No’ (in every case) but rather ‘It depends’ (in some cases). And this is not some sleight of hand formula but an accepted and widespread credible pastoral strategy. In his letter, Familiaris Consortio (1981) Pope John Paul reminded those dealing with this and other related issues that they are ‘obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations’. For example, it is extremely difficult for a marriage tribunal – the external forum – to prove non-consummation even when it is obvious to an individual involved that what was presented as a marriage was clearly not a Christian marriage. Yet, that individual can be expected to abstain for life from sexual relations with someone who is a life-long partner and the father or mother of his or her children. In justice, this is where the internal forum comes in and in justice special allowance needs to be made at parish level. This is not to sideline our understanding of Christian marriage but rather, as Pope John Paul has said, ‘reaching out in love to those who know the pain of failure in marriage by showing them Christ’s compassion’.

In 2016, Pope Francis reflected in The Joy of Love on the difficulties families faced and gently urged priests to be more compassionate towards parishioners in relationships not always matched by the Church’s ideals. Pastors, Francis wrote, must find ways to welcome the many Catholics in relationships deemed ‘irregular’ in church teaching. Many Catholics, he continued ­– including unmarried cohabiting couples, divorced and civilly remarried couples – felt ostracised by being told they were ‘living in sin’.

It is instructive too that recently a German bishop has asked his priests to bless same-sex couples. This was in response to a survey in his diocese in which 93% favoured such blessings. It seems that pastoral solutions to pastoral problems will help to sort at least some of the difficulties Catholics face in the future.

We live in interesting times.

My new book, Holding Out for a Hero/The Long Wait for Pope Francis, is now available at €18 in the usual outlets or online at Hoban

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One Comment

  1. Dermot Quigley says:

    The Church has always taught the following:

    1. Any Sexual relations Outside of a Christian Marriage between one Man and one woman, are Mortally sinful.

    2. It is a requirement that when we go to Confession, we must have a firm purpose of Amendment.

    3. One cannot approach Holy Communion in a state of Mortal Sin. To do so would be Sacrilegious and Blasphemous. It is against the first Commandment.

    These teachings are all de Fide and Papal Authority cannot be used to Dispense people from them.

    So, with regard to an individual who is civilly divorced and remarried, without a Church Annulment, he/she cannot receive Holy Communion. To live as Man and Wife is to be in an Adulterous relationship. Nobody living like this may receive Holy Communion.

    If they go to confession, they must promise to stop committing Adultery, in order to receive Sacramental Absolution. If they are going to continue living in Adultery after Confession/Mass, then they do not have a firm purpose of Amendment. This is a sine qua non the illustrious Pope St. Pius V taught at Trent.

    What I have said above can also be applied to same gender unions.

    It is as clear as day, that the synodal process has, as a long term objective, the elimination of the Sixth Commandment. This would require a rewrite of Chapter twenty of Exodus for a start!!!!

    Using Pastoral ‘discernment’ to overcome the perpetually binding Public Revelation of the Church, is not a solution inspired by the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost does not contradict Himself!

    I will make a prediction: NO Pope will ever issue a new Catechism containing anything contradicting the three teachings adduced above.

    So many Martyrs died for our Holy Roman Catholic Faith: we cannot retrospectively mock them.

    Our Lady of Victories, pray for us.
    Pope St. Pius V/X, pray for us.
    St. Joan of Arc, pray for us

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