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Jesuit theologian looks ahead to synod on family

September 17, 2015
Christina Gray

The dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of the University of Santa Clara told a group of Marin County parishioners on Sept. 4 that he would not be surprised if Pope Francis welcomes some divorced Catholics back to Communion following the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome next month.

“In my opinion, of all the changes that might happen, that’s the one that’s most likely to be introduced by Francis in his post-synodic exhortation,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Massaro, a longtime moral theologian.

Currently, divorced Catholics who remarry outside the church without an annulment cannot receive Communion. Pope Francis may choose to modify this longstanding rule, particularly for marriages that end because of spousal abuse, Father Massaro said.

Father Massaro made his remarks as guest speaker at the Marin Breakfast Club, where he was invited to discuss the Oct. 2-25 synod. The lay Catholic club meets at St. Sebastian Parish in Greenbrae.

Pope Francis seems to support a “fresh start” with his call for a Jubilee Year of Mercy beginning Dec. 8, said Father Massaro, who was appointed dean of the Berkeley school in 2012.

The synod is expected to reflect on the topics brought forward in last October’s Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, with appropriate pastoral guidelines formulated for the care of the person and the family. These points include how the church can be more sensitive to divorced or remarried Catholics and to those in homosexual unions.

“If I’m reading the tea leaves right, if you’re asking me today to make one prediction, it would be that I think with Pope Francis there may be some openness to offering Communion to people in what we call irregular unions,” Father Massaro said.

He said the church has a “long, august and, I have to say, beautiful tradition” of holding up high standards of virtue for family life, for gender relations and for the beauty of human sexuality in the appropriate way. Pope Francis, by calling for back-to-back synods on the family, wants to make what the church offers a “clear and attractive invitation” for all generations.

But for this pope, Father Massaro said, rules and order don’t come before mercy and reconciliation.

“That’s always going to be what we have with Pope Francis,” he said. “On the one hand, he says to us, we must respect and honor the laws of civil governments, the laws of our church, the traditions we have inherited. But on the other hand, we must always seek to be the face of Christ in the world, Christ who never held anyone that was different than him at arm’s length.”

Father Massaro said that he believes Pope Francis met plenty of men and women in the barrios of South America living in irregular unions because they were too fearful of the retribution of an abusive spouse and sometimes too poor to obtain an annulment.

“My hypothesis about Pope Francis is that everything he does is based on his direct observation of the suffering of people,” he said, and not just poor people in the material sense. “I suspect that when Pope Francis sits down to make a decision, the first thing on this mind is, who does this effect?”

The pope wants the idea of Communion for some second marriages to be a conversation starter, not a conversation stopper, he said. And he has seen pastoral provisions for the divorced work in the Orthodox Church.

Pastoral sensitivity and high principles are two ends of the moral spectrum, according to Father Massaro. He said that Pope Francis will be practicing the virtue of prudence in make decisions on divorced Catholics and perhaps other matters that affect the family.

“Behind all of this, we theologians talk in terms about the image of the church and the image of Christ,” he said. Is your image of the church mostly that of rule maker or is it mostly a teacher, or pastor that exercises compassion and sensitivity?

“It’s a little bit of both, obviously,” Father Massaro said. “Pope Francis is open to evaluating that.”

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