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The Spirit, the Letter and the Synod


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Jacob W. Wood - published on 11/09/15

A careful analysis of Pope Francis's words reveals his true intentions regarding communion for the divorced and remarried

The dust is settling from the synod. 

The heated discussions over Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried are slowly quieting down as we await the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which will presumably tell us more about the pope’s own thoughts on the matter.

Pope Francis has never officially offered his support for the Kasperite position, something Cardinal Kasper himself has acknowledged. Then again, he has never officially repudiated it. The pope’s position is therefore somewhat ambiguous, even if he has said things that seem to lean in a Kasperite direction.

Awaiting the Post-Synodal Exhortation, the most direct words we have from Pope Francis on the synod are those of his closing speech, in which some statements seemed to lean toward Kasper, particularly:

[The synod] was … about laying bare closed hearts, which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit on the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families …The synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae—they are necessary—or from the importance of laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy (cf. Rom 3:21–30; Ps 129; Lk 11:47–54). It does have to do with overcoming the recurring temptations of the elder brother (cf. Lk 15:25–32) and the jealous labourers (cf. Mt 20:1–16). Indeed, it means upholding all the more the laws and commandments which were made for man and not vice versa (cf. Mk 2:27).

Do these statements make Pope Francis a Kasperite?

Yes, if we judge his words rashly. But to avoid rash judgment, I think we need to dig a bit deeper into the letter so that we can better understand the spirit of his words.

The Spirit and the Letter

In drawing the distinction between the letter and the spirit, the Holy Father was referring to St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. Speaking of the fact we are saved by grace, Paul says that we cannot “claim anything as coming from us” and that our “sufficiency is from God.” “The letter kills,” he says, “but the Spirit gives life” (Cf. 2 Cor. 3:3–6).

Since the Protestant Reformation the tendency among Christians—Catholics included—has been to divide the “letter” from the “spirit” like Martin Luther divided the law from the Gospel. For Luther, we are saved by faith alone (sola fide), and not by works. The letter and the law are death because they encourage works; the spirit and the Gospel are life because they free us from works.

Generations of Christians before Luther saw things differently. After all, it was Jesus Christ himself who said, “I came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Matt. 5:17). And the same Paul tells us that it’s not the letter itself that kills, but sin. “… The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good,” he explains, but “… sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me” (Rom. 7:11–12).

Paul’s point was not that we should seek the spirit instead of the letter—indeed, he tells us that “the law is spiritual” (Rom. 7:15)—it was that we should approach the letter in the right spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, who frees our hearts to know, love and serve God with works pleasing to him, and not the spirit of pride, by which we suppose that we can please God of our own accord: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3–4). 

Now notice that, when Pope Francis is discussing dogmatic formulae, law and commandments, the Holy Father uses very strong—and very positive—language. He does not, like Luther, hold up the law as though it were contrary to the Gospel. On the contrary, for Pope Francis the law is “important,” “necessary” and to be “upheld.” Like St. Paul, the Holy Father speaks of the spirit in which we approach the letter, not a spirit that is divorced from the letter. And indeed, he observes two possible spirits in which we might approach the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage: the one of mercy and grace, the other of pride and sin. The law in itself is good—a point that the Pope, along with St. Paul, acknowledges—but we must always be on our guard when speaking of the law not to let sin make the law an occasion of our own destruction through pride. Here too the pope is in company with the apostle.

What, then, shall we make of Kasper’s comment that “the door has been opened” to communion for the divorced and remarried? Nothing in what Pope Francis said justifies that conclusion. Nor, for that matter, does the synod report, which tells us to “avoid every occasion of scandal” (84), that pastoral discernment needs to take place “according to the teaching of the Church” (85), that there is “no graduality” in the law and that pastoral discernment “must never disregard the demands of truth and charity of the Gospel proposed by the Church” (86).

Only if we divide the letter from the spirit can we be led to the conclusion that the divorced and remarried may now receive communion. But that is not what St. Paul and Pope Francis would have us do. The letter kills and the spirit gives life, to be sure. But the spirit gives life by fulfilling the letter, not by abolishing it.

Jacob W. Woodis an assistant professor of theology and a faculty associate of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned his master’s in theology from St. Andrews University and his PhD from the Catholic University of America.

Synod on the Family
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