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Analysis | John L. Allen Jr.

Cardinals try to manage expectations on divorce

ROME - Pope Francis’ maverick approach has aroused expectations of sweeping change in Catholicism, and nowhere is that ferment more palpable right now than on the question of whether believers who divorce and remarry without obtaining a church annulment should be allowed to receive communion and the other Catholic sacraments.

Francis seemed to signal openness to rethinking the current ban during remarks in an airborne press conference last July, leading some observers to conclude that change is only a matter of time.

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Hopes are running so high that some of the pontiff’s closest advisors seem concerned he’s being set up for a fall. If the eventual decision is that such a shift on divorce is inconsistent with traditional Catholic teaching, they fret, exhilaration over the new pope could turn sour.

As a result, these prelates appear to be trying to dial down expectations, insisting that few Biblical teachings are clearer than Christ’s famous words “What God has joined, let no one separate,” and therefore allowing divorced Catholics to return to the sacraments en masse isn’t in the cards.

The latest senior Catholic official to make that case is Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, Canada, who spoke today in an interview with the Globe. Collins is currently in Rome for two days of meetings of most of the world’s cardinals with Francis on issues related to marriage and the family.

Those meetings are a prelude to a ceremony on Saturday, called a consistory, in which Francis will create 19 new cardinals, including the church’s first-ever cardinal from the impoverished nation of Haiti.

“Obviously there’s a concern for people who are divorced and remarried, because it’s a very painful situation for them and for their children,” Collins said.

“But there’s also a very clear teaching,” the 67-year-old Collins said. “The indissolubility of marriage doesn’t go back to a code of canon law, or a pope, or a council. If there’s anything that’s pretty clear in the teaching of Christ, it’s this.”

Collins, who studied at Rome’s prestigious Pontifical Biblical Institute, is considered a point of reference in English-speaking Catholicism with influence reaching beyond the borders of Canada.

This week’s session with cardinals represents a sort of trial run for a global gathering of Catholic bishops set by Pope Francis for next October, also devoted to marriage and the family. Collins seemed dubious that the bishops’ summit, called a “synod,” might recommend sweeping policy changes on divorce.

Asked if he believed allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments would be on the table, Collins said: “I don’t see how it could be…This is a very basic point about what we’re called to in marriage that comes from Our Lord himself.”

Collins follows Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who in his own recent Globe interview also cautioned against expecting the synod to propose overturning traditional Catholic discipline on access to the sacraments.

In that interview, O’Malley suggested that another approach might be to streamline the process of granting annulments, which is a declaration from a church court that a marriage never existed in the first place because one of the conditions for validity in church law wasn’t satisfied, such as free consent by both parties.

Collins agreed that reform in the annulment process, aimed at making it simpler and faster, could be something that emerges from the October synod.

“It’s the most obvious way of addressing this immediately, in a way that certainly can be done,” he said.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.
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