VATICAN CITY — Ever since last July, when Pope Francis told reporters that the church’s practices on marriage exemplify a need for mercy in the church today, speculation has been widespread that he might make it easier for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion even without an annulment of their first marriage.
On Feb. 17, the Vatican made an announcement bound to make such speculation even more common.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters that Cardinal Walter Kasper would deliver the opening talk at a two-day meeting of the College of Cardinals, Feb. 20-21. The spokesman did not specify the subject of the talk, but said it would deal with church teaching on the family.
The cardinals’ meeting will focus on preparation for October’s extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization,” which Pope Francis has said will take up the question of giving Communion to the divorced and remarried.
That question is one on which Cardinal Kasper has strong and well-known views. In 1993, when the cardinal was a diocesan bishop in Germany, he and two other bishops issued pastoral instructions telling priests they could give Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics convinced their first marriages were invalid, even if they had not received annulments.
That practice was later ruled out by the Vatican, but last year, the Archdiocese of Freiburg, Germany, made a similar proposal. Even criticism from Cardinal-designate Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has not stopped prominent voices — including Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany, and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras — from suggesting Freiburg might be allowed to carry out the proposal.
Cardinals Marx and Rodriguez Maradiaga are especially influential these days because they both sit on the eight-member Council of Cardinals the pope named last April to advise him on reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and governance of the universal church.
Meeting with that council Feb. 17, Pope Francis kicked off what Father Lombardi called a “rather full” week and half at the Vatican.
The council is scheduled to meet Feb. 17-19, for its third round of meetings since October.
On Monday morning, the council received a three-member delegation from the Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See, which the pope established in July to investigate accounting practices in Vatican offices and devise strategies for greater fiscal responsibility and transparency.
Father Lombardi said the commission delivered a report on its work, but he declined to provide any details on the content.
On Tuesday Feb. 18, the council is scheduled to receive a five-person commission Pope Francis established in June to review the activities and mission of the Vatican bank. The commission includes two American members: Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon and Msgr. Peter B. Wells, a top official in the Vatican Secretariat of State.
On Wednesday, the pope and his council will meet with the Council of Cardinals for the Study of the Organizational and Economic Problems of the Holy See, a 15-member body that oversees budget making for the Holy See and Vatican City State. (The body will also meet on its own Feb. 24-25.)
On Saturday Feb. 22, the pope will create 19 new cardinals. He will concelebrate Mass with the newly expanded college the following day.
Finally, the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops will meet Feb. 24-25.
A rather full schedule, indeed; so watch this space for full coverage.