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The German Question

How to accommodate second marriages in the Church has become the new German Question — “German” because most of the key players in the debate happen to be Germans. That said, the question itself was posed by a notable non-German, the Italo-Argentinian Pope Francis, who asks with an apparently sincere heart: How can the Church best accommodate those Catholics who have divorced and remarried outside the Church?

The Pope has followed up this important question with a long string of implications suggesting that this issue needs to be dealt with in a very different way than it has been in the recent past. Clearly, the Holy Father has identified this as one of the most pressing and challenging pastoral issues facing the Church in the springtime of his pontificate. In his now-infamous interview on the plane returning from World Youth Day in Rio last year, the Holy Father said the annulment process needs to be “reformed and streamlined,” but even more importantly that the Church needs to get serious about developing a comprehensive pastoral program for the family. In the same breath, Francis also mentioned that the Orthodox Churches allow a second marriage — what he called “a second chance” marriage — giving the impression that the Catholic practice could undergo modification.

As we mentioned in this space last month (“The Self-Fulfilling Prophet,” March), in late 2013 Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, chairman of the German Episcopal Conference, defended a proposed plan by the German bishops to offer Communion to divorced Catholics, saying he felt “strengthened” by Pope Francis, presumably referring to the Pope’s off-the-cuff remarks on the plane from Rio.

Although Francis has not directly addressed the German proposal, it was shot down by fellow German Gerhard Cardinal Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Müller, a Benedict XVI appointee, emphasized protecting the “indissolubility of marriage” and gave the distinct impression that the Church would not be changing her discipline anytime soon, despite wishful German proposals to the contrary.

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