Will Catholic bishops annul Pope Francis’ marriage reform initiative?

c. 2014 Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY ( RNS) Pope Francis has appointed a special commission to look at ways to make it easier for Roman Catholics to dissolve their marriages in the eyes of the church.

The goal of the 11-member commission announced Saturday (Sept. 20), is to reform the process, “with the objective of simplifying its procedure, making it more streamlined.”

The weekend announcement came as a bitter clash emerged among cardinals over the church’s approach to marriage, divorce and remarriage.

According to church law, Catholics can obtain annulments if they can show their marriage was not valid. But if they opt out of the annulment process, divorce in civil court and then remarry, the church may refuse them Communion.

Five cardinals are publishing a new book reinforcing the sanctity of marriage next week, only days before the world’s bishops gather in Rome for a conference on the subject. The synod will consider issues including divorce, cohabitation, domestic violence and gay unions.

German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, one of the authors of the book, “Remaining in the Truth of Christ,” has made it clear nobody has the power to sever the bonds of marriage.

“When we are in the presence of a valid marriage, there is no way to sever that bond,” Mueller said.

“Neither the pope nor any other bishop has the authority to do so, because it touches on a reality that belongs to God, not to them.”

As several Vatican observers warned of further clashes between hard-liners and those seeking a more open approach to divorced Catholics at the October synod, the pope has urged bishops to build unity and avoid fragmentation.

“Don’t waste energy in disagreements and clashes, but in building and loving,” the pope said in an address recently.

Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s highest appellate court, which includes lawyers and theologians, will head the new commission.

Marco Politi, renowned Vatican expert, said the pope may want to streamline the process but that did not mean he wants to change church doctrine.

Liberal theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper heads a Vatican body responsible for promoting Christian unity and is expected to address the bishops’ synod.

While Kasper favors a more lenient approach to offering Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, he said the issue should be broadly debated not only among a handful of cardinals but throughout the church.