March 28, 2014


Hope for Catholics civilly remarried after being divorced

Pope Francis has been giving Catholics who are civilly remarried after being divorced hope that they might be able to return to receiving holy Communion.

At present, those in that situation are encouraged to participate in the Mass, but may not receive Communion. Only those who are in the state of sanctifying grace may receive, and Catholics who have remarried without receiving a declaration of nullity from their first marriage are considered to be living in an adulterous relationship.

Pope Francis appears to be seeking a way to change that, at least for some remarried couples. An extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops will meet in October to discuss the family, and the pope has asked the bishops to consider proposals to make it possible for civilly remarried Catholics to participate more fully in the Mass. He asked for new pastoral approaches that are creative, courageous and loving.

This will be only part of what the bishops will discuss during the synod. As Pope Francis said in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) last November, “The family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children.”

The synod will discuss many ways to strengthen marriage and family life. Nevertheless, the plight of civilly remarried couples may be one of the principal topics of discussion, with the synod making proposals to the pope for his consideration.

In preparation for that discussion, Pope Francis asked Cardinal Walter Kasper to brief the College of Cardinals on this subject during the cardinals’ meeting at the Vatican on Feb. 20-21. Cardinal Kasper is a well-known German theologian and author of a book on mercy as a fundamental trait of God.

He is also one of three German bishops who, back in 1993, issued pastoral instructions to help priests minister to civilly remarried couples, mainly those who were convinced in conscience that their first union was not a valid marriage. At that time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, made the bishops drop the plan.

During his two-hour presentation to the cardinals, Cardinal Kasper said that the Church must continue to insist on Jesus’ teaching that sacramental marriage is indissoluble. He said, “One cannot propose a solution different from or contrary to the words of Jesus. The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage and the impossibility of a new marriage while the other partner is still alive is part of the binding tradition of the faith of the Church, and cannot be abandoned or dissolved by appealing to a superficial understanding of mercy at a discount price.”

Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, affirmed that to reporters two days later. Pastoral attention to Catholics cannot go against doctrine, he said.

However, Cardinal Kasper said, perhaps there could be some form of “canonical penitential practice,” a “path beyond strictness and leniency,” to avoid cutting couples (and most likely their children) off from the sacraments. Perhaps, he said, the Church could “tolerate that which is impossible to accept.”

He added, “After the shipwreck of sin, the shipwrecked person should not have a second boat at his or her disposal, but rather a life raft” in the form of the reception of Communion. (It should be noted that theologians often talk about a secunda tabula, but this is the sacrament of penance, not Communion.)

Cardinal Kasper, in his talk to the cardinals, noted that Catholics profess their belief in the forgiveness of sins in the Creed. If forgiveness is possible for a murderer, he said, it is also true for an adulterer. Of course, the problem there is that, in the eyes of the Church, a murder is a past event while the adultery continues.

Cardinal Kasper asked for “a pastoral approach of tolerance, clemency and indulgence” that would affirm that “the sacraments are not a prize for those who behave well or for an elite, excluding those who are most in need.”

That appears to be what Pope Francis wants, too. We’ll see what the synod fathers recommend in October.

—John F. Fink

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