Francis signals that priests should be flexible on Communion for some divorced people
Pope Francis urged a more lenient approach to divorced Catholics in a major document published Friday, effectively encouraging clergy to grant those who remarry Holy Communion and opening a new phase in a long-running struggle within the church over its moral teaching.
In wide-ranging guidelines laying out his views on family life, the pope used plain language to broadly call for a more accepting church. But he also strongly reaffirmed its opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage—illustrating the limits on the pontiff’s willingness to reach out to Catholics who are at odds with church doctrine.
While the pontiff has pushed for a less restrictive church, bishops remain divided over how far to move from traditional teachings.
The 60,000-word document, known as an apostolic exhortation and titled “On Love in the Family,” was likely to anger conservatives while disappointing some liberals who were hoping for more.
“By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth,” he wrote.
Conservatives said that could be read as leaving decisions on access to Communion up to the discretion of individual priests or laypeople—a development that could ultimately water down Catholic doctrine.
“This document has opened up a large and ill-defined vista over a broad range of moral issues,” said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference. “If you can discern this way when it comes to marriage questions, what about almost any other moral question?”
Mr. Shaw added that such a development could undermine church cohesion by encouraging Catholics to treat such questions as matters of individual conscience, without the church as a guide.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Bernd Hagenkord, head of the German section of Vatican Radio, said he was hearing from German Catholics that they “expected more” explicit changes.
But, he added, “if the church really moves and people see happening the reform that the pope envisaged, then people will be more content.”
The exhortation is the pope’s response to two gatherings of bishops, held at the Vatican in 2014 and 2015, where family issues including same-sex unions, polygamy and contraception were discussed. Disagreement coalesced in particular around the church’s approach to Catholics who divorce and remarry.
According to doctrine, they aren’t allowed to receive Communion unless a church court grants an annulment for the first marriage, or they abstain from sex with their new spouse. Otherwise, they are considered as engaged in “public and permanent adultery” with their new spouses, and so unworthy of receiving the Eucharist.
Grounds for annulment include bigamy or failure to consummate the marriage, but also more complex causes such as psychological immaturity.
Pope Francis has suggested that as many as half of Catholic marriages today might actually be invalid because the spouses, under the influence of modern culture, lacked a real commitment to wed on the church’s terms, i.e., for life and with a clear intention of raising children.
However, many people who might be eligible for an annulment fail to pursue one because of the cost and time involved, which in some countries can amount to years and thousands of dollars in fees to lawyers and church courts. (The process in the U.S., which accounts for more than 40 percent of the annulment requests around the world every year, is much more efficient.)
After lamenting the obstacles faced by people in his native Argentina who gave up on the process, Pope Francis last year changed church law to make it easier and quicker to obtain an annulment everywhere.
He also has said that the process should be free, and many local dioceses no longer charge fees. The employment of canon lawyers, who are often lay people in private practice, does entail costs, however.
Many conservatives hoped that a more efficient annulment process would serve as a substitute for changing doctrine on divorced and remarried people receiving Communion, which is a separate matter.
That debate exposed stark regional differences within the church. In Germany, for instance, priests regularly give Communion to remarried divorced parishioners, while in neighboring Poland the practice is almost unheard of.
Bishops from Northern Europe were among the leading liberals at the Vatican meetings; Eastern Europeans and Africans emerged as defenders of the traditional rules.
The pope stopped short of changing the rule—leaving space for a future pope to reassert a stricter approach. But he signaled that priests should be flexible in enforcing it.
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