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Why It Matters That Pope Francis Just Made It Easier For Divorced Catholics To Get Communion

Pope Francis waves to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ANDREW MEDICHINI
Pope Francis waves to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ANDREW MEDICHINI

On Friday, Pope Francis unveiled a new apostolic exhortation that asks the Catholic Church to be more compassionate and welcoming, and articulated a pathway for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.

The new exhortation — Amoris Laetitia, meaning “The Joy of Love” — is meant to synthesize and reflect on two years of high-level Catholic conversations, called Synods, over so-called “family issues” such as divorce, unmarried couples who live together, and same-sex relationships. Though the 264-page document, Francis in many ways repeats positions he has taken in the past: he reiterates the Catholic Church’s longstanding opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance, dismissing such unions as “[not in] any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Conversely, he also re-articulates his famously conciliatory shift in tone on LGBT issues, denouncing anti-gay violence as “unjust discrimination” and calling on pastors to “to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations.”

The most eyebrow-raising section of the document in Catholic circles, however, is where Francis discusses marriage counseling.

The most eyebrow-raising section of the document in Catholic circles, however, is where Francis discusses marriage counseling. In addition to calling on the Church to draw wisdom from Catholic priests who are married when counseling couples (some Catholic rites, such as Eastern Catholics, allow priests to marry, and male Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism are allowed to keep their wives), Francis appears to outline a way to allow Catholics who are divorced or remarried to participate in communion — something long forbidden by Church teaching.

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Citing a suggestion floated at one of the synods by a German bishops, Francis suggests that divorced and remarried Catholics who lack an annulment should be counseled by a priest. After several sessions, the cleric can then determine if and how a couple or individual can participate in communion, making judgements on a case-by-case basis.

Speaking about such couples, Francis writes the following:

If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,” the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same. Priests have the duty to ‘accompany the [divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop. Useful in this process is an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party…”

The localized strategy echoes Francis’ recent effort to make it easier and cheaper for couples to receive annulments by empowering local bishops more power to assess such requests. Also, Francis’ conciliatory take on such couples is not altogether unexpected, as he has voiced concern for the plight of divorced and remarried Catholics several times in the past. In an August 2015 address, the pontiff railed against priests who treat such individuals and couples as outcasts, saying, “[they] are not excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way!”

“They always belong to the church,” Francis said. “The church is called to be always the open house of the Father. … No closed doors! No closed doors!”

[Francis] is driving a nail in the coffin of fortress Catholicism by asking church leaders to build bridges, not walls.

Those comments set off a firestorm of debate among U.S. Catholics, with progressive-minded Catholics celebrating the tonal change and traditionalists blasting the pope as borderline heretical. The theological rumble, hotly contested in the halls of Catholic institutions and in the press, hit a fever pitch when a group of Catholic scholars issued a letter demanding that conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat stop writing about Catholicism because of his in apologetic condemnation of the pope’s remarks.

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But the release of Francis’ new exhortation adds Vatican-approved weight to his earlier statements, and appears to have sparked the debate anew. Liberal Catholics such as John Gehring, Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life and author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church, celebrated the pope’s words as an affront to “fortress Catholicism.”

“Pope Francis again reminds us that a church of encounter and healing puts human beings at the center of doctrine,” he said. “He is driving a nail in the coffin of fortress Catholicism by asking church leaders to build bridges, not walls. It’s both a hopeful document and a powerful rebuke to those who put judgement before grace.”

Conservatives such as Ross Douthat and others, meanwhile, are chastising the pontiff for being too open and willing to change, but also note that the document includes an explicit condemnation of same-sex marriage.

Despite the back-and-forth, other commentators stress that Francis’ new exhortation isn’t so much a challenge to Catholic law as it is an insistence that priests and bishops enforce Church standards graciously.

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“One striking point about Amoris Laetitia…is that it lifts up this long-standing Catholic capacity for flexibility and nuance in pastoral practice, and sets it squarely alongside the law in full public view,” Vatican expert John Allen Jr. writes at Crux. “In a nutshell, the pope neither creates any new law on the issue nor abrogates any existing one. What he does do, however, is place great stress on the pastoral practice of applying the law, insisting that pastors must engage in a careful process of ‘discernment’ with regard to individual cases, which are not all alike, and help people reach decisions in conscience about the fashion in which the law applies to their circumstances.”

In addition, Francis insists that governments to care for struggling families generally, charging leaders to create laws that provide health care and jobs.

“In many cases, parents come home exhausted, not wanting to talk, and many families no longer even share a common meal,” he writes. “This is a broader cultural problem, aggravated by fears about steady employment, finances and the future of children.”

The precise impact and ramifications of Francis’ new document remain to be seen, as its effectiveness relies greatly on whether bishops and local priests take his words to heart. And while the new document is important, an exhortation is distinct from an encyclical, which carries greater theological weight — such as Francis’ encyclical on the environment released earlier this year. Francis’ other famous exhortation, entitled Evangelii gaudium, was released in 2013 and outlined a deeply progressive vision of economics.