Why The Pope Is Talking About Divorced And Remarried Catholics


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Pope Francis is raising questions about the Church’s stance on Catholics who have divorced and remarried, urging his fellow believers to be more welcoming to what Catholic leaders have sometimes referred to as “wounded families.”

Speaking to a large crowd at the Vatican on Wednesday morning, Francis’ brief address focused primarily on Catholics who are divorced or remarried “outside the church,” or without getting an annulment to the first marriage. Falling into a cadence he reserves for points about which he is especially passionate, Francis insisted that priests should embrace divorced couples, saying “[they] are not excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way!”

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

Various mainstream and Catholic publications were quick to cover the remark, wondering aloud what it could mean for the Church’s longstanding debate over divorce. Granted, the pope didn’t technically say anything contrary to existing Catholic teaching, which cites Christ’s negative description of divorce in the Bible to prohibit granting communion to churchgoers who remarry. He noted that entering into this kind of union “contradicts the Christian sacrament,” and admitted that there is “no easy solution” to the issue within the Church’s current theological framework.

Nevertheless, the pontiff’s insistence such couples remain active participants of the Church — that they not be kept “at arm’s length” — appears to be part of a larger project of his papacy. It’s certainly not the first time he has signaled a more open-minded approach to these kinds of couples: In June, Francis told a crowd in St. Peter’s Square that there are times when it is “morally necessary” for a married pair to separate when children are at risk. He made similar comments last December, lamenting that divorced Catholics are often “excommunicated de facto,” urging the church to “open the doors a little bit more,” and asking “Why can’t they be godparents?” And when Pope Francis presided over the weddings of 20 couples at St. Peter’s Basilica last September, the group included Catholics who had been married before(although their previous unions had presumably been annulled).

So why is Francis so eager to discuss this contentious issue, and why is he talking about it now? The answer seems to be a mixture of practicality, theology, and politics. Although instances of priests openly rejecting divorced couples because of their marital status are relatively rare, it does happen, and simply preaching the policy can lead to people feeling unwelcome in — and possibly even leaving — Catholic parishes. And as John L. Allen Jr. points out over at Crux, the number of people potentially impacted by the current divorce policy is vast: There are roughly 4.5 million divorced or remarried Catholics in the United States alone. Meanwhile, Pope Francis has been heralded for attempting to craft a more welcoming, less exclusionary Catholic Church, making his unease with this policy seem natural.

The timing of Francis’ comments, however, is likely a preemptive move in preparation for the upcoming synod (gathering) of high-profile bishops in October, a followup meeting to the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family. Last year’s convening, which included heated discussions about divorced Catholics as well as other theological concerns such as same-sex marriage, was criticized for offering mixed messages on several issues — including divorced Catholics — by publishing confusing statements and pitting conservative and liberal wings of the church against one another.

But this year Catholic leaders are trying to preempt such controversies by meeting ahead of time. According to the National Catholic Reporter, factions who both favor and oppose opening up communion to divorced couples have begun organizing their supporters to deliver a coordinated message at the synod. This is particularly true of bishops from Germany, where most of the country’s Catholic bishops reportedly support granting communion to divorced Catholics — in part to curb the growing number of parishioners defecting from the church in the region.

True, the synods only serve as an advisory to Francis, and cannot in and of themselves change Catholic teaching. But the outcome of these debates could inspire Francis to take formal action on the issue of divorced Catholics. While he has yet to endorse a formal change in policy, the pontiff is clearly already making use of his pulpit to advocate for a more welcoming approach.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress 


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