The following unsigned editorial appeared in the May 3 issue of The Tablet, a London-based international Catholic weekly.
Pope Francis continues to drop hints about the possibilities of “development” in the Catholic Church’s treatment of divorce. He is reported to have telephoned an Argentine divorcee who had written to him after being told she could not receive holy Communion: He assured her, she said afterward, that she could.
The Vatican quickly pointed out that papal policy is not to be deduced from personal phone calls. But then in the course of his sermon at the canonization of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II, he mentioned the extraordinary synod which he had convened for this autumn which has this item on its agenda, and referred to “divine mercy which always hopes and always forgives.”
He has more than once mentioned “mercy” as offering a way forward on the vexed question of the ban — increasingly ignored — on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion.
St. John XXIII, who summoned the Second Vatican Council, he called “the pope of openness to the Holy Spirit.” That is clearly a reminder that not every detail of Catholic theory and practice is set in concrete. The church, the council said, was moved by the Holy Spirit so that she “may never cease to renew herself.” But he also cited St. John Paul II as “the pope of the family,” which could be a reminder that the last time Communion for remarried divorcees was a live issue, the door was firmly closed by that pope’s 1981 exhortation “Familiaris Consortio.”
He said a number of other things about it, including this: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage.
Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.” That sounds not dissimilar to some of the things the German bishops have said recently on the matter.
St. John Paul II also indicated the possibilities of development in general when he said the church, while staying faithful to its tradition, could “progress towards a daily more complete and profound awareness of the truth.”
One cultural question might be whether, with divorce widely available in civil law, Catholic couples marrying in church could realistically exclude the possibility that their marriage might one day be dissolved, and whether that knowledge undermines the intention to enter an indissoluble union and hence invalidates the sacrament.
None of this points to easy solutions. It was presumably to manage expectations downwards that the Vatican asked bishops’ conferences not to publish their summary of responses to the pre-synod questionnaire which was circulated last year. But it becomes increasingly hard to imagine the church slamming the door once again, as St. John Paul II did in 1981. Little by little, watched no doubt by a nervous Vatican Curia, Pope Francis appears to be raising the stakes.
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