Pope Francis recently gave a general audience in which he discussed the situation of those who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.
His remarks are particularly significant in light of the upcoming Synod on the Family and the proposals to give Holy Communion to those in this situation.
They also attracted attention because he stressed that people in this situation are not excommunicated.
Here are 10 things to know and share . . .
1) Where did the pope make his remarks and where can I read them?
He made them at his Wednesday general audience on August 5, 2015. They are part of a series of catecheses he has been doing on the family.
You will eventually be able to read them at the Vatican web site here.
However, at the time of this writing there is only a brief summary of his remarks as a placeholder until the Vatican’s English translation can be prepared (usually a delay of a week or more).
Until then, here is the Italian original, and you can read Zenit’s English translation here.
2) What did the pope say about divorced and remarried couples not being excommunicated?
[I]n fact, these people are not at all excommunicated, they are not excommunicated! And they are absolutely not treated as such: they are always part of the Church.
3) Is he correct?
Yes. The idea of excommunication is commonly misunderstood as not being able to take communion. While the Church does not permit people who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive communion (unless they are living as brother and sister), this is not the same thing as excommunication.
Excommunication is a canonical penalty that has various legal effects which are described here.
Excommunication does not cancel one’s membership in the Church, and divorcing and remarrying without an annulment does not incur excommunication.
Therefore, people in this situation are not excommunicated, and even if they were, they would remain part of the Church.
Consequently, they are to be treated as such.
The pope is absolutely correct.
4) How did Pope Francis introduce his remarks on the subject of the divorced and remarried?
[T]oday I would like to focus our attention on another reality: how to take care of those that, following the irreversible failure of their marital bond, have undertaken a new union.
The Church knows well that such a situation contradicts the Christian Sacrament. However, her look of teacher draws always from her heart of mother; a heart that, animated by the Holy Spirit, always seeks the good and salvation of persons. See why she feels the duty, “for the sake of truth,” to “exercise careful discernment.” Saint John Paul II expressed himself thus in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio (n. 84), pointing out, for instance, the difference between one who has suffered the separation and one who has caused it. This discernment must be made.
5) Did John Paul II refer to these things in Familiaris Consortio?
Yes. He said:
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.
He went on, in the same section, to say:
However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
6) Did Pope Francis cite any particular reasons, apart from the good of the spouses, why these situations need to be looked at carefully?
Yes. He called attention, in particular, to how children are affected (something also mentioned by John Paul II). Pope Francis said:
If, then, we look at these new bonds with the eyes of little ones – and the little ones are looking – with the eyes of children, we see even more the urgency to develop in our communities a real acceptance of persons that live such situations. Therefore, it is important that the style of the community, its language, its attitudes are always attentive to persons, beginning with the little ones. They are the ones who suffer the most, in these situations. Otherwise, how will we be able to recommend to these parents to do their utmost to educate the children in the Christian life, giving them the example of a convinced and practiced faith, if we hold them at a distance from the life of the community, as if they were excommunicated? We must proceed in such a way as not to add other weights beyond those that the children, in these situations, already have to bear! Unfortunately, the number of these children and youngsters is truly great. It is important that they feel the Church as a mother attentive to all, always willing to listen and to come together.
7) What did Pope Francis say the Church’s response has been?
In these decades, in truth, the Church has not been either insensitive or slow. Thanks to the reflection carried out by Pastors, guided and confirmed by my Predecessors, the awareness has greatly grown that a fraternal and attentive acceptance is necessary, in love and in truth, of the baptized that have established a new coexistence after the failure of their sacramental marriage; in fact, these people are not at all excommunicated, they are not excommunicated! And they are absolutely not treated as such: they are always part of the Church.
Pope Benedict XVI intervened on this question, soliciting careful discernment and wise pastoral support, knowing that “simple recipes” do not exist (Address to the 7th World Meeting of Families, Milan, June 2, 2012, answer n. 5).
8) What did Benedict XVI say in the passage that Pope Francis quotes?
Indeed the problem of divorced and remarried persons is one of the great sufferings of today’s Church. And we do not have simple solutions. Their suffering is great and yet we can only help parishes and individuals to assist these people to bear the pain of divorce.
He went on to say:
As regards these people – as you have said – the Church loves them, but it is important they should see and feel this love. I see here a great task for a parish, a Catholic community, to do whatever is possible to help them to feel loved and accepted, to feel that they are not “excluded” even though they cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist; they should see that, in this state too, they are fully a part of the Church. Perhaps, even if it is not possible to receive absolution in Confession, they can nevertheless have ongoing contact with a priest, with a spiritual guide. This is very important, so that they see that they are accompanied and guided. Then it is also very important that they truly realize they are participating in the Eucharist if they enter into a real communion with the Body of Christ. Even without “corporal” reception of the sacrament, they can be spiritually united to Christ in his Body.
9) What did Pope Francis say about how people in these situations should be received?
Building on the remarks of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he said:
Hence the repeated invitations of Pastors to manifest openly and consistently the community’s willingness to receive and encourage them, so that they live and develop increasingly their belonging to Christ and to the Church with prayer, with listening to the Word of God, with frequenting of the liturgy, with the Christian education of the children, with charity and service to the poor, with commitment to justice and peace.
The biblical icon of the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18) summarizes the mission that Jesus received from the Father: to give his life for the sheep. This attitude is also a model for the Church, which receives her children as a mother that gives her life for them.
He then quotes his own apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:
“The Church is called to be the House of the Father, with doors always wide open [...]”
No closed doors! No closed doors!
“Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community. The Church [...] is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, n. 47).
10) What significance do these remarks have for the upcoming Synod on the Family and the proposals to give Holy Communion to people in these situations if they are not living as brother and sister?
They do not appear to have a decisive significance, one way or the other.
On the one hand, Pope Francis does not mention such proposals. In fact, he is frank in saying that “such a situation contradicts the Christian Sacrament.” He also stresses continuity with his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and he quotes from passages where both of these predecessors explicitly reject giving Holy Communion to people in these situations if they are not living as brother and sister.
On the other hand, he does not quote from those parts of the passages, and he also is clear that he wants to find ways to help such people have more involvement with the Church—particularly in light of the effect that their situation has on their children.
There is thus not a decisive indication of what he is likely to do, either way, though on balance the text of this audience seems to favor continuity with the Church’s historic practice more than it indicates any forthcoming change on this point.