Pope Francis softens communion ban for divorcees, shifts tone on Family

(Associated Press)

VATICAN CITY (AP/WCMH) – Pope Francis insisted that individual conscience be the guiding principle for Catholics negotiating the complexities of sex, marriage and family life in a major document released Friday that rejects the emphasis on black and white rules for the faithful.

In the 256-page document “The Joy of Love,” Francis makes no change in church doctrine.

But in selectively citing his predecessors and emphasizing his own teachings, Francis makes clear that he wants nothing short of a revolution in the way priests accompany Catholics, saying the church must no longer sit in judgment and “throw stones” against those who fail to live up to the Gospel’s ideals of marriage and family life.

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” he wrote. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.”

On thorny issues such as contraception, Francis stressed that a couple’s individual conscience – not dogmatic rules imposed across the board – must guide their decisions and the church’s pastoral practice.

“We have been called to form consciences, not replace to them,” he said.

He insisted the church’s aim is to reintegrate and welcome all its members. He called for a new language to help Catholic families cope with today’s problems. And he said pastors must take into account mitigating factors – fear, ignorance, habits and duress – in counseling Catholics who simply aren’t perfect.

“It can no longer simply be said that all those in any irregular situations are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace,” he wrote. Even those in an “objective situation of sin” can be in a state of grace, and can even be more pleasing to God by trying to improve, he said.

The document’s release marks the culmination of a divisive two-year consultation of ordinary Catholics and the church hierarchy that Francis initiated in hopes of understanding the problems facing Catholic families today and providing them with better pastoral care.

The most divisive issue that arose was whether Francis would loosen the Vatican’s strict position on whether Catholics who divorce and remarry can receive Communion. Church teaching holds that unless these Catholics receive an annulment, or a church decree that their first marriage was invalid, they are committing adultery and cannot receive Communion.

Conservatives had insisted that the rules were fixed and that there was no way around Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Progressives had sought wiggle room to balance doctrine with mercy and look at each couple on a case-by-case basis, accompanying them on a path of reconciliation that could lead to them eventually receiving the sacraments.

Francis took a unilateral step last year in changing church law to make it easier to get an annulment. On Friday, he said the rigorous response proposed by the conservatives was inconsistent with Jesus’ message of mercy.

“By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God,” he said. “Let us remember that a small step in the midst of great human limitations can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.”

Local Catholics are reacting to the Pope’s proclamation

Keith Luscher is the founder of Separated and Divorced Catholics of Columbus and Central Ohio.

“This is the time when they need the Church the most,” he says.

“There’s the misconception that as soon as I’m divorced, I’m excommunicated or just because I’m divorced, I can’t receive communion. Neither of those statements are true,” he says.

Luscher has been working with the group for the last year and a half. He says hundreds of local divorced Catholics have been though the 12-week program.

“The message of mercy is pretty simple,” he says.

Now, thanks to a new message from Pope Francis, reaching divorced Catholics might be even easier.

“They’re Christians, they’re part of our community and we need to integrate them. We need to bring them back,” says Dr. Michael Fagge, Assistant Professor of Theology at Ohio Dominican University.

Fagge says Pope Francis isn’t relaxing restrictions on marriage and divorce, but he is trying to re-integrate all members of the Catholic Faithful.

Fagge says the Pope is also trying to make annulments more attainable to those who truly need them.

Luscher says divorce should be hard, that marriage is meant to last. But he says it’s important that divorced Catholics know, the Church is still behind them.

“When a marriage is invalid or a marriage fails it does create some greater challenges, but those challenges can also become greater opportunities,” he says.

Fagge and Luscher agree, it’s not divorce that causes a problem with receiving the sacrament in the Catholic Church, it’s re-marriage when the Church hasn’t declared that first one annulled or invalid.

If you’d like to learn more about the Separated & Divorced Catholics group, the next session begins May 3 at St. Catherine Parish on S. Gould Street. You can also check out the group online. 

Francis didn’t endorse the “penitential path” of bringing such civilly remarried Catholics to Communion that was advocated by leading progressives such as Cardinal Walter Kasper. But he repeated what the synod had endorsed of the need for pastors to help individual Catholics over the course of spiritual direction to ascertain what God is asking of them.

And he went further by explicitly linking such discussions of conscience with having access to the sacraments.

In footnotes, Francis cited his previous document “The Joy of the Gospel” in saying that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

In many ways the document is significant for what it doesn’t say.

While Francis frequently cited John Paul, whose papacy was characterized by a hardline insistence on doctrine and sexual morals, he did so selectively. Francis referenced certain parts of John Paul’s 1981 “Familius Consortio,” the guiding Vatican document on family life until Friday, but he omitted any reference to its most divisive paragraph 83, which explicitly forbids the sacraments for the divorced and civilly remarried.

In fact, Francis went further than mere omission and squarely rejected John Paul’s call in that document for people in civil second marriages to live as brother and sister, abstaining from sex so they can still receive the sacraments. In a footnote, Francis said that many people offered such a solution by the church “point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of children suffer.”

Similarly, in discussing the need for “responsible parenthood” and regulating the number of children, Francis made no mention of the church’s opposition to artificial contraception. He squarely rejected abortion as “horrendous” and he cited the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which deals with the issue.

But Francis made no mention of the “unlawful birth control methods” rejected in “Humanae Vitae.” Instead he focused on the need for couples in their conscience to make decisions about their family size.

Citing the Vatican II document “Gaudium et Spes” Francis said: “Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. … The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.”

Francis made a single reference to church-sanctioned family planning method of abstaining from sex during a woman’s fertile time. He said only that such practices are to be “promoted” – not that other methods are forbidden – and he insisted on the need for children to receive sex education, albeit without focusing on “safe sex.”

Gays will likely be disappointed by the documents’ failure to offer anything significant beyond existing church teaching that gays are not to be discriminated against and are to be welcomed into the church with respect and dignity. It resoundingly rejects gay marriage and repeats the church’s position that same-sex unions can in no way be equivalent to marriage between man and wife.

But women will find much to appreciate in the document. Francis condemns at length the “verbal, physical and sexual violence” many women endure in marriages, rejects “sexual submission” and the “reprehensible” practice of genital mutilation. And he says the belief that feminism is to blame for the crisis in families today is completely invalid.

There are options for Divorced Catholics in the central Ohio community. Separated & Divorced Catholics of Columbus & Central Ohio offers a 12 week Catholic Divorce Survival Guide. If you’d like to learn more about the group click here: http://divorcedcatholiccolumbus.org/

What others are clicking on:

NBC4i.com provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s