THE rule in the Roman Catholic Church which prevents divorcees
who marry again from receiving holy communion is "unduly harsh",
Ann Widdecombe has declared.
Miss Widdecombe, a former Conservative Party minister, has
entered the row over RC teaching on the indissolubility of
marriage, a day after a "mid-term report" from the extraordinary
synod on the family in Rome appeared to signify a softening in
attitudes among the bishops to the treatment of divorced,
homosexual, and cohabiting Roman Catholics (News,
The Catechism of the Catholic Churchteaches that the
faithful who divorce and marry again without an annulment are
living in a "situation of permanent and public adultery", and are
therefore disqualified from receiving communion.
But Miss Widdecombe, a former Anglican who joined the RC Church
in 1993, said that she was concerned that the teaching was causing
"huge distress" among growing numbers of Roman Catholics who
married for the second time.
Speaking to the Catholic Union of Great Britain in London on
Tuesday, she said that she expected "great generosity" from the
synod to those in irregular unions, without any significant shifts
"I am particularly concerned about divorced Catholics," she
said. "In some cases, their being barred from communion is causing
huge distress, and I do ask myself: 'Is divorce really much worse
than the many other sins which don't bar you from the communion
table; is it so much worse?'
"You can say that if you allow divorcees at communion you will
be condoning divorce. You allow thieves and murderers at communion,
but you are not condoning theft and murder.
"I think that one of the problems at the moment is that we
single out one sin - and it is a sin, and we can go on teaching
that it is a sin - as a complete bar to the fellowship of
communion, and I think that is unduly harsh."
Miss Widdecombe also said that she was in favour of the
relaxation of the rule that imposed celibacy on RC priests.
Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP for Gainsborough and the
incoming president of the Catholic Union, an organisation set up to
advise Parliament on matters of RC interest, said that marital
breakdown was at the heart of 90 per cent of the problems of people
who sought his advice at his surgery.
He said that it was vital that RC teaching on the
indissolubility of marriage was maintained, to prevent the "opening
of the floodgates" to further family breakdown.
The treatment of RCs married after divorce has divided the 184
bishops attending the synod, called by Pope Francis to discuss the
range of pastoral challenges to the family.
A synod document, the relatio post disceptationem
(report after discussion), which summarised the first weeks of
talks, reported that the bishops had concluded that those divorcees
who had not married again should draw strength from the regular
reception of holy communion.
But it called for further theological study on the bar to
communion to those who had remarried, also advising RCs to treat
such people respectfully, "avoiding any language or behaviour that
might make them feel discriminated against".
The document also suggest a change of approach towards the
issues of homosexual unions and cohabitation.
The "mid-term report" suggests that many of the bishops believe
that marriage breakdown, the rise of cohabitation, and the collapse
of the birth-rate in the West are all being exacerbated by economic
The bishops also blamed such factors for the high divorce rate
in many countries. "The number of divorces is growing, and it is
not rare to encounter cases in which decisions are taken solely on
the basis of economic factors," it said.
The emerging situation meant that the Church needed to
reappraise its attitude towards couples who were cohabiting, the
"When a union reaches a notable level of stability through a
public bond, is characterised by deep affection, responsibility
with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may
be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the
sacrament of marriage," the bishops reported.
The bishops said that although some people cohabited because
they rejected commitment, others were afflicted by such "material
poverty" that they viewed getting married as "a luxury" that was
The document showed no shift on RC teaching on contraception,
and it explicitly rejected same-sex marriage and the international
promotion of "gender ideology".
It recognised, however, the "gifts and qualities" that
homosexuals offered to Christian communities, and asked whether the
RC Church could value their "sexual orientation without
compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony. . .
"Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual
unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid
to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the
life of the partners," the document noted.
"Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children
who live with couples of the same sex, emphasising that the needs
and rights of the little ones must always be given priority."
After media suggestions that Roman Catholic teaching might
change, however, the synod secretariat issued a statement to
clarify that the report was a working document and not a statement
Media speculation had been fuelled partly by criticisms of the
document made by RC prelates themselves. Cardinal Raymond Burke,
Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, told the Catholic News Agency
on Monday that the relatio "is simply riven with very
serious difficulties, and I'm deeply, deeply concerned, and I'm not
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, later
issued a statement defending the report. "This account of the
discussions of the first week served to crystallise the hopes and
difficulties raised in that week. It is proving to be a stimulant
to very searching and creative discussions in the small language
group of which I am a member," he said.
"I appreciate the spirit of the report, which seeks to proclaim
and strengthen the pastoral care of the Church. The warmth and the
reach of the Church's pastoral care is crucial, even if not always
known or experienced."
He continued: "The report, obviously composed under pressure,
has easily given rise to some misinterpretation.
"Its nature has to be understood. It is not a doctrinal or
decisive document. It is, as stated in its Conclusion, 'intended to
raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be
matured and made clearer by reflection'.
"The process of this extraordinary synod is being conducted with
great openness. This report comes at the halfway stage. I know that
one of the deepest desires of the synod fathers is to blow a
trumpet for marriage and family as a central part of God's plan for
our happiness and fulfilment."
Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has proposed a change to Roman
Catholic teaching on communion for those who have divorced and
married again, said that he believed that a majority supported him
among the bishops attending the synod, and in the Roman Catholic
world in general.
He told the Vatican-based news agency Zenit that, in his native
country, Germany, a "great majority wants an opening about divorce
and remarriage. . . It's the same in Great Britain, it's
"When I speak to lay people - also old people who are married
for 50, 60 years - they never thought of divorce, but they see a
problem with their culture; and so every family has a problem
He went on: "The Pope also told me that [such problems exist]
also in his family, and he has looked at the laity and seen the
great majority are for a reasonable, responsible opening."