*** DEBUG END ***

Widdecombe enters divorce row in RC Church

16 October 2014

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, 3 October).

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 in doctrine.

"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 factors.

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 report suggested.

"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 unobtainable.

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 of doctrine.

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 alone".

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 everywhere.

"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 nowadays."

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."


Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)