POPE Francis has indicated that Roman Catholics who have married again after divorce might be able to receive communion in certain circumstances.
In a long-awaited document on the family, the Pope balances a respect for the Church’s traditional teaching on sexual morality with the need for mercy for people whose lives are considered somehow imperfect.
Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), published last Friday, is a 264-page apostolic exhortation produced in response to the two Synods on the Family that took place in Rome in 2014 and 2015.
In it, Pope Francis states that priests must consider each case of divorce and any subsequent marriage on its own merits when one of the parties seeks closer union with the Church. His argument is that it is possible for a person caught in an irregular situation to be nevertheless in a state of grace in which he or she “can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end”.
In a footnote, Pope Francis adds that such help could include recourse to the sacraments of confession and also the eucharist, which he describes as “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.
He goes on: “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. They are not excommunicated and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community. . .
“These situations require careful discernment and respectful accompaniment,” the Pope says. “What we are speaking of is a process . . . which guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God.”
The work of the priest is, in conversation, to form a correct judgement on what might hinder re-admission to the eucharist.
“For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion, and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.
“These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant exceptions, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours.”
The RC catechism teaches that people who marry a second time while a former spouse is still alive are committing adultery. But Pope Francis indicates in Amoris Laetitia that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same”.
The consciences of the couple, informed by the teachings of the Church and advice of their priests, would play a decisive part in any decisions reached on closer union, the Pope suggests.
The wide-ranging document explicitly upholds Roman Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, and there is no change on the subjects abortion, contraception, and pornography.
It also condemns the exploitation and abuse of women and children, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation. It criticises inappropriate sex education aimed at children.
Pope Francis laments a shift in the balance in some families. “A reversal of the roles of parents and children is unhealthy, since it hinders the proper process of development that children need to experience, and it denies them the love and guidance needed to mature,” he writes.
“In Western culture, the father figure is said to be symbolically absent, missing, or vanished. Manhood itself seems to be called into question,” he says.
“In our day, the problem no longer seems to be the overbearing presence of the father so much as his absence, his not being there.”
Lack of housing and secure job opportunities in some countries encourages young people to cohabit rather than marry, he says, while modern fixations on social media are harming relationships within families.
Family breakdown, plunging birth rates, and rising numbers of elderly people in need of care are fuelling demands for euthanasia.
On the topic of same-sex marriage, the Pope refers back to the two synods on the family.
“The synod fathers observed that ‘as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.’
“It is unacceptable ‘that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.”
The document disappointed the human-rights activist Peter Tatchell. “The Pope promised reform but has reconfirmed traditional Catholic doctrine on same-sex relationships.
“Gentler words do not assuage Vatican opposition to gay equality. . . The harsh, homophobic Catholic catechism remains in force.”
The exhortation is divided into nine chapters, often switching from theological reflections to a consideration of practical challenges facing the family, and how the Church might respond pastorally.
Much of the document is positive, especially about the place and meaning of virginity, celibacy, and marriage itself.
In a chapter dedicated to “Love in Marriage”, Pope Francis described “the erotic dimension of love” as “a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses”.
Large sections look at the vocation of the family, and the preparation of young people for marriage.
The topic of those married for a second time occupies most of one chapter. Same-sex marriage is given two paragraphs.