The ban on remarried divorcees receiving Holy Communion is “unduly harsh”, one of Britain’s most famous converts has declared.
Former Conservative Party minister Ann Widdecombe has entered the row over Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage just a day after a “mid-term report” at the synod of the Family in Rome appeared to signify a softening in attitudes among the bishops to the treatment of divorced, homosexual and cohabiting Catholics.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the faithful who divorce and remarry without an annulment are living in “situation of permanent and public adultery” and are disqualified from receiving the Blessed Sacrament because they cannot be in a “state of grace”.
But Miss Widdecombe, a former Anglican who joined the Catholic Church in 1993 in protest at the ordination of women as priests, said she was concerned the teaching was causing “huge distress” among growing numbers of Catholics who marry for the second time.
Speaking to the Catholic Union of Great Britain in London on Tuesday, she said she expected the synod to establish “great generosity” to those in irregular unions without any major 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?’.”
She added: “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 she was in favour of the relaxation of the rule imposing celibacy on Catholic priests.
Edward Leigh, the Tory MP for Gainsborough and incoming president of the Catholic Union, an organisation set up to advise Parliament on matters of Catholic 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 it was vital that Catholic teaching on indissolubility of marriage was maintained to prevent the “opening of the floodgates” to further family breakdown.
He warned Miss Widdecombe of succumbing to “wishy-washy liberal views”.
Miss Widdecombe made her comments at the end of the annual Craigmyle Lecture, which she gave in Trafalgar Hall, University of Notre Dame at Trafalgar Square, on the subject of religious freedom.
The treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics has divided the 184 bishops attending the synod, a two-week meeting called by Pope Francis to discuss the range of pastoral challenges to the family.
Asynod document called 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 remarried 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 have remarried, also advising Catholics to treat such people respectfully, and “avoiding any language or behaviour that might make them feel discriminated against”.
The document was also pastoral in its tone towards the issues of homosexual unions and the cohabitation.
The “mid-term report” reveals 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 synod will conclude on Sunday with the beatification of Pope Paul VI, the author of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical which forbade married couples from regulating their fertility with contraception.