Francis’s marriage comments could be more significant than anything else he said on the plane

The Pope disembarks after returning from Rio (AP)

That press conference with journalists on the plane back from Rio contained the following words on the theme of sacraments for the divorced and remarried which may well be highly significant, and which have not attracted much comment.

The whole press conference is here in Italian and the words of particular interest are these: “I think this is the moment for mercy. The divorced may have access to the sacraments. The problem regards those who are in a second marriage … who cannot receive communion. But, in parenthesis, the Orthodox have a different praxis. They follow the theology of economy, and they give a second chance: they allow that.

“But I think that this problem – and here I close the parenthesis – should be studied within the framework of matrimonial pastoral care. One of the themes that the Council of Cardinals will consider in the meeting in … October is how to proceed in relation to matrimonial pastoral care. A few days ago I met with the secretary of the Synod of Bishops, for the theme of the next Synod and, speaking … we saw this anthropological theme: how faith helps in the planning of the person, in the family, and enters into the pastoral of matrimony. We are on the way towards a deeper matrimonial pastoral care. This is a problem for many people.”

This is far more revolutionary than anything the Holy Father had to say about the case of Mgr Ricca. It is interesting to note that something is already afoot with regard to those who are in second unions: the Pope has asked the Council of Cardinals to discuss it in October, and the Synod of Bishops is going to confront the issue as well, it seems.

A lot of people will be very pleased to hear this, but I would like to sound a note of caution. Here are a few points that come to mind at once.

Firstly, the mention of the Orthodox way. The Orthodox allow divorce and second marriages in church. This plainly contradicts what Our Blessed Lord has to say in the gospel, and is based on an at best doubtful reading of the “Matthean exception”, which is found at Matthew 5:31-32. The Catholic Church has never interpreted this verse of Matthew as a licence for divorce and remarriage, and to do so would represent the theological equivalent of a handbrake turn.

Secondly, it is important to emphasise, or so it seems to me, that those in second unions (please note the use of that term) are in a canonical difficulty, rather than a moral difficulty, for it may well be the case that the second union is the real union and the first one is invalid, though its nullity would have to be canonically determined. So this is a problem for the canonists, not the moralists. Yes, I know: I am a moralist, and this might look like a very convenient passing of the buck.

At present those who are in second unions are told they may not receive Holy Communion. But many people do regardless; as do many others who live in irregular unions. This second group – those who live together without being married to each other canonically, or even civilly – represent a significant group. I wonder if, in parts of Britain at least, the question has not moved on: the divorced and remarried may well be outnumbered nowadays by those who have never been married in the first place, or at least never been canonically married. In other words, the easy availability of divorce has in fact done what may once warned it would do – it has destroyed the institution of marriage. The real problem we face is in this: no one really wants to get married any more, or feels the need to get married. This is not the case everywhere, but in some places it is the case: cohabitation without the blessing of Church or State is the norm.

At present the current rules on marriage and second unions emphasise that the ‘first’ marriage is in fact the only marriage and that getting married is a very important indeed irrevocable step. We have held to this rule for many a year. I realise that it has caused much suffering to those in second unions, especially those who are ‘innocent’ parties. I would welcome a canonical solution to their situation. But not at any price.