For 18 months, since Pope Francis invited Cardinal Walter Kasper to address the February 2014 consistory of cardinals, the question of whether the divorced and civilly remarried can receive the sacraments has been front and centre. Every time the “Kasper proposal” has been rejected, Pope Francis has kept the discussion going, to the extent that it will now dominate the synod on the family to be held in October.
Francis did not express himself directly on the question during months of debate, leaving Catholics to speculate on what he thought. In his general audience on August 5 he addressed it head on. And what he did not say in his address might well indicate that he thinks Cardinal Kasper is right.
“Today I would like to focus our attention on another reality: how to take care of those that, following the irreversible failure of their marital bond, have undertaken a new union,” he said. “The Church is fully aware that such a situation is contrary to the Christian sacrament. However, her gaze as a teacher always draws from a mother’s heart; a heart which, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, always seeks the good and the salvation of persons. That is why she feels obliged, ‘for the sake of truth,’ to ‘exercise careful discernment of situations’. That is how St John Paul II expressed it in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (n 84), pointing out, for instance, the difference between one who has suffered the separation and one who has caused it. This discernment must be made.”
St John Paul wrote Familiaris Consortio after the 1980 synod on the family, which considered the question of the divorced and civilly remarried. John Paul clarified that those who are validly married to one person, but living a conjugal relationship with another person, cannot receive Holy Communion because they are in a continuing and public state of serious sin. If they do not desire to end that conjugal relationship, they cannot receive absolution in sacramental confession, for they lack the required purpose of amendment.
These points, along with an exhortation to closely accompany such couples and include them in the life of the Church, are made in Familiaris Consortio (n 84). To quote that passage only in relation to “careful discernment” and to omit John Paul’s specific answer to the question at hand is to invite the conclusion that Pope Francis does not agree with St John Paul’s teaching.
The Holy Father cited Familiaris consortio n 84, but did not mention that it was explicitly confirmed by Benedict XVI in Sacramentum Caritatis, the 2007 apostolic exhortation which followed the 2005 synod on the Eucharist.
“The synod of bishops confirmed the Church’s practice, based on Sacred Scripture, of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist,” wrote Benedict.
This second omission speaks loudly because Pope Francis did cite Benedict XVI at his general audience of August 5, ignoring Sacramentum Caritatis to quote instead from a speech in Milan.
“Pope Benedict XVI intervened on this question, soliciting careful discernment and wise pastoral support, knowing that ‘simple solutions’ do not exist,” Pope Francis said, quoting a June 2012 address to the World Meeting of Families.
In that same text Benedict said that such couples should “feel loved and accepted, to feel that they are not ‘excluded’ even though they cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist; they should see that, in this state too, they are fully a part of the Church. Perhaps, even if it is not possible to receive absolution in Confession, they can nevertheless have ongoing contact with a priest, with a spiritual guide.
“Even without ‘corporal’ reception of the sacrament, they can be spiritually united to Christ in his Body,” Benedict continued in Milan. “Bringing them to understand this is important: so that they find a way to live the life of faith based upon the Word of God and the communion of the Church, and that they come to see their suffering as a gift to the Church, because it helps others by defending the stability of love and marriage.”
Both St John Paul and Benedict XVI spoke explicitly on the inadmissibility of the divorced and civilly remarried to the sacraments. Pope Francis quotes his predecessors raising the question, but does not quote their answer. The most plausible explanation is that he does not agree with it, even though the Holy Father has not said explicitly that the teaching of Familiaris Consortio, confirmed by Benedict XVI, is wrong. On August 5, though, he clearly gave that impression. Whether that impression is correct or incorrect will be the drama which preoccupies the synod.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (21/8/15).
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