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Pope Francis: “The Divorced and Remarried Are Not Excommunicated”

General Audience Pope Francis 2 – 14 Ottobre 2014 Sabrina Fusco – en

© Sabrina Fusco / ALETEIA

Diane Montagna - published on 08/06/15

Understanding the Pope's words in light of the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI

VATICAN CITY — In his first weekly general audience after a summer break, Pope Francis called the Church to reflect on how she cares for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, but contrary to mainstream media reports, he did not propose anything new. 

Yet what he did say, and what he didn’t, seem to reveal his intention to leave open the debate on the most controversial issues to be discussed at the upcoming Synod on the Family.

Addressing pilgrims in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall on Wednesday, Pope Francis reaffirmed the Church’s teaching that divorce and civil remarriage “contradicts the Christian Sacrament” of marriage. But he equally sought to dispel the erroneous belief that divorced and remarried Catholics are irrevocably cut off from the Church.

“They are not excommunicated, and they absolutely should not be treated that way,” he said. “They are always part of the Church.”

Pope Francis therefore encouraged divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to pray, to listen to God’s Word, to attend Holy Mass, to form their children in the Catholic faith, and to be committed to charitable works and serving the poor.

The Pope based his remarks on what is arguably the most important text for understanding the Church’s stance on divorced and civilly remarried Catholics — paragraph 84 of Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. In this papal document written some 35 ago Pope St. John Paul II, following the 1980 Synod on the mission of Christian Family in the modern world, he said:

“I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life.”


But if one takes a closer look at Familiaris Consortio n. 84, one will notice that Pope Francis draws exclusively on the first part of the text, omitting the second part in which Pope St. John Paul II articulates the doctrinal and pastoral reasons why the Church does not allow Catholics who are divorced and remarried to receive the Holy Eucharist:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”


Pope St. John Paul II then explains in what instances divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can be reconciled with Christ and His Church.

“Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”


By acting in this way, Pope St. John Paul II concluded:

“The Church professes her own fidelity to Christ and to His truth. At the same time, she shows motherly concern for these children of hers, especially those who, through no fault of their own, have been abandoned by their legitimate partner.”


Pope Benedict XVI was equally concerned that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics not feel excluded from the life of the Church. At the 2012 World Meeting of Families, he called Catholic communities at the parish level “to do whatever is possible to help them to feel loved and accepted, to feel that they are not ‘excluded’ even though they cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist.” Those who are divorced and civilly remarried, he said, “should see that, in this state too, they are fully a part of the Church.”

During his catechesis, Pope Francis himself acknowledged his predecessors’ merciful approach to the divorced and remarried, saying: “In recent decades, the Church has been neither insensitive nor slow to act” in their regard. And he thanked “the many pastors who, guided by [his] Predecessors, have worked diligently to let these families know they are still a part of the Church.” 

“The biblical image of the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11-18) sums up the mission that Jesus received from the Father: that of giving his life for the sheep,” Francis said during Wednesday’s audience, quoting Evangelii Gaudium no. 47.



He added: “This attitude is also a model for the Church, who welcomes her children like a mother who gives her life for them. “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open.” No closed doors! No closed doors! “Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community … The Church … is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”

But interestingly, he omits the part in no. 47 that says: “Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason.”

This, observers say, show that he wishes to take a neutral stance ahead of the synod, neither supporting those who would like some remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion after a period of penance, nor giving his full backing to those who wish the Church’s current approach to remain the same.

Moreover, in calling priests to heed Pope John Paul II’s words to pastors to “exercise careful discernment,” between “those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave falut have destroyed a canonically valid marriage,” Pope Francis is saying he doesn’t want the divorced and remarried to be lumped into one category and cast aside.

But the spiritual welfare of the children of these second unions seems the Pope’s paramount concern.

“They are the ones who suffer most in these situations, he said. “How can we recommend to these parents to do their utmost to bring up their children in the Christian life, giving them the example of a convinced and practiced faith, if we keep them at arm’s length from the life of the community, as if they were excommunicated?”

Quoting Benedict XVI, Pope Francis acknowledged there are no “simple solutions” to accompanying divorced and remarried Catholics, but with his predecessors he called on pastors, and especially Christian families, to imitate the Good Shepherd and “collaborate with Him in taking care of wounded families, by accompanying them in the faith life of the community.”

For his predecessors, one of great challenges is helping divorced and remarried Catholics — for their benefit and that of their children — to feel loved and accepted by the Church, and to see that even the Church’s inability to grant them access to Holy Communion comes from a maternal heart that above all seeks their eternal salvation.

As Benedict XVI also said the 2012 World Meeting of Families: “Even without ‘corporal’ reception of the sacrament, they can be spiritually united to Christ in his Body. 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.”

Here below we publish a full translation of the Pope’s catechesis.

***

Dear brothers and sisters,

Good morning!

With this catechesis we resume our reflection on the family. Having spoken the last time about families wounded by a lack of understanding between spouses, today I would like to focus our attention on another reality: how to take care of those who have entered a new union following the irreversible failure of their marital bond.

The Church knows well that such a situation contradicts the Christian Sacrament. But her gaze as teacher always comes from the heart of a mother; a heart that, animated by the Holy Spirit, always seeks the good and salvation of persons. That is why she feels the duty, “for the sake of truth,” to “exercise careful discernment of situations.” St. John Paul II expressed himself thus in the Apostolic Exhortation

Familiaris consortio (n. 84), offering as an example the difference between someone who has suffered the separation and someone who has caused it. This discernment must be made.

If then we also look at these new bonds through the eyes of little children, — and little children do look — through the eyes of children, we see even more the urgency of developing in our communities a real welcome toward persons who live in these situations. It is therefore important that the community’s ways, its language and its attitudes are always attentive to persons, starting with little children.

They are the ones who suffer most in these situations. How can we recommend to these parents to do their utmost to bring up their children in the Christian life, giving them the example of a convinced and practiced faith, if we keep them at arm’s length from the life of the community, as if they were excommunicated? This must be done in a way that does not add additional burdens beyond those that the children already have to carry in these situations.

Unfortunately, the number of these children and youngsters is truly great. It is important that experience the Church as a mother attentive to everyone, always read to listen and come together.

The truth is that in recent decades, the Church has been neither insensitive nor slow to act. Thanks to the deepened understanding of pastors, guided and confirmed by my Predecessors, the awareness has greatly increased that a fraternal and attentive welcome is needed, in love and in truth, toward the baptized who have entered into a new partnership after the failure of a sacramental marriage. In fact, these people are not at all excommunicated, they are not excommunicated. And they should absolutely not be treated as such: they are always part of the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke about this issue, calling for a careful discernment and wise pastoral accompaniment, knowing that there are no “simple solutions.” (Address to the VII World Meeting of Families, Milan, June 2, 2012, n. 5).

Hence the repeated invitation of pastors to manifest openly and consistently the community’s readiness to welcome and encourage them, in order that they might increasingly live and develop their belonging to Christ and the Church through prayer, listening to the Word of God, attendance at liturgy, the Christian education of their children, charity and service to the poor, and a commitment to justice and peace.

The biblical image of the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11-18) sums up the mission that Jesus received from the Father: that of giving his life for the sheep. This attitude is also a model for the Church, who welcomes her children like a mother who gives her life for them. “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open.” No closed doors! No closed doors! “Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community … The Church … is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, n. 47).

At the same time, all Christians are called to imitate the Good Shepherd. Christian families above all can collaborate with Him in taking care of wounded families, by accompanying them in the faith life of the community. May everyone do his part in taking on the attitude of the Good Shepherd, who knows each one of his sheep and excludes no one from his infinite love.

Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.








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MarriagePope Francis
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