The pope’s remarks earlier today seem to have caught some people by surprise.
In fact, he didn’t really say anything new. He reminded the world of what the Catholic Church teaches about divorce and remarriage and encouraged an attitude of mercy and welcome toward those in these circumstances.
Those who are curious can check out the USCCB web pageFor Your Marriage:
Some people believe that a Catholic who divorces is excommunicated. Not true! Divorced persons are full members of the Church and are encouraged to participate in its activities. The U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults says: “When divorce is the only possible recourse, the Church offers her support to those involved and encourages them to remain close to the Lord through frequent reception of the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist.” Read more about the Church’s teaching on divorce. Should a divorced Catholic wish to remarry in the Church he or she may need an annulment. Read more about the annulment process. Even if a Catholic has divorced and remarried civilly, the Church does not want them to be alienated. The Catechism of the Catholic Church urges attention to them, “so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons” (no. 1651).
The catechism, meantime, has this:
1648 It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love. Spouses who with God’s grace give this witness, often in very difficult conditions, deserve the gratitude and support of the ecclesial community. 1649Yet there are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons. In such cases the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart. The spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God and so are not free to contract a new union. In this difficult situation, the best solution would be, if possible, reconciliation. The Christian community is called to help these persons live out their situation in a Christian manner and in fidelity to their marriage bond which remains indissoluble.1650Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ – “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.1651Toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner, priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons:
They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace.
But what is excommunication, then? Glad you asked.
Again, from the catechism:
1463 Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law, except by the Pope, the bishop of the place or priests authorized by them. In danger of death any priest, even if deprived of faculties for hearing confessions, can absolve from every sin and excommunication.
One who has been excommunicated also cannot receive a Catholic funeral.
Catholic Answers has an extensive list of acts that incur excommunication,beginning with abortion:
In the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) eight other sins carry the penalty of automatic excommunication: apostasy, heresy, schism (CIC 1364:1), violating the sacred species (CIC 1367), physically attacking the pope (CIC 1370:1), sacramentally absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin (CIC 1378:1), consecrating a bishop without authorization (CIC 1382), and directly violating the seal of confession (1388:1). Apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith. Heresy is the obstinate doubt or denial, after baptism, of a defined Catholic doctrine. Schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or the refusal to be in communion with members of the Church who are in communion with him (CIC 751). Violation of the sacred species is the throwing away the consecrated species of Christ’s body or blood or the taking or retaining of them for a sacrilegious purpose (CIC 1367). Physically attacking the pope is self-explanatory, as are absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin and consecrating a bishop without authorization from the Vatican. A direct violation of the seal of confession is one in which both the penitent and the penitent’s sin can easily be determined by the confessor’s words or behavior. Again, the penalty of automatic excommunication does not apply if no one perceives the disclosure (CIC 1330). Automatic excommunication for abortion (CIC 1398) applies not only to the woman who has the abortion, but to “all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and [this] includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed” (Evangelium Vitae 62). No one is automatically excommunicated for any offense if, without any fault of his own, he was unaware that he was violating a law (CIC 1323:2) or that a penalty was attached to the law (CIC 1324:1:9). The same applies if one was a minor, had the imperfect use of reason, was forced through grave or relatively grave fear, was forced through serious inconvenience, or in certain other circumstances (CIC 1324).
Another clear resource on this topic (seriously) is here.