Pope Francis's embracing of divorced Catholics still needs to overcome divine law

Pope Francis may want the Catholic Church to be more open to those Catholics who have divorced and remarried. But that doesn't mean those in what are called irregular marriages should expect to be able to have communion any time soon.

Francis urges better treatment for couples in irregular marriages and their children

Divorced Catholics who remarry, and their kids, should be treated better by the Church, Pope Francis said Wednesday. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

Pope Francis himself seems ready for the Catholic Church to be more welcoming towards divorced Catholics who have remarried. But his words alone don't necessarily mean remarried divorcees will be able to line up with other church-goers at mass and participate in communion, religious scholars say.

The Pope technically has authority to tweak the Church's teachings, but introducing a new interpretation of God's word can be tough.

"Once something is defined as divine law, you actually can't change the law," says Robert Berard, a professor at Halifax's Mount Saint Vincent University, and president of the Canadian chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

However, he says, it may be possible to change how the law is interpreted and Church practices.

"How do you treat people who, you know, perhaps find themselves on the wrong side of divine law?"

Mortal sin and communion bans

The Catholic Church considers marriage to be "indissoluble ... by any human power for any reason other than death," according to its catechism, posted to the Vatican's website. 

That rule is considered divine law because its roots trace back to Jesus's words, as recorded in the Biblewhen he said, "What God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

There's only one acceptable out aside from becoming a widower. The Church can grant a couple an annulment to end their union for a limited number of reasons, including forced marriage.

I wouldn't expect anything earth-shattering- Robert Berard, the Canadian chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars president

But while those with an annulment are  free to remarry, any Catholic who remarries following a divorce is considered to be living in mortal sin, Berard says.

They are prohibited from participating in the eucharist.

Many times, priests and their congregations would shun people in these so-called irregular marriages, says Berard.

It's a practice that's falling out of popular favour, and Pope Francis seems to want to advance that shift even further.

These couples and any of their children "always belong to the Church" and must not be treated as though they've been excommunicated, he said during a weekly audience Wednesday.

Setting the tone for Vatican meeting

His words sparked interest in whether the Church may finally do away with the ban on communion for remarried divorcees.

It's a move that German Cardinal Walter Kasper has been championing, albeit after divorcees undergo a hiatus for repentance. Some Catholics in this romantic arrangement hoped the ban would end last year after the Vatican held a meeting on family issues, known as a synod. Treatment of divorced and remarried couples was a hot-button issue on the bishops' agenda.

"Last year, there wasn't a lot of progress made," says John Dadosky, an associate professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Toronto's Jesuit School of Theology, Regis College. Some critics called the synod a "loss" for Francis's vision for the Church as the bishops kept to the more conservative interpretation on things like outreach to gay Catholics and contraception.

However, there is a second synod on family issues this October, which the Pope will attend. 

With his comments, Francis is likely "setting a tone" for those proceedings, says Dadosky. That tone, he says, is that the Church needs to make people feel included rather than push them away.

'Earth-shattering' changes unlikely

The bishops attending the synod will discuss how the Church treats people in irregular relationships, along with other family issues. They will look at practical questions, says Berard, like how to treat the children of these couples.

The Pope will write some form of authoritative statement based on these discussions to help clergy properly conduct themselves.

"I wouldn't expect anything Earth-shattering," Berard says, like offering these members the chance to participate in communion.

It's a very divisive issue for Catholics, he says.

Some couples in their second marriage have taken a vow of chastity to spare their children from the Church's condemnation. Church rules currently prohibit the children of couples in irregular marriages from being baptized.

Mind you, Berard says, this is enforced in a sporadic manner. Other divorced people have opted not to remarry. So changing the rules outright could make those individuals feel their sacrifices were for naught, he explains.

Pope's pastoral approach

As Berard sees it, the Church is likely to advance doctrine with small changes rather than alter it completely.

"I would not be surprised if there were a number of very practical steps to be more welcoming, more understanding," Berard says.

The synod could see a benefit to permitting baptisms for the children from these so-called irregular marriages, he says, or to simplifying the process for annulments, which can now take years to complete.

That's in line with Francis's reputation of wanting to bring alienated groups back under the Church's influence, says Regis College's Dadosky.

Francis already made what was called a "seismic shift" of the Church's stance on gays and lesbians, another group often maligned by the Church. A preliminary report halfway through the 2014 synod on the family said homosexual people could benefit the Church with their gifts.

However, that landmark welcome was scrapped by the end of the synod.

"To date, it hasn't cashed out into specific changes in Church teaching," Dadosky says. That's because some Catholic clergy don't believe the teaching can change to embrace the Pope's pastoral approach.

"It might ... but whether it will remains to be seen."

Still, the Pope's words and the anticipated small changes may be enough for some, Dadosky says.

"A lot of Catholics that may have felt alienated in the past are just feeling a sign of relief in many ways," he says, "that, you know, here's a guy saying ... 'You're welcome. You're welcome here.'"

With files from the Associated Press


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