Christ with the Eucharist, Vicente Juan Masip, 16th century.

Christ with the Eucharist, Vicente Juan Masip, 16th century. Wikimedia Commons

Forget about clerical celibacy, contraception, same-sex marriage, and (of course) women priests. The threshold question on whether Pope Francis intends to make actual alterations in church doctrine will be divorce. Specifically, will Rome change its tune and let divorced and remarried Catholics take communion?

The German bishops want the answer to be yes. At their plenary assembly next month they are expected to approve guidelines permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to be readmitted to the sacraments in “justified individual cases.” It’s the kind of inclusionary pastoral move that Francis would seem to be in sympathy with, and some remarks he made to reporters on the papal plane last summer suggested that such is in fact the case.

But push back has come from The Vatican’s Big Dog for Doctrine, Cardinal-designate Gerhard Mueller, in an article last October that he said had the pope’s approval. And now, weighing in on Mueller’s side, comes Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the one American on Francis’ G-8 Council of Red Hats, in Vaticanista John Allen’s maiden article for the Boston Globe.

Saying he didn’t “see the pope as changing doctrine,” O’Malley said he didn’t “see any theological justification” for departing from Jesus’ own criticism of Jewish teaching on divorce. “The church needs to be faithful to the Gospel and to Christ’s teaching,” he said. “Sometimes that’s very difficult. We have to follow what Christ wants, and trust that what he asks of us is the best thing.”

It is worth noting, however, that the Eastern Orthodox do permit people to remarry twice, based on the Greek concept of oiconomia – a recognition that sometimes it’s necessary to interpret church law in a way that acknowledges the human condition. As the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America puts it:

The Church grants “ecclesiastical divorces” on the basis of the exception given by Christ to his general prohibition of the practice. The Church has frequently deplored the rise of divorce and generally sees divorce as a tragic failure. Yet, the Orthodox Church also recognizes that sometimes the spiritual well-being of Christians caught in a broken and essentially nonexistent marriage justifies a divorce, with the right of one or both of the partners to remarry.

It may also be noted that the issue of divorce has not been considered a bar to reunion between Rome and the Orthodox churches, and, indeed, that Rome has permitted the Orthodox approach to divorce to continue among its Eastern rite churches (just as it has permitted married priests). In other words, on the question of divorce, Pope Francis has the door of Orthodox exceptionalism open to him, should he want to walk through it.

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

6 Comments

  1. samuel Johnston

    In the ancient world banishment was considered as severe capitol punishment. Our local Protestantism has many faults, but the answer to how many times I must forgive my brother is still seventy times seven, assuming one cares what Jesus reportedly said.
    Catholic legalism, exclusivism, and just plain ugly raw abuse of power, as in this business of denying communion to divorced and remarried persons, is disgusting. I can see the Pope at the Last Judgment explaining to Jesus the fine points of breach of contract law, that justified closing the door of mercy to those who could not follow all the provisions of an agreement made while young and inexperienced, and which execution was dependent on the cooperation of another.
    Personally, I turn my back on the organization, but I know all too well how much the Church makes the weak and timid suffer.

  2. I assume the difficulty is with the Catholic church viewing marriage as a sacrament, which subsequently forces it to be treated differently. So divorce is no longer a sin like any other sin which would not prohibit the taking of communion. Instead, it is a more serious sin which separates sin and people into classes. I respect how the words of Jesus are treated in terms of when divorce is valid or allowed, but I see absolutely no New Testament teaching which supports withholding communion from any who would profess faith in Christ. Aside from the long history of the development of catholic theology, there is NO biblical support for withholding that which Jesus began to remember and honor his sacrifice.

  3. samuel Johnston

    Sacrament: “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”

    In my Protestant world only Baptism qualifies. I submit that none of the others can be traced to Jesus”(and even that was/is a general worldwide religious practice, which was in no way original or distinguished). “Christ” is pure invention of the Church. They admit as much when they make the appeal to “our tradition”, magical notions such as visions (only if they approve), the Holy Spirit (more approval needed), and other distractions from the facts.

    Here, in Shelby County Alabama, we have a foreign woman who shows up from year to year and claims to see and hear a vision of the Holy Virgin, who speaks messages. She always draws a crowd, and a while back our local Bishop was asked what he thought of her visions. He slipped up and spoke his thoughts. “As long as she doesn’t contradict Church doctrine” he replied. So the Virgin Mary better not contradict Church doctrine, or she is in trouble with the Bishop!
    How can anybody take this clowns seriously?

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