Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’. And as the body of Christ the Church also needs to remain with, embrace and guide people in the different situations and circumstances of their lives, including situations which have tended to place them on the margins of the worshipping community. And especially when their choices have complicated their lives with the harmful consequences of sin. This has always been the Church’s way, as clearly expressed by the most recent three popes.
In recent years, media attention on the Church has focussed on certain issues, which, while they are important and need to be addressed, often the fuller truth about the Church’s mission and purpose in the world is lost amid the vagaries of the news cycle, selective quoting, and misleading sound bites taken out of context.
One of these is the Church’s pastoral response to divorce and remarriage. Causing controversy at the moment is the specific question of whether Church teaching on the reception of Holy Communion by a person whose marriage is not formally recognised by the Church is being changed, or should be changed, and how the Church’s teaching should be applied.
In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis addressed this issue by affirming the Church’s teaching on marriage, while also acknowledging complex situations where no one can be “pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for personal and pastoral discernment” (AL 298).
He has taken action to make the annulment process less burdensome, which would free a divorced person to potentially remarry (technically, their first sacramentally valid marriage) in the Church.
In a recent article on Patheos.com writer Deacon Jim Russell argues that what Pope Francis wants is…
“what Pope John Paul II asked us to do 35 years ago—accompany and integrate the divorced and remarried into parish life—regardless of whether they 1) are pursuing an annulment or 2) are in a position to worthily receive Communion”.
He notes that many couples are not spiritually ready to pursue either of these options and that Church needs to find new ways of engaging these couples in the life of the Church.
“It’s not enough to cite the ‘rules’ to a couple—hey, you need an annulment, or you need to stop having sex if you want Communion. Why? Because many such couples have not sufficiently come to conversion to actually, in conscience, desire to seek an annulment or to commit to perfect continence so they may receive Communion.”
Some Catholics are concerned that Amoris Laetitia ignores a need for clarity which is essential to avoid confusion about what the Church teaches and thus avoid leading people into sin (or deeper sin) and subsequently further damaging their lives and others’
They fear that by not further emphasising the doctrine on marriage and reiterating the Church’s traditional pastoral approach the document will mislead people and do them further spiritual harm.
Others welcome a greater commitment by the Church on focus on looking at ways to welcome and draw Catholics in so-called ‘irregular’ situations more fully into relationship with Christ and the life of the worshipping community, as Pope Francis and other bishops are urging.
The Church continues to recommend the annulment process for people whose marriages in the Church have resulted in a civil divorce.
But not every Catholic who is divorced will go through the process, or have an annulment granted.
Whatever our marital situation, we all remain valuable members of the worshipping community and require pastoral care suited to our specific needs so as to grow in relationship with Jesus andhis Church.
This is a sometimes painful conversation in the Church between people of good will, and an important one as it’s contributing to shaping the future direction of the Church that our children are growing up in. It also touches on the experience that many of us or our loved ones have lived, or are currently living.
About the author
Marilyn is the editor of CathFamily, a regular columnist for The Catholic Weekly, and blogs at marilynrodrigues.com