Shaw: Pope Francis opens door to Communion for divorced, civilly remarried, balanced with careful formation of conscience

Delighting some Catholics and dismaying others, Pope Francis in his new document on marriage opens the door to allowing some divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled to receive holy Communion. How widely the door is open and what the results of opening it will be are things no one, the pope included, can say with certainty.

His approach doesn’t do away with the present system in which Church courts, called tribunals, weigh marriage cases and issue decisions granting or withholding what are called declarations of nullity — from the start, there was no real marriage as the Church understands it.

That expression of the Church’s role as steward of the sacraments will continue. The approach in the new papal document is aimed at divorced and remarried Catholics who for whatever reason haven’t received an annulment but want approval for receiving Communion anyway.

Pope Francis offers an internal forum solution, to be applied by priests in light of Church teaching and unspecified “guidelines of the bishop.” Internal forum is a canonical-theological term referring to a private discernment, based on conscience and reached under the guidance of a spiritual adviser, that one may or may not do something — in this case, receive Communion while remaining in a second marriage without an annulment of the first.

How widely this approach will be adopted by divorced and remarried Catholics remains to be seen. Some highly motivated individuals may be interested but their number may not be large. Implementation is likely to range from very loose to very strict. And there is no telling what effect this shift toward private judgment may have on other moral issues.

The new papal document, an apostolic exhortation titled Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love") and subtitled "On Love in the Family," is Pope Francis’ response to two world synods of bishops on marriage and family life held in October 2014 and October 2015. The gatherings provoked sometimes contentious discussion both inside and outside the synods themselves. The leading proponent of Communion for the divorced and remarried was Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian and former Vatican official, but Pope Francis made it clear he is friendly to the idea.

But there’s a problem: how to square Communion for people in second marriages with the teaching of Christ — as in the 19th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel — that a valid marriage is indissoluble and remarriage after divorce in these circumstances is a kind of adultery?

Last October’s synod described a process of discernment by which a Catholic in this situation could be re-assimilated into the Church. The relevant sections received the largest number of no votes of any in the document, but got the two-thirds required to pass. Still, the document stopped short of saying these people should be allowed to receive Communion, leaving that to the pope. Now Francis has said yes — reception of Communion is possible in some cases.

In a way, this isn’t new. Pope St. John Paul II, in his 1981 document on marriage, Familiaris Consortio, also suggested that divorced Catholics in second marriages might receive Communion. But he set as a condition that they live in a brother-sister relationship with their second partners — one excluding marital intimacy, that is. Pope Francis mentions that but in effect dismisses it by quoting a Vatican Council II document which appears to criticize such an approach.

Some who welcome this new development see it as an act of mercy expressing the reality of the Church as an agent of divine mercy. Others see it as an exercise in sentimentality that separates pastoral practice from moral truth.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.