The painful situation of Catholics who are civilly divorced and remarried is a shadow in the life of the Church. It is bad for everyone: Married couples, children, parishes, dioceses, countries and the universal Church. Without imputing guilt, divorce and remarriage always represents a break down of essential goods and truths and results in heart wrenching pain. All of us have been touched in one way or another by the agony of divorce and all of us hate it.
The Church’s response has been the topic of debate since her inception and the words of her Divine Founder. Nevertheless, two principles have always been clear: love the persons involved and invite them to conversion. That is the simplest distillation of the Church’s pastoral response as found here, here, here, here, here, here and here. For those who prefer not to click the links, they reference Blessed John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris corsotio, 84; The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1641-1651; The Letter Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994; Benedict XVI, Meeting with Diocesan Clergy of Aosta, 2005; Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 29; Pope Francis, Interview Returning from Rio de Janeiro; Pope Francis, Interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, respectively. In each of these responses from the Bishop of Rome, the reply has always been the same: accompany people with love and invite them to conversion.
So what is the hoopla all about? Well, Pope Francis is unique to say the least. He has an almost unmatched gift for speaking with gestures. He has captured the world’s attention since day one: appearing in simple white cassock before over a hundred thousand on Saint Peter’s Basilica’s magnificent center loggia off the Aula delle Benedizioni, riding back with the Cardinals on the bus, wearing his old black shoes with his old black pants obvious under the white cassock, choosing to live in a hotel, paying for his own bill at the hotel he lodged at during the conclave, carrying his own bag onto the airplane for his first international trip, insisting upon simple cars when he is driven somewhere, owning a 1984 Renault as his personal vehicle, etc. Pope Francis is very obviously trying to send a message and it is working: power means service and the greatest must be the least and the servant of all. Pope Francis is prophetic not so much because he augurs the future but because he communicates God’s liberating truth in such a way that we are all shaken out of our listlessness.
This prophetic stance of the Pope has not only shaken up the status quo assumptions of how a Pope and Christians should act, but it has led to inevitable misunderstandings on the part of the media and popular culture. One unfortunate aftereffect of the misunderstandings has been the wild and irresponsible assumptions or hopes that the Pope will change the Church’s uninterrupted and perennial discipline of denying Holy Communion to those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin. (Cf. Canon 915) It was for this reason that the current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Müller wrote a detailed, scholarly and sensitive article in the “L’Osservatore Romano” entitled, “The Power of Grace.”
What did he say? In a nutshell, the Church is not at liberty to change the Gospel. Jesus taught only too clearly: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12) If someone obstinately persists in manifest grave sin, then to receive the Holy Eucharist would be an absolute split between one’s personal life and the Divine and ecclesial life received in Holy Communion.
To be fair, the Church has not helped herself on this particular issue on account of sporadic pastoral practice. There are many other ways to obstinately persist in manifest grave sin and consequently force the Church’s hand to do no other than refuse Holy Communion. What about all of the politicians who actively and unapologetically promote a holocaust of the unborn whose proportions are beyond comprehension and without historical precedent? What about those who choose to live together before marriage? What about those who trumpet their beliefs in the gay culture or who are publicly and unapologetically living a sexually active life with a person of the same sex? The list could go on but it is obvious for all to see that an unfair standard is held up before the divorced and remarried if we refuse to be consistent in our application of canon 915: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” We need to apply the Church’s discipline with love, sensitivity, courage and truth; something that Cardinal Bergoglio and the South American Bishops call “Eucharistic Coherence.” (cf. Aparecida Document)
Archbishop Müller’s article in L’Osservatore Romano was nothing else than a well articulated response to unfortunate manifestations of misplaced compassion which in the end help no one. Please read the article if you haven’t already; you will not be disappointed.
Love and Truth go together like the wings of a bird. They must exist together and work in harmony. When one claims to love without the truth they are in fact violating a person's inmost dignity and impeding an encounter with love. When someone insists upon the truth without love, they are sure to obfuscate the receiver's perception of the truth and hence halt any advance toward understanding. Truth without love is called callousness. Love without truth is nothing but sentimental mush devoid of healing power. The Church will continue, as it always has, down the royal road of charity in truth; accompanying sinners to the liberating truth of God’s mercy.