Let’s first recall this famous interview with Pope Francis on the airplane when returning to Rome from World Youth Day in Brazil:
Holy Father, during this visit too, you have frequently spoken of mercy. With regard to the reception of the sacraments by the divorced and remarried, is there the possibility of a change in the Church’s discipline? That these sacraments might be an opportunity to bring these people closer, rather than a barrier dividing them from the other faithful?
This is an issue which frequently comes up. Mercy is something much larger than the one case you raised. I believe that this is the season of mercy. This new era we have entered, and the many problems in the Church – like the poor witness given by some priests, problems of corruption in the Church, the problem of clericalism for example – have left so many people hurt, left so much hurt. The Church is a mother: she has to go out to heal those who are hurting, with mercy. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we have no other choice than this: first of all, to care for those who are hurting. The Church is a mother, and she must travel this path of mercy. And find a form of mercy for all. When the prodigal son returned home, I don’t think his father told him: “You, sit down and listen: what did you do with the money?” No! He celebrated! Then, perhaps, when the son was ready to speak, he spoke. The Church has to do this, when there is someone… not only wait for them, but go out and find them! That is what mercy is. And I believe that this is a kairos: this time is a kairos of mercy. But John Paul II had the first intuition of this, when he began with Faustina Kowalska, the Divine Mercy… He had something, he had intuited that this was a need in our time. With reference to the issue of giving communion to persons in a second union (because those who are divorced can receive communion, there is no problem, but when they are in a second union, they can’t…), I believe that we need to look at this within the larger context of the entire pastoral care of marriage. And so it is a problem. But also – a parenthesis – the Orthodox have a different practice. They follow the theology of what they call oikonomia, and they give a second chance, they allow it. But I believe that this problem – and here I close the parenthesis – must be studied within the context of the pastoral care of marriage. And so, two things: first, one of the themes to be examined with the eight members of the Council of Cardinals with whom I will meet on 1-3 October is how to move forward in the pastoral care of marriage, and this problem will come up there. And a second thing: two weeks ago the Secretary of the Synod of Bishops met with me about the theme of the next Synod. It was an anthropological theme, but talking it over, going back and forth, we saw this anthropological theme: how does the faith help with one’s personal life-project, but in the family, and so pointing towards the pastoral care of marriage. We are moving towards a somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage. And this is a problem for everyone, because there are so many of them, no? For example, I will only mention one: Cardinal Quarracino, my predecessor, used to say that as far as he was concerned, half of all marriages are null. But why did he say this? Because people get married lacking maturity, they get married without realizing that it is a life-long commitment, they get married because society tells them they have to get married. And this is where the pastoral care of marriage also comes in. And then there is the legal problem of matrimonial nullity, this has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this. It is complex, the problem of the pastoral care of marriage. Thank you.
Please note: the Holy Father could have given a direct answer to a direct question and said: “There is no possibility of a change in the Church’s disipline”, and then he could have explained this discipline in terms of mercy. Instead, he offered the example of the Eastern Orthodox, who permit up to three “marriages” with no disciplinary sanctions. In response to the questioner’s clear suggestion that our longstanding Catholic discipline is unmerciful, the pope did not deny the premise, but instead responded “this is the season of mercy” – as though mercy were something new and unheard of in the Catholic Church until now. He furthermore suggests that “half of all marriages are null”, indicating that fully half of married Catholics are receiving communion while in a state of adultery anyway, so why arbitrarily exclude the divorced and remarried?
Fast forward to “Evangelii Gaudium”, and Pope Francis writes as follows:
“The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”
What does this suggest? Clearly, it suggests that barring anyone at all from the Eucharist is to “act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators” because, in the Church (and at the altar rail), “there is a place for everyone”. Furthermore Pope Francis declares that “If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another!”, and he specifically mentions the Eastern Orthodox in this context.
So, let’s not be naive about what the pope intends to impose at next year’s Synod on the Family. He wants to admit remarried divorcees to holy communion without annulment or repentance. There are other hints in “Evangelii Gaudium” about how this will be accomplished doctrinally, such as his statement that:
“The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).”
Keep in mind that, in this context, Pope Francis is specifically addressing pastors – those who are the legitimate guardians of the Eucharist, who must sometimes make precisely those kinds of judgments. “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” – John 20:23. The pope’s statement is all the more problematic in the context of evangelization – the very topic of this Apostolic Exhortation – for which the knowledge of human responsibility and culpability is not a matter of personal judgment but of divine revelation. But here’s the point: it will be argued at the Synod that exclusion from the Eucharist is a matter of personal moral culpability alone, which only God and the sinner himself are permitted to judge; and therefore, remarried divorcees should be admitted to the Eucharist unless they choose to exclude themselves.