Pope Francis’ seemingly liberal view of divorced and remarried Catholics’ place in the modern church did not end up changing the church’s official position. The Pope’s post-synodal apostolic Exhortation on Love in the Family recognized a place in the church community for the divorced and remarried, but it did not provide for full reintegration to the sacraments of the church. In other words, it left in place the status quo.
The Pope held an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2014, and an Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2015, both of which focused on the family and evangelization. Differing views among church leaders from around the world emerged on the treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics. Some had hoped for an allowance of such patrons to be reintegrated to full participation in the sacraments, particularly Holy Communion. Others favored the traditional view that divorced Catholics had relinquished their rights to sacramental participation.
The Pope’s Exhortation, however, did not produce the changes some progressives had hoped for. Instead, he emphasized that the divorced and civilly remarried are not excommunicated from the church, and that they should be “more fully integrated into Christian communities . . . while avoiding any occasion of scandal.” He stated that this caring approach to those in this situation should not be viewed as a lessened belief in the indissolubility of marriage.
Pointing to the “immense variety of concrete situations” of divorced and remarried Catholics, the Pope declared that the Synod and the Exhortation could not provide a general rule to be applied to all. Rather, he said that each case could be handled through a “responsible personal and pastoral discernment.”
The practical version of the church’s restated view of marriage and divorce is that it cannot officially change its stance on the dissolubility of marriage, but it can tolerate local parish indifference to the divorce and civil remarriage of parishioners. Whether the views expressed by the Pope in his Exhortation have any effect on Catholic divorce rates remains to be seen. At a minimum, the Exhortation seems to signal some softening of the Church’s position on divorce and civil remarriage.
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