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  • John Thavis

Communion for divorced Catholics returns as emblematic synod issue

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

Bishops attending the Synod of Bishops on the Family are returning to the issue that has always been the lightning rod of this and last year’s assemblies: whether a new path can be found to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

We’ve heard cautions (from bishops and Pope Francis) about over-focusing on this question, as if there aren’t a hundred other important matters affecting modern families. Yet in many ways it encapsulates a key theme of this synod and the pontificate of Francis: reaching out in a spirit of mercy to those who are suffering, who have fallen or who feel alienated from the church’s doctrinal rules, and recognizing that the Eucharist is a healing sacrament and not a reward for the perfect.

The essential problem, it should be noted, is that Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment of their first marriage are required by the church to live “as brother and sister” (no sexual relations) in their second marriage in order to receive absolution in Confession and Holy Communion. Many see that as an unrealistic requirement and an undue burden on a marriage.

At today’s briefing, reporters were told that many of the short speeches over the last day or two have explored this issue from a variety of directions. Some have returned to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s suggestion last year of a “penitential path” for divorced Catholics, which would allow local pastors to guide a person or a couple through a process of reflection and examination of conscience, culminating in absolution for sins and reception of Communion.

Some bishops have emphasized that such an approach should be personalized, and should not simply be made available on a general basis. Some believe any change in policy would cause confusion about the church’s teachings on marriage, while others said that if the church truly follows the teaching of Jesus it cannot permanently exclude a set of people from the sacraments.

Clearly, many synod participants are still not on board with the entire idea of creating a new path to Communion. At today’s briefing, for example, Bishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, said the bishops of Poland have excluded the idea of Communion for divorced Catholics. He said there were many other ways in which such Catholics can participate in the life of the church. That has been a common refrain in other synod speeches.

On the other hand, Mexican Archbishop Carlos Aguilar Retes, who also spoke to journalists, seemed more open to the penitential proposal, saying it would lead those Catholics to recognize their past mistakes and “begin a new path.”

Those in favor of the proposal often cite the painful spiritual side of the church’s current policy. One bishop took the floor and, in what was described as an emotionally charged moment, told how a child making his first Communion took the host and broke off a piece to give to his father who, because he was divorced, could not receive it directly.

Archbishop Retes also made an important point when he said it was not up to the synod to make any decisions regarding divorced Catholics – that will be up to the pope.

In fact, as this synodal assembly begins to wind down, one has the impression that it will be left to Pope Francis to provide closure on the important and most controversial questions. My impression is that this session may be advancing the discussion somewhat, but in large part it seems a replay of the different views on doctrine and pastoral mercy that were so evident at last year’s session.

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