J.D. Flynn is editor in chief of Catholic News Agency and a canon lawyer.
A story has circulated around the Internet this week suggesting that Pope Francis telephoned Jacquelina Sabetta, an Argentine woman, to tell her that, despite being divorced and “remarried,” she could receive holy Communion.
The story began on Facebook, which is unsurprising, and then in the Argentine press; and the global media got interested when La Stampa, the Italian daily newspaper, began covering it.
The details of the story, like most things that begin with Facebook, are ambiguous. And it is unlikely that clarity will be forthcoming. But there are those who will use this story, however muddled, to buoy the simmering rumors that Pope Francis is on the verge of changing the Church’s teaching regarding divorce and remarriage.
I doubt that he is. The Church teaches that marriage is a lifelong commitment and that, as long as people are married, they aren’t free to engage in sexual relationships with other people. The Church’s norms regarding divorce and “remarriage,” the reception of Communion, even regarding the process for considering annulments, are all rooted in those very basic facts:. Marriage is for life, and it is an exclusive union. I may be wrong, but I doubt that Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome, intends to radically rewrite Catholic sacramental theology.
It may be that the Facebook account is confused or convoluted, that the facts are less clear-cut than they seem. Or, less likely, it may be that Pope Francis exercised the authority of the Petrine office in a direct and unusual way.
Another possibility is that Ms. Sabetta is living chastely, in accord with the teachings of the Church. It may be that she really is free to receive the Eucharist.
In the conversation about divorce and “remarriage,” we seem to forget that those who are divorced and “remarried” are not barred absolutely from the Eucharistic table. Instead, they are encouraged to live honestly. “Remarriages” following divorce are often the source of conversion and healing. Partners in these relationships may have children together and be called to parent together, to share life together and to support one another in old age. But unless a man and women are free to marry — unless they aren’t already committed to a lifelong bond — their relationships are not marriage.
Men and women who find themselves in “remarriages” are called, like all of us, to receive the Eucharist. But like all of us, they’re called to receive the Eucharist when they’ve committed to living in truth. To do so, they must live chastely, respecting the true nature of their relationship — and respecting the true nature of marriage. The Church’s job is to call men and women in “second marriages” to virtue and repentance — and to holiness.
In my position as a canon lawyer, I have had to do just that. And I have seen couples, hungering for the Eucharist, choose to live honestly, chastely, freely in accord with God’s plan. Their choice deserves recognition and support.
Pope Francis is a pastor, with a love for souls and a love for the Gospel. Because he is a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am certain that his words to Jacqueline Sabetta were compassionate and merciful. But because he is a disciple of Christ, I am also certain that Pope Francis’ words were the challenging, liberating and beautiful truth.