VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s head official on doctrinal matters has reaffirmed that Catholics in irregular marital unions after divorce cannot receive Communion, but he urged that this means it is “all the more imperative” to show “pastoral concern” for them.
“The path indicated by the Church is not easy for those concerned,” Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said of Catholics who have divorced and remarried civilly.
“Yet they should know and sense that the Church as a community of salvation accompanies them on their journey.”
Catholics in such unions who try to understand Catholic teaching and abstain from Communion “provide their own testimony to the indissolubility of marriage,” he said.
The archbishop wrote about the Catholic approach to remarried divorcees in an Oct. 23 article, "The Power of Grace," published in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. The English translation of the article can be read here.
The role of remarried divorcees in the Church has been a matter of recurring controversy.
On Oct. 7 in Germany, the Archdiocese of Freiburg’s office of pastoral care issued a document saying that divorced and remarried Catholics can receive holy Communion if they can show their first marriage cannot be re-entered, if they repent of their fault in a divorce and if they enter “a new moral responsibility” with their new spouse, Spiegel Online reports.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded quickly to the document, saying it is “in open opposition to the teachings of the Church.”
Archbishop Müller’s L’Osservatore Romano article did not address the Freiburg controversy directly. Its preface noted that the Catholic bishops will hold an extraordinary synod on the pastoral care of families in October 2014.
Drawing on the evidence of Scripture and of Church Tradition, the archbishop said that only a sacramental marriage between a baptized man and a baptized woman has the characteristic of “unconditional indissolubility.”
“Christian marriage is an effective sign of the covenant between Christ and the Church. Because it designates and communicates the grace of this covenant, marriage between the baptized is a sacrament,” Archbishop Müller wrote. Marriage is “not simply about the relationship of two people to God,” but a “reality of the Church”; and the Church may decide on its validity.
He noted that the Church Fathers and the Councils of the Church rejected state divorce laws as incompatible with Jesus’ teaching.
“The Church of the Fathers rejected divorce and remarriage, and did so out of obedience to the Gospel. On this question, the Fathers’ testimony is unanimous,” he said.
The Second Vatican Council in the 20th century also upheld the indissolubility of marriage “clearly and distinctly” in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes.
“Marriage is understood as an all-embracing communion of life and love, body and spirit, between a man and a woman who mutually give themselves and receive one another as persons,” the archbishop said. The indissolubility of marriage “becomes the image of God’s enduring love for his people and of Christ’s irrevocable fidelity to his Church.”
The archbishop noted that the Church has defended the indissolubility of Christian marriage “even at the cost of great sacrifice and suffering.” The schism of the Anglican Church came because the Pope’s obedience to Jesus “could not accommodate the demands of King Henry VIII for the dissolution of his marriage.”
Orthodox Christian Churches, he said, have allowed “a great many grounds for divorce” on the grounds of “pastoral leniency.” However, he was critical of the practice, saying it “cannot be reconciled with God’s will” and “represents an ecumenical problem that is not to be underestimated.”
The archbishop warned that the modern mentality is “largely opposed” to the Christian understanding of marriage, its indissolubility and its openness to children. This means contemporary marriages are “probably invalid more often than they were previously,” and so assessment of whether a previous marriage was valid is “important” and can help solve problems.
Archbishop Müller acknowledged that care for the divorced and remarried is a pastoral problem of “significant dimensions.” However, he said that care for remarried divorcees cannot be reduced to the reception of the Eucharist. Rather, they should be encouraged to turn to God.
“God can grant his closeness and his salvation to people on different paths, even if they find themselves in a contradictory life situation,” he said. “As recent documents of the magisterium have emphasized, pastors and Christian communities are called to welcome people in irregular situations openly and sincerely, to stand by them sympathetically and helpfully and to make them aware of the love of the Good Shepherd.”
He pointed to Blessed Pope John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio as an example of pastoral concern for remarried divorcees. Pope Benedict XVI also addressed their situation in his 2007 apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis.
Archbishop Müller also cited the October 2012 Synod of Bishops, whose concluding message addressed remarried divorcees.
“To all of them, we want to say that God’s love does not abandon anyone, that the Church loves them, too, that the Church is a house that welcomes all, that they remain members of the Church, even if they cannot receive sacramental absolution and the Eucharist,” the synod said. “May our Catholic communities welcome all who live in such situations and support those who are in the path of conversion and reconciliation.”