ROME — Those who are in irregular marital situations cannot receive holy Communion but are still part of the Christian faithful and “must feel at home” in Catholic churches, a leading Italian bishop has said.

Bishop Nunzio Galantino of Cassano all’Jonio told a national liturgical gathering of the Center of Liturgical Action Aug. 27 in Orvieto, Italy, that Communion is “the sacramental act that excellently expresses the union with Christ and the Church.”

The bishop, who serves as secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference, noted Catholic teaching: that those in “an irregular marital situation” cannot receive Communion “because of their condition.”

He discussed how people in irregular relationships can feel this discipline is “very severe, not inclusive,” and even “punitive” towards “the difficulties of marital life” or towards their choice to break up a relationship.

“Often, many people perceive the Church’s attitude as more severe than what it actually is, since they feel the fact that they are not admitted to sacraments is an exclusion from ecclesiastical life,” the bishop said.

He said that Catholics should recognize that some of the faithful are excessively harsh towards those in irregular relationships, and they erroneously see the Church’s discipline “as an exclusion of their brothers and sisters.” He said that some Catholics look at people in irregular relationships “with a glance full of prejudice, as if their faith and their belonging to the Church was compromised.

“In addition to the burden of their non-admission to the sacraments, there is an unjustified de facto discrimination towards them, as an added price to pay.”

“Even these people are Christian faithful, so they are part of the Church and, in the Eucharistic assembly they are and they must feel at home,” the bishop said.

One page of the bishop’s 16-page speech addressed those in irregular marital relationships who cannot receive Communion. His broader remarks dealt with nurturing “a culture of mercy” in many areas for immigrants, the disabled and the poor.

Bishop Galantino said that current pastoral guidelines do not put in discussion Church doctrine and discipline that instruct those in irregular marital relationships to refrain from Communion. Rather, they reaffirm the Church membership of those in irregular relationships and suggest for them “paths of ecclesial life” and liturgical participation even though they cannot receive Communion.

Bishop Galantino has caused controversy with some of his previous remarks.

In a May interview, he appeared to denigrate pro-life witness outside of abortion clinics, saying, “I don’t identify with the expressionless person who stands outside the abortion clinic reciting his Rosary, but with young people, who are still against this practice, but are instead fighting for quality of life, their health, their right to work.”

The bishop was criticized for his claim that Catholics “have concentrated too much on abortion and euthanasia.” He also attracted criticism for his statement that he hoped the Catholic Church in Italy will be “able to listen without any taboo to the arguments in favor of married priests, the Eucharist for the divorced and homosexuality.”