That Pope Francis is not going to change the discipline that denies Communion to divorced-remarried people is established by the long article Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, drafted for the Vatican daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

In the article, published on Oct. 22, Archbishop Müller reiterates that a Christian marriage is indissoluble and that this is not simply a pastoral question, but a doctrinal issue that involves the Church’s theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage.

There are also other key passages. Archbishop Müller stated that the Orthodox practice of allowing second or third marriages under certain circumstances “cannot be reconciled with God’s will.” He rejected that the individual conscience can be the final arbiter on whether a divorced and civily remarried Catholic can receive Communion. And responding to the argument that Christian mercy mandates allowing such Catholics reception of Communion, he asserted that “an objectively false appeal to mercy also runs the risk of trivializing the image of God by implying that God cannot do other than forgive.”

The article seems a clear corrective to those who recently praised the Church for, they said, finally being open to bringing Communion to divorced-remarried under Pope Francis’ pontificate. And it also serves as a correction to numerous newspaper headlines that have misrepresented the theme of the next Extraordinary Synod of Bishops — “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” — as meaning the 2014 synod will open the door to a new Church discipline on the matter.

In the end, given the widespread lack of clarity, there was the need of a final word by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Church has always faced the problem of divorced-remarried people.

In 1973, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith still admitted the probata praxis in foro interno, or reception of the sacraments through a decision “in the internal forum,” meaning a decision of conscience that was approved by one’s confessor. Reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics was fairly widespread in the United States and in some European countries at the time. 

Then, in 1981, came the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which applied a more rigorous discipline. But, in 1993, the German bishops of the Rhine region, including the theologians Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper — who are now both cardinals — expanded once again the possibility for divorced and remarried persons to receive Communion. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was then headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, called them back to obedience.

The congregation did not cease addressing the problem. In 1998, a paper signed by Cardinal Ratzinger was released. The document by the future Pope Benedict XVI was little known until Nov. 30, 2011, when L’Osservatore Romano republished it, supplemented with a footnote presenting Benedict XVI’s remarks on the issue to the clergy of the Diocese of Aosta on July 25, 2005.

The footnote is important, since it concerns one of the points on which Benedict XVI maintained that an exception might be opened to the general ban on Communion.

The innovations Benedict XVI considered were two: the possible expansion of the canonical recognition of the nullity of marriages celebrated “without faith” by at least one of the spouses, although baptized; and the possible recourse to a decision “in the internal forum” to receive Communion by a divorced and remarried Catholic if the lack of recognition of the nullity of his previous marriage (because of a verdict believed to be erroneous or because of the procedural impossibility of proving its nullity) were to contrast with the individual’s firm conviction of conscience that that marriage was objectively null.

These two “innovations” are also stated in Archbishop Müller’s article, which, in fact, reprises what was written in the 1998 Cardinal Ratzinger document. Both ideas continue to be explored as possible developments in the understanding of the nullity of marriages.


Reasons for Archbishop Müller’s Clarification

Why was this clarification needed?

On the way back from Brazil, Pope Francis held a Q&A press conference on the plane. Among the topics, there was that of divorced-remarried people, an issue, the Pope acknowledged, “that always comes back.”

Pope Francis clarified that “the divorced can receive Communion; it is the divorced in a second union who cannot.” And he explained that the issue must be examined “within the larger context of the entire pastoral care of marriage.”

Pope Francis spoke about the possibility of a second union allowed by the Orthodox, but he did not back it (and nor was it addressed by Archbishop Müller’s article or the Cardinal Ratzinger paper); and he quoted Cardinal Quarracino, his predecessor as bishop of Buenos Aires, who “used to say that, as far as he was concerned, half of all marriages are null … because people get married lacking maturity; they get married without realizing that it is a lifelong commitment; they get married because society tells them they have to get married.”

The problem of matrimonial nullity, Pope Francis added, “has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this.”

Pope Francis’ words gave rise to a lot of speculations about a possible change in the discipline of Communion for divorced-remarried people.

In the midst of speculations, a document from the Archdiocese of Freiburg was leaked. According to Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, administrator of the Archdiocese of Freiburg and president of the German bishops’ conference, the document was an unfinished working paper for the diocesan pastoral conference, meant to discuss the improvement of the pastoral care for the divorced-remarried. Archbishop Zollitsch maintained that the document was published without his permission.

The document would allow those who are divorced and remarried to have access to the sacraments without repentance involving a change of lifestyle. All they need to do, the document states, is have a few pastoral conversations, i.e. speak with a priest about the faith and the reasons their marriage broke down, in order to be allowed to receive Communion. The sacraments that, the document proposes, are open to them are Communion, confession, confirmation and the anointing of the sick. And, according to the document, divorced-remarrieds are allowed to be elected into a parish council, and they are offered a blessing for their second marriage.

Again, the wind of revolution came from Germany. In the media, the document was presented as an official statement, and it follows in the direction of the 1993 document of German theologians.

Although Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi subsequently noted that the document was not an official archdiocesan document and stressed that “nothing has changed in terms of the position of remarried divorcees,” the document grabbed the headlines and contributed to the confusion about the meaning of the next synod. In reality, the synod will address all of the “pastoral challenges” of the family and not focus on the issue of divorce and remarried Catholics, a side topic that has often been discussed during the synods.

This is why there was the need of a clarification signed by the prefect of the faith congregation.


Mercy Doesn’t Mean New Doctrine

It is “the season of mercy,” Pope Francis stressed on his way back from Rio, when replying to the question about reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics, which was posed by an Italian reporter specifically in the context of the Holy Father’s frequent references to mercy.

But, the Pope cautioned at the outset of his reply, “mercy is something much larger than the one case you raised.” 

Archbishop Müller’s article — almost certainly written with the blessing and the backing of Pope Francis — points out that mercy does not mean a change in principles and doctrine.

In his 1998 paper, a clear inspiration for Archbishop Müller’s article, Pope Benedict cautioned against  “watering down” in the name of mercy that revealed truth which is the indissolubility of marriage.

And he concluded: “Assuredly, the word of truth can be painful and uncomfortable. But it is the way to holiness, to peace and to inner freedom. A pastoral approach which truly wants to help the people concerned must always be grounded in the truth. In the end, only the truth can be pastoral. ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32).”

Andrea Gagliarducci writes from Rome.