Pope Francis has often expressed compassion for divorced Catholics who have remarried and feel cast off from the communion of believers who receive the holy Eucharist.
In his book On Heaven and Earth — translated into English this year — he sought to calm that sense of alienation: "Catholic doctrine reminds its divorced members who have remarried that they are not excommunicated — even though they live in a situation on the margin of what indissolubility of marriage and the sacrament of marriage require of them — and they are asked to integrate into the parish life."
More recently, the Pope’s remarks about offering "mercy" to estranged Catholics led some commentators to suggest that he might loosen Church norms that bar reception of the Eucharist to such Catholics unless their prior marriage was annulled. And news of a forthcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family raised hopes that Francis — who has repeatedly signaled his desire to heal the spiritual wounds that have driven many Catholics out of the Church — would address a critical pastoral issue that touches many lives.
On Oct. 23, such speculation about loosening norms was cut short when L’Osservatore Romano published a lengthy essay by Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), entitled, "On the Indissolubility of Marriage and the Debate Concerning the Civily Remarried and the Sacraments."
Archbishop Müller’s concise and clear re-statement of the theological foundations of Christian marriage offers a vision of permanent, fruitful and faithful love between a husband and wife, who are a sign for all of human history of the creative fire of Trinitarian love. It also offers a vision of Christ’s unstinting care for his Church — and thus a preparation for eternal life with God.
"Sacramental marriage is a testimony to the power of grace, which changes man and prepares the whole Church for the holy city, the new Jerusalem — the Church, which is prepared, ‘as a bride adorned for her husband,’" observed Archbishop Müller, gently but firmly. "By adapting to the spirit of the age, a weary prophet seeks his own salvation, but not the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ."
However, his elucidation of Church teaching was accompanied by a frank acknowledgement that many cradle Catholics who participate in a Church wedding know little of sacramental theology and have been formed instead by modern notions of marital love as a human contract that necessarily requires an escape hatch.
The CDF prefect suggested that this state of affairs increases the likelihood that marriages blessed by the Church may not be valid, and that reality might influence judgments made by Church marriage tribunals.
But he also takes note of an attendant truth: The desire for a faithful, permanent union is "built into the order of creation," and, consequently, "opinion surveys among young people" reveal their continued longing for a "stable, lasting relationship, in keeping with the spiritual and moral nature of the human person." When spouses commit themselves to a permanent union, they and their children are protected from the "tyranny of feelings and moods" and the "devastating impact" of divorce.
Still, many of the faithful continue to question: How can the Church offer mercy and reconciliation yet bar so many Catholics from receiving the Eucharist?
The Church, said Archbishop Müller, has already provided a process by which Catholics may submit the validity of their marriage for objective review by marriage tribunals. But he warned against the temptation to isolate and dismiss difficult teachings from a comprehensive vision of "sacramental economy," which is itself a "work of Divine Mercy … [and] cannot simply be swept aside by an appeal to the same."
The "mystery of God resists human efforts to place his mercy in opposition to his justice or to give it prior claim," the archbishop said. "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 mystery of God includes not only his mercy, but also his holiness and his justice."
"If one were to suppress these characteristics of God and refuse to take sin seriously, ultimately, it would not even be possible to bring God’s mercy to man," he explained.
The challenging truth is that God’s mercy does not dispense struggling Catholics "from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather, it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfill them," Archbishop Müller affirms. And Catholics in difficult marriages may find that the greatest act of faith they will make is a belief that the sacrament will overcome their own human limitations.
Yet the Church’s responsibility does not end with a staunch defense of the indissolubility of marriage. Archbishop Müller reminds all pastors and the faithful that the "care of remarried divorcees must not be reduced to the question of receiving the Eucharist," he noted.
Archbishop Müller emphasizes that, for all of us, "there are other ways, apart from sacramental Communion, of being in fellowship with God."
We are called to look for opportunities, in our relationships with divorced and remarried Catholics, that "make them aware of the love of the Good Shepherd." And we must share, through actions and prayer, in his great hope that they return, one day, to full communion with the Church.