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CHURCH/ Communion for the remarried: Vatican opens door to reform via annulments

Church teaching on the Eucharist to Catholics who have remarried has been reaffirmed, but the door is opened to widening the grant of annulments. By AUSTEN IVEREIGH

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An important statement by the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, the CDF, has reaffirmed existing church teaching on not admitting to the Eucharist Catholics who have remarried without first annulling their marriage.

But in the article in the Vatican’s official newspaper, Osservatore Romano, Archbishop Gerhard Müller also opens the door to widening the grant of annulments in acknowledging that many couples nowadays enter marriage without a proper understanding of it as a permanent, binding union.

The 4,600-word article (English translation here), which was clearly written with the agreement of Pope Francis, has dampened speculation growing in some quarters that next year’s bishops’ synod on the family would agree to end the exclusion of the remarried from receiving Communion.

Shortly before that synod was announced, a German diocese had sought to implement its own new policy relaxing the ban — and was pulled up by the Vatican, which made clear that any changes needed to be agreed by the Church as a whole (see CV Comment here).

The issue came up frequently during the last pontificate. In 2007 Pope Benedict noted that the issue “represents a complex and troubling pastoral problem, a real scourge for contemporary society, and one which increasingly affects the Catholic community as well.” In 2012 he said ”the problem of divorced and remarried persons is one of the great sufferings of today’s Church” to which there were no “simple solutions.

At the October 2012 Synod on the New Evangelisation, many bishops said they were looking for better ways of upholding the permanence of marriage while at the same time enabling those whose marriages had not lasted to feel part of the Church. Some pointed out that the breakdown of marriage in western culture means that increasing numbers of Catholics are barred from the Eucharist while their children grow up in households where receiving Communion is not the norm, presenting obstacles to evangelisation.

Pope Francis told reporters on his plane back from Rio de Janeiro in July that the next synod’s exploration of a “deeper pastoral care of marriage” would include the question of divorced and remarried Catholics, adding that the area for reform was church law governing marriage annulments. Such problems, he said, showed a general need for forgiveness in the Church today, adding: ”The Church is a mother, and she must travel this path of mercy, and find a form of mercy for all,” the pope said.

Archbishop Müller’s letter clarifies that an appeal to God’s mercy doesn’t justify admitting the remarried to Communion. While acknowledging that a “case for the admission of remarried divorcees to the sacraments is argued in terms of mercy,” such an argument “misses the mark” in regard to the sacraments, since the “entire sacramental economy is a work of divine mercy and it cannot simply be swept aside by an appeal to the same.

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.”