Divorce and remarriage: Why has Pope Francis chosen to leave one door open?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 08, 2016

I haven’t finished reading Pope Francis’ synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. It is a sweeping document, and I want to take my time with it. But I can suggest one very understandable reason for Pope Francis’ decision to emphasize a case-by-case approach to integrating the divorced and remarried into the full life of the Church.

Clearly Pope Francis wants the whole Church to focus on accompaniment and discernment in difficult situations. Just as clearly, the confusion of family ties engendered by divorce and remarriage presents one of the most difficult situations for everyone involved. The Catholic Church faces this difficult situation now on a massive scale.

In reflecting on this, we notice first that the Pope’s teaching on the nature of true Christian marriage, including its indissolubility, is quite clear. In fact he places this understanding at the center of authentic healing and renewal in society as a whole. But this raises an inevitable question. Why, then, is Pope Francis so reluctant to state categorically that absolution and a return to Communion are impossible for those who are divorced and remarried, without an annulment, unless the couple gives up their false union or, for the sake of children, lives together only as brother and sister?

There are three possible reasons for this reluctance:

  1. Pope Francis lacks the necessary courage, fearing a loss of popularity or further division within the Church.
  2. Pope Francis is aware of certain unusual cases in which absolution and a return to Communion would be permissible even though the false marital relationship cannot be resolved immediately in accordance with the moral law.
  3. Pope Francis simply does not want to discourage couples in these situation from approaching their priests and entering into a discussion which can facilitate much-needed understanding and spiritual growth.

The first possibility is fairly easy to dismiss. However one evaluates this Pope’s personal doctrinal and pastoral tendencies, neither his work in Argentina nor the overall treatment of marriage in Amoris Laetitia suggests any lack of courage. Jorge Bergoglio has defied a military regime at considerable personal risk. Moreover, in the apostolic exhortation itself, he is very clear on even more widely-contested issues, including contraception and same-sex marriage.

As for the second possibility (so strongly advocated at the synods on the family through the Kasper Proposal), the whole issue would be enormously clarified by giving examples of such cases. The only one I can imagine would involve the inability to end or alter a relationship without serious personal danger. If a woman were held in a relationship against her will, this might open up such a possibility. However, the complete failure of anyone to offer a concrete exculpating example over a period of several years of intense discussion suggests that the second possibility is not the answer either.

My Best Guess

This leaves us with the third possibility, which is the one I find to be most likely. Here we have a prudential judgment about the best conditions for effective Catholic ministry. This possibility balances a certain openness to ill-defined possibilities against the presumption that irregular couples should not even begin a conversation with a priest unless they are already prepared to make an enormous personal sacrifice. As in many pastoral decisions, this balance admits a trade-off between the benefits to the Church of perfect moral clarity and the desirability for those in irregular unions to actually sit down with their pastor and start talking things over. By this I mean discussing their hopes and fears, their conflicting desires and goals, their temptations and their love of God, their struggles, and the impact of everything on their families.

This is most likely to be the reason Pope Francis has chosen his approach. This motivation is consistent with both his insistence on the full Catholic teaching on marriage and his (presumably deliberate) murkiness about the benefits of entering upon a process of accompaniment and discernment. It is certainly possible for a pope to decide that the pastoral advantages of encouraging people to discuss their situations with the Church outweigh the pastoral disadvantages of diminished clarity about the relationship between pastoral practice and Catholic doctrine.

It is also possible for Catholics to disagree with this strategy. They may expect it to lead to widespread abuses which will actually weaken the Catholic understanding of marriage, despite the undeniably central role of marriage in Francis’ total presentation. In fact, as a matter of pastoral strategy, it would be possible for different popes to disagree about the wisdom of this strategy over time.

But it is just possible that we have here a key to the tension everyone has noticed in Amoris Laetitia. For the text does appear to permit this tension—perhaps even a dissonance—between the Pope’s vision of marriage and his vision of pastoral care for those who are divorced and remarried without annulment. Pope Francis obviously recognizes the human suffering in these unfortunate situations, the powerful emotions involved, and the heroic virtue it requires to resolve them. It may be helpful to recognize the Pope’s goal of bringing such couples into a conversation with the Church, as we consider the strengths and weaknesses of the approach he has decided to take.

For a more thorough assessment, see my later essay: The Controversy at the Heart of Amoris Laetitia.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: BlaiseA - Apr. 08, 2016 5:53 PM ET USA

    What is so sad to me is, this document (in the summaries I've read here, on EWTN site, and of course in the media) will only tend to confuse the 'average' (pew-sitting) Catholic even more. Then there are the Priests. Many of us experienced their attempts to "make the Church relevant" to the modern world! For example, wearing smoking jackets to replace their vestments in some cases!! God help us.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Apr. 08, 2016 4:46 PM ET USA

    Could agree with u Dr.Jeff, except for the Pope's tortured writing/reasoning. Y not something simple like: "divorced/remarried Catholics CAN'T receive the sacraments;but they are welcome/encouraged to attend Mass every holyday, to take Ashes on Wednesday, to seek the benefits of a good Lent, & to witness to the community that they r participating in Church life to the extent they r able." Without a 500 character limit, much better clarity could be achieved. Can't Francis do better with no limit?

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Apr. 08, 2016 4:30 PM ET USA

    The third option is what consumer protection watchdogs might call a "bait and switch". Pity the salesmen (priests) who have to tell customers (divorced and remarried) that the store doesn't actually sell that product as advertised by corporate (ahem), see, cause what they really need is this other product.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 08, 2016 4:16 PM ET USA

    After seeing the discussion on this topic on Fox and Friends this morning, I became convinced that most people are completely ignorant of the Church's teaching on Marriage. If that is so here, what is it like in the rest of the world that Pope Francis is trying to bring to Christ? It would ease my mind a bit more if I were convinced that the pastors he is trying to get people to talk to were likely to uphold Church teaching.