Pope Francis has started a dialog among church leaders, revisiting divorce and other controversial issues in the Roman Catholic Church. While divorce is not the most controversial issue facing the church in modern society, it has been a source of distress for millions of Catholics who have been banned from receiving the sacrament of communion.
Pope Francis called on the church to adapt to “changing conditions of society,” according to USA Today, after the conference of bishops declined to accept a softened stance on homosexuality and divorce, USA Today reported in October. The conference of bishops met to discuss divorce and other issues of church doctrine.
The conference revealed rifts between more conservative and liberal church leaders. The meeting did not result in any changes in church doctrine on divorce, but an interim document they released included language that asked priests to avoid language that could discriminate against divorced Catholics; however, the more conciliatory language of the interim document was left out of the final version. Almost as a response to that document, at the beatification mass Pope Paul VI Pope Francis said, “God is not afraid of new things.”
The Guardian quotes liberal Catholic theologian Tina Beattie as saying, “The ground has been well-prepared for a shift on the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments. I don’t think this will involve any change in doctrine. It will be a pragmatic shift which will put pastoral practice before doctrinal rigidity.” Still, church conservatives may be ready to defeat any effort to loosen church doctrine.
Helen Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University and former spokesperson for the American bishops, is quoted by the New York Times as saying that the indissolubility of marriage is “key to the entire Roman Catholic cosmology — our understanding of the world, God, our relationship with him and our relationship to one another.” She also acknowledged that many Catholics may feel left out and lost as a result of church doctrine on divorce.
It is hard to get information about how the majority of divorced Catholics feel about how the church receives them. According to The New York Times, last year bishops surveyed the parishes, yet they reached only a fraction of divorced Catholics. Many divorced Catholics have left the Catholic Church to join Protestant churches. Others have simply left organized religion.
For Elio Cirimbelli, a divorced 66-year-old family counselor from Italy, Pope Francis has offered hope that he, and others like him, will be able to fully participate in the church in the not too distant future. Speaking about the conservative church leaders who rejected the Pope’s more accepting language, Cirimbelli said, “… they should maybe spend a bit less time behind their desks and more time among the people. Which is what the pope has done. Francis is not a pope, priest, bishop, cardinal of the curial palaces. He is the pope, priest, bishop and cardinal of the streets.”
Image: National Catholic Register