Offering a word of encouragement to Roman Catholics who have divorced and remarried without church approval, Pope Francis may urge compassion, though his words are far from final on the issue. Catholics, as well as other Christian denominations, are divided on the question of divorce and remarriage.
Speaking at a general audience Wednesday in the Vatican after a "staycation," Francis declared such remarried Catholics are not automatically removed from church membership, although the church's rules say such couples are not allowed to receive communion. The Catholic Church permits remarriage for those who first married in the church only after the original marriage has been annulled by a church tribunal.
"People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way," Francis said. "They always belong to the church."
The pontiff urged compassion, noting that children of these remarried couples are watching how the church treats such families.
"How can we recommend to parents to do everything they can to educate their children in Christian life, giving them an example of a convinced and practiced faith if we keep them at arm’s length from the community as if they were excommunicated?" he said, according to CruxNow.com,
Francis cited comments from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, Britain's Catholic Herald noted. Benedict called "for an attentive discernment and wise pastoral accompaniment" on the issue, the current pope said, "knowing that no 'simple recipes' exist."
The question of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion — a key sacrament of the church — is a continuing debate within the 1.2 billion-member church. An October meeting of the Catholic Church's Synod of Bishops is scheduled to discuss issues of the family, the National Catholic Reporter noted. Some Catholics in Germany are pressing for a liberalization of the communion rules in the face of declining church participation, the publication said.
"Pope Francis has called on bishops to exercise a wise and realistic pastoral discernment, and our own dialogue process has shown that access to the sacraments is a major issue for both lay Catholics and priests," Uwe Renz, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Germany, said.
CruxNow columnist John L. Allen said Francis' comments could be taken in two ways. "One could read the pope’s call for welcome and encouragement as an indirect boost for the reform position, a way of preparing Catholic opinion for an eventual change," Allen wrote. "Just as easily, however, one could read his language as a way of preparing people hoping for such a change for disappointment."
Other Christian denominations have also debated the question of permitting divorce and remarriage among their members. The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, a splinter group founded by dissidents in the Christian Reformed Church, forbids remarriage, even by a so-called "innocent party" whose spouse may have been unfaithful.
"The word of God proclaims marriage to be a lifelong bond between one man and one woman until death, and death only dissolves the bond," said PRCA theologian David J. Engelsma. "This truth is fundamental to home and family, as well as to the church, since in the church God saves families."
But theologian Gary M. Burge of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, disagrees. Writing in Christianity Today (paywall) Burge said the Apostle Paul, in his New Testament writings, sanctions remarriage for those deserted by an "unbelieving spouse" or who had divorced an adulterous spouse.
"Our God is a God of renewal and restoration," Burge wrote. "In some cases, this means restoring a marriage to its original partnership. In other cases — and I can think of many — it means that remarriage is an opportunity for renewal and new hope."