Within the last 24 hours, two Italian cardinals have stepped into the fray over whether divorced and remarried Catholics ought to be able to receive Communion, with both coming down on the permissive side of the argument.

Whether that will be enough to overcome strong opposition to any change among some bishops, however, remains to be seen.

Under current Church rules, a Catholic who is divorced and remarried without an annulment — meaning a declaration that they were never married because their first union didn’t meet one of the tests in Church law for validity — cannot receive Communion.

In a Vatican briefing today, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio said that in cases of “urgency and necessity,” such Catholics ought to be readmitted.

Coccopalmerio offered a specific example of a woman who married a man who had been abandoned by his first wife, through no fault of his own, and left to care for three children. The woman who married him, and who is now helping to care for his children, is considered to be in an “irregular” situation.

“She cannot abandon that union or those children,” he said. “In these cases, we have to do something.”

Coccopalmerio, considered one of the top Church lawyers in Catholicism, is president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, more or less the Vatican’s equivalent of an attorney general’s office.

Individual cases of divorced and remarried Catholics, he said, could be examined “by a bishop or a group of bishops” in order to find a “positive solution.”

He invoked a story told by Jesus in the New Testament about someone falling into a well on the Sabbath, a day when work is forbidden, to explain his position.

“You can respond two ways,” Coccopalmerio said. “You could do nothing in order to respect the law, or you could act because it’s a case of necessity and urgency.”

“Does acting risk breaking the law of the Sabbath? Absolutely not, that law remains, but there are cases that force me to act.”

Also today, Italian Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi took roughly the same position in an interview in Corriere della Sera. Now 80 and retired, Tettamanzi is not taking part in the synod, but his comments will have an echo there.

During most of his almost 10-year run as the cardinal of Milan, from 2002 to 2011, Tettamanzi was considered a front-runner to be pope. Though something of an outlier – too progressive for the conservatives, too conservative for the progressives – Tettamanzi nevertheless remains an influential force.

In his interview today, Tettamanzi said he’d be open to Communion for the divorced and remarried under three conditions:

  • The sacraments are seen as “signs of the mercy of God”
  • Confusion is avoided about the indissolubility of marriage
  • The people are involved in Christian formation for adults

Such an approach, he said, would guarantee that allowing communion for divorced and remarried Catholics is “in the necessary context of the proclamation and witness of the Gospel.”

Though these statements might suggest growing strength for the reform position, two notes of caution are in order.

First, there remains strong opposition to any change to the current discipline excluding divorced and remarried Catholics from Communion, including some of the Vatican’s most senior personnel.

Speaking last night at a Crux event in Rome, Australian Cardinal George Pell, the pope’s finance czar and a member of his “G8” council of cardinal advisors, repeated his opposition to any relaxation of the rules.

“Some may wish Jesus might have been a little softer on divorce, but he wasn’t,” Pell said. “And I’m sticking with him.”

Second, it may be too early to know whether the majority stands in the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family.

Archbishop Paul-André Durocher of Gatineau in Quebec, Canada, said today that so far only those bishops in the synod who feel strongly about the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, either for or against the present rules, have spoken on it.

For most bishops this isn’t their top concern, Durocher said, which means there’s no way yet to know where the majority in the synod really stands.