Parsing the words of Pope Francis is a notoriously hazardous undertaking, as he tends sometimes to say things that seem almost deliberately open to multiple interpretations — remember “Who am I to judge?” — and then play his cards close to the vest in terms of what policy implications, if any, may ensue.
That’s a caution worth reiterating as his words at Wednesday’s general audience on divorced and remarried Catholics make the rounds. The bottom line is that while what the pope said was interesting, it didn’t signal any specific policy choice.
At the moment, the Catholic Church is gripped by a debate over whether Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church ought to be allowed to receive Communion. That was the hot-button issue at last October’s Synod of Bishops on the family, and it will be front and center again at a follow-up synod this October.
Currently, Church rules bar the divorced and remarried from Communion. One wing of Catholicism, up to and including several cardinals, supports flexibility in inviting such people to the sacrament on a case-by-case basis. That view was summed up by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich last October as, “Not for everyone, and not for no one.”
Another wing, also including several cardinals, believes such a move would be a betrayal of traditional teaching on the permanence of marriage.
Although there are no hard figures for the number of such Catholics worldwide, they form a pool estimated at 4.5 million people in the United States alone. As a result, this is an issue that isn’t merely symbolic, but packs real-world pastoral significance.
In that context, anything the pope says on the subject is bound to generate reaction. On Wednesday, he took it up in a brief 660-word reflection, the gist of which was to call the Church to greater compassion for people in this situation.
Francis said from the outset that marrying outside the Church after a divorce “contradicts the Christian sacrament.” At the same time, he insisted that such people remain part of the Church — they are not “excommunicated,” he said — and need to be cared for, in part for the sake of their children.
“If we look at these new unions through the eyes of small children … we see even more the urgency of developing in our communities a real welcome towards people who live in these situations,” the pope said.
The welfare of the children seemed the pope’s paramount concern.
“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,” Francis asked, “if we keep them at arm’s length from the community as if they were excommunicated?”
Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, Francis said there are no “simple recipes” for the right way to embrace the divorced and remarried, but nevertheless said it has to be done.
Francis also insisted on the need for “discernment” in individual cases, citing the difference between someone who “suffered” the break-up of a marriage versus someone who “provoked” it.
He pointed to the need “to demonstrate openly and coherently the disposition of the community to welcome and encourage” the divorced and remarried, “so they can live and develop ever more their belonging to Christ and to the Church with prayer, listening to the Word of God, attendance at the liturgy, the Christian education of their children, charity and service to the poor, [and] a commitment to justice and peace.”
So what does that mean for the Communion debate?
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. That’s an especially tempting conclusion in light of his emphasis on discernment in different situations.
Just as easily, however, one could read his language as a way of preparing people hoping for such a change for disappointment. Francis could be saying, “Even if we don’t budge on the Communion ban, that doesn’t mean we’re abandoning you.”
It’s notable that Francis explicitly said that remarriage after divorce “contradicts” the sacrament. Moreover, in ticking off ways in which divorced and remarried believers can still be part of the Church — through prayer, attending liturgies, etc. — Francis didn’t say anything about Communion.
Bottom line: Both sides could read what Francis said Wednesday and feel encouraged, but neither can claim a papal endorsement.
In the end, perhaps that was the point.
Perhaps what Francis really wanted to say is that whatever he does about the Communion question after October, no one should pretend that the hard work of outreach and reconciliation with divorced and remarried Catholics will be finished.