The Catholic Church must reach out to Catholics who are divorced and remarried to let them know they are welcome even if they cannot receive the sacraments, several theologians have noted.
Sean Innerst, theology department chair at Denver's St. John Vianney Seminary, said he hopes to see “interesting and creative responses” to help those who are divorced or divorced and remarried and believe themselves to be outside of the Church.
“They might be in a life situation which means they can't receive Communion, but that doesn't mean they can't darken the door of the church,” he told CNA Nov. 5.
“It’s just inconsistent with the gospel for people to feel they’re excluded because they’re in a situation that’s tragic and complicated and they can’t currently sort out.”
“We need to have some pastoral responses to these situations where we don’t simply allow people to drift away because they've made serious mistakes, because the culture has led them in this direction,” Innerst emphasized.
“We need to go out and find these people and help them to know they have a place in the Church.”
Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller – head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – reaffirmed in an essay republished in L'Osservatore Romano in October that Catholics in irregular marital unions after divorce cannot receive Holy Communion. He underscored, though, that it is “imperative” to show “pastoral concern” for them.
However, many Catholic bishops in Germany have said they intend to give Holy Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, despite Catholic teaching.
The Archdiocese of Freiburg in October released a document saying that divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Holy Communion if they can show their first marriage cannot be reentered, if they repent of their fault in a divorce and if they enter “a new moral responsibility” with their new spouse.
That document drew a swift response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which said pastoral approaches must agree with Church teaching.
Despite these rejections, Bishop Gebhard Fuerst of Stuttgart in November told a meeting of the Central Committee of German Catholics that the German bishops have drafted guidelines and aim to approve them at their plenary meeting in March 2014.
Last week, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith member Cardinal Walter Kasper told the German weekly Die Zeit that the divorced and remarried will soon be able to receive the sacraments, the Italian news site AGI reports.
Catholic teaching recognizes the indissolubility of Christian marriage, allowing marriages for the divorced only if they can show the first marriage was invalid according to canonical norms. Those in irregular unions are admitted to Holy Communion only if they are living “as brother and sister” with their partners.
Manfred Lütz, a German psychologist and theologian in Rome for the Pontifical Council for the Laity's plenary meeting on “Proclaiming Christ in the Digital Age,” said the Church’s dogmatic teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment is “clear” but the pastoral response is the question.
He told CNA Dec. 4 that in the Catholic Church in Germany lay people are “not always very informed about the position of the Church” and believe that the Church is “not merciful enough.” This is “a great problem” not only in Germany but “all over the world.”
Innerst agreed that many Catholics do not know or understand Church teaching.
“I know some people who are divorced, and not remarried, and they think they're formally excommunicated from the Church, but that's not the case of course,” he said. “They feel that if you violate a rule, you no longer belong.”
He noted that many people feel that Catholicism is “all about laws” and places the “law before love.”
While Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had to establish guidelines to correct laxity in the Church, Innerst said, Pope Francis is working to stress that “God loves us first.”
“All Francis is saying is that we have to start loving people first, and then bring them to...the law.”
If others see Christians as “a source of God’s love” then Catholics can “begin to talk, about conversion and changing people’s lives in accord with natural and revealed law. Otherwise it’s a losing battle.”
Lütz said Pope Benedict XVI was also aware that the pastoral care for divorced and remarried Catholics is poor. Catholics have to “see how we live in the parish together with these people” so that they are “not thrown out of the Church.”
He said it is “very important” to help these people and Pope Francis aims to discuss this pastoral care at the October 2014 extraordinary synod of bishops, which is dedicated to the pastoral care of families.
Innerst suggested that the divorced and remarried should refrain from Communion and engage in prayer and penance “not as a punishment, but just as a way of finding meaning in their currently tragic situation.”
This would be a way for them to wait “for the time when they can come into conformity with Church teaching.” These are ways to respond “without pretending that the Pope can change things that he can't.”
Pope Francis “can't erase the marriage bond” but he can change the Church's approach given that the status quo is “not working.”
Innerst suggested that the Pope's request for input from the Church around the world is an effort to find a good pastoral response for divorced and remarried Catholics, rather than a way to “pretend that they're not divorced.”
Lütz said the Catholic Church in Germany or an individual diocese cannot decide these responses alone. Rather, this response has to be decided “worldwide.”
He noted that many young Catholics in Germany place the “highest value” on being “faithful” in marriage.
“So, young people hope that to marry will be forever. But when they are asked if they think that they personally will succeed in this, they say they do not think so. And this is really a little bit pessimistic view of things.”
Alan Holdren contributed to this report.