Once again, Pope Francis has gotten people talking excitedly about changes in the Catholic Church by saying basically the same things his predecessors have said. If there’s anything positive about the “progressive pope” narrative frame, it gets the media to pick up on things that they ignored when Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II said them.
What did Pope Francis say this time? Yesterday, August 5, in his general audience, he chose to address the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics. Fairly early into his catechesis, Francis said:
In these decades, in truth, the Church has not been either insensitive or slow. Thanks to the reflection carried out by Pastors, guided and confirmed by my Predecessors, the awareness has greatly grown that a fraternal and attentive acceptance is necessary, in love and in truth, of the baptized that have established a new coexistence after the failure of their sacramental marriage; in fact, these people are not at all excommunicated, they are not excommunicated! And they are absolutely not treated as such: they are always part of the Church. [Bold type mine.—ASL]
Excommunication refers strictly to the formal canonical penalty. Under Canon 1331.1 of the 1983 Code, a person who has been formally excommunicated cannot minister in any capacity in any manner of worship, celebrate or receive the sacraments, or exercise any official office or function of the Church. In some cases, excommunication is incurred latae sententiae; that is, by the fact of the delict and without need of formal declaration (Canon 1314). However, marrying a second person without securing an annulment of marriage from the first is not one of those cases. And excommunication does not deprive one of membership in the Catholic Church; even if you formally apostatize, rejoining is simpler than you’d think.
But Pope Francis’ point (and I’ll freely admit I don’t stress this nearly enough) is that even someone who is formally excommunicated isn’t unworthy of the Church’s love or concern. In a passage from which Francis quotes, Benedict XVI said:
As regards [divorced and remarried Catholics] — as you have said — the Church loves them, but it is important they should see and feel this love. I see here a great task for a parish, a Catholic community, to do whatever is possible to help them to feel loved and accepted, to feel that they are not “excluded” even though they cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist; they should see that, in this state too, they are fully a part of the Church. Perhaps, even if it is not possible to receive absolution in Confession, they can nevertheless have ongoing contact with a priest, with a spiritual guide. This is very important, so that they see that they are accompanied and guided. Then it is also very important that they truly realize they are participating in the Eucharist if they enter into a real communion with the Body of Christ. Even without “corporal” reception of the sacrament, they can be spiritually united to Christ in his Body. (Address to 7th World Meeting of Families, Milan, June 2, 2012, answer n. 5; bold type mine)
The indissolvability of marriage is a vitally important teaching of the Church, especially at a time when the Western world treats marriage as a mere conferral of social blessing on an ultimately transient relationship. Pope Francis carefully stated at the very beginning that “such a situation contradicts the Christian Sacrament.” However, it’s equally vital that the Church continue to reach out to the divorced and remarried, to encourage understanding and acceptance of the teaching rather than create feelings of alienation. The Church is not in the business of pre-sorting the sheep from the goats (cf. Matthew 25:32-33).
Nevertheless, many people still look to the Church to put its imprimatur on civil divorce, to validate the impermanence of modern marriage. The always well-informed Jimmy Akin has concluded that the Pope’s remarks “do not appear to have a decisive significance, one way or the other,” on the upcoming Synod on the Family; however, it’s not likely people will stop expecting the Synod to recommend allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to participate in Communion. And, because of the “progressive pope” narrative frame, it’s likely Francis’ audience remarks will be interpreted by some, both liberal and radical-traditionalist, as in favor of such an outcome.
Still, what Francis did say — as opposed to what Francis “should have said”, or what Francis “really meant” — needed to be said: The divorced and remarried have not been in any meaningful sense “kicked out of the Church”. They are not to be shunned; they are not to be cast aside. Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners because that’s who he came to call to repentance (Mark 2:15-17); if he didn’t come to validate their lifestyles, he also didn’t come to confirm the righteous in their moral superiority. “... [E]very one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
Semper Fi. Carry on.