Francis: 'New concrete possibilities' for remarried after family exhortation

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has affirmed that his recent apostolic exhortation on family life has opened up "new concrete possibilities" for Catholics who divorce and remarry without first obtaining annulments.

In a press conference on his way back from a one-day visit to Lesbos, Greece, a reporter told the pontiff that some had interpreted the language in his exhortation to mean that there were no specific changes to the church's pastoral practice for remarried Catholics while others thought there were.

"Are there new concrete possibilities that did not exist before the publication of the exhortation, or no?" asked the journalist.

"I can say yes," responded Francis. "Period."

The pontiff then suggested that people looking for more information consult the presentation given by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn at the Vatican April 8, the day the new exhortation, titled Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love"), was released.

In his presentation that day, Schönborn said the document had made some "organic development" of the church's pastoral practice for divorced and remarried couples.

"I recommend to all of you to read the presentation that Cardinal Schönborn made," the pope said Saturday. "He is a great theologian."

"He knows well the doctrine of the church," said Francis. "In that presentation, your question will have its response."

Amoris Laetitia was written by Francis in response to two Synods of Bishops at the Vatican on family life issues in 2014 and 2015.

In the expansive document, the pope touches on many issues and says that Catholic bishops and priests can no longer make blanket moral determinations about so-called "irregular" situations such as divorce and remarriage.

"It ... can no longer simply be said that all those in any 'irregular' situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace," states the pontiff at one point in the document.

"It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being," the pope writes later.

Francis was also asked Saturday about a particular footnote in the document, in which the pope says that "pastoral discernment" for divorced and remarried persons "in certain cases ... can include the help of the sacraments."

A journalist asked why the pope had put that decision in a footnote, and if it meant he wanted to indicate the issue was not overwhelmingly important.

"One of the last popes, speaking about the Council, said there were two Councils," Francis responded. "The Second Vatican Council that met in St. Peter's Basilica and the other was the Council of the media."

"When I convoked the first Synod, the great worry of the majority of the media was will they give Communion to the divorced and remarried?" he continued.

"Not being a saint, this annoyed me a bit but also made me a bit sad," said Francis. "The media that say this ... do not see that this is not the important problem of the church. They do not see that the family in all the world is in crisis. And family is the base of society."

Francis spent just under five hours Saturday on Lesbos, a Greek island that has become the waypoint for hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. He was joined by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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