Remarried divorcees issue a test case for church’s credibility, German bishops convinced

A large majority of German bishops favor Cardinal Walter Kasper’s solution for remarried divorcees which would allow them to receive the sacraments under certain circumstances. Only a small minority think present church teaching is theologically correct and pastorally appropriate.

As most German bishops are convinced that the pastoral approach to remarried divorcees is a test case for the church’s credibility, the bishops’ conference published the findings Dec. 22 of a working group which has been researching the subject for two years. They presented these findings as guidelines to the ongoing preparatory discussions for the coming Synod of Bishops in October 2015.

“The search for a theologically responsible and pastorally appropriate accompaniment for Catholics whose marriages have broken down and who have married again in a registry office is a pressing challenge for the church worldwide as divorce and remarriage are often the beginning of a process of alienation from the church,” said Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, when he presented the new guidelines on Dec. 22.

The majority of German bishops find that the present guidelines regarding pastoral work with remarried divorcees are “fraught with problems that bishops and priests find almost impossible to overcome.”

Not only remarried divorcees, but also many happily married Catholic couples view the present pastoral rulings for remarried divorcees as “incomprehensible and unmerciful,” particularly their exclusion from the sacraments of reconciliation and Communion, and even many priests find the present rulings “anything but helpful,” the bishops said.

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“For many practicing, committed Catholics in Germany, the pastoral approach to remarried divorcees is the test case for an evangelizing church which is not only for special groups of faithful but which also welcomes those whose life projects have failed. It has become the touchstone of whether the joy of the Gospel also holds good for remarried divorcees and their families,” the bishops stated.

Very few remarried divorcees see annulment as a solution as most do not think that their first marriage simply never existed. The possibility of an annulment is therefore “only practicable for a small minority. It does not solve the problem,” the bishops said.

“The assurance that remarried divorcees continue to be part of the church community stands in strong contrast to the ban on them ever receiving the sacraments, which is seen as an exclusion and a sign that their situation is irreconcilable,” the bishops stated.

Tension reaches a climax when remarried divorcees are invited to celebrate the Eucharist “purely spiritually.” Such an invitation is seen by practicing Catholics who take an active part in parish life as an “imposition.” The Eucharist is not a reward for the perfect but a magnanimous remedy and nourishment for the weak, the bishops said.

Many priests are at a loss as they cannot see – or show those in their care – a way out of such situations which can be accepted in good conscience and also conform to present church teaching. A not inconsiderable number of priests therefore ignore church instructions which leads to tension in the church between the priests and bishops, and among the priests themselves.

The obvious gulf between the church’s proclamation and the religious and moral convictions of a great majority of the faithful is seen by a large majority of Catholics as “exceedingly problematic,” the bishops stated.

“When the present pastoral approach to remarried divorcees is perceived as a scandal by committed, practicing Catholics who are involved in their parishes, one must seriously ask whether scripture and tradition really reveal no other way,” the bishops underlined.

The bishops said the concern expressed by Pope John Paul II in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio has gone into reverse. John Paul feared that “allowing remarried divorcees to receive communion would confuse the faithful regarding the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.” But now “not allowing remarried divorcees to receive communion is seen as obscuring the proclamation of mercy,” the bishops said.

Many committed Catholics want to know whether “all theological implications and consequences have really been adequately considered” as far as the possibility of remarried divorcees receiving the sacraments is concerned. From the German bishops’ point of view, it would not be right to allow all the faithful whose marriages have broken down and who have remarried to receive the sacraments without distinction. Based on their pastoral experiences and theological reflections, most German bishops favor differentiated solutions which would do justice to individual cases and make it possible to receive the sacraments under certain circumstances.

Most bishops espouse Kasper’s question, which he posed at the consistory of Feb. 21:

But if a divorced and remarried person is truly sorry that he or she failed in the first marriage, if the commitments from the first marriage are clarified and a return is definitively out of the question, if he or she cannot undo the commitments that were assumed in the second civil marriage without new guilt, if he or she strives to the best of his or her abilities to live out the second civil marriage on the basis of faith and to raise their children in the faith, if he or she longs for the Sacraments as a source of strength in his or her situation, do we then have to refuse or can we refuse him or her the sacrament of penance and Communion, after a period of reorienation?’

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London Catholic weekly The Tablet.]

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