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For wounded and lost families

After having considered the beauty of successful marriages and solid families and having appreciated the generous accounts of those who have stayed faithful to the bond even when they were abandoned by their spouses, the Synod Fathers asked themselves – openly and bravely, not without concern and caution – how the Church should view Christians whose families are incomplete (those who are not yet united by God: those who live together) and which are imperfect (those who have made a bond only in front of men and women: civil marriages) or damaged (those who have separated what God has joined together: the separated or divorced). 

Giovanni Boldini,”The Lascaraky Sisters» (1869)

Those who are the frailest and most hurt also have a place beside families who have the grace to stay faithful to the Gospel in the midst of the Christian community, Thus “In accordance with Christ’s mercy, the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children who show signs of a wounded and lost love by restoring in them hope and confidence” (Relatio synodi n. 28). In this regard the challenge not only of guidance on the part of pastors but also of the integration of wounded and lost families into the ecclesial community seems particularly delicate in order that faithful families do not react like the elder son in the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son whose merciful father, while feeling he had been offended, nevertheless made an effort to welcome back the younger brother who had been lost (cf. Lk 15:28). Let us understand the Synod Fathers’ invitation to treat the situation of divorced and remarried people in this sense: “Language or behaviour that might make them feel an object of discrimination should be avoided, all the while encouraging them to participate in the life of the community. The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage, but, precisely in this way, the community is seen to express its charity” (Relatio synodi 51). Specific attention must be paid to the children of the divorced and remarried because of the parents’ irreplaceable role in their upbringing and because the interests of the minors take precedence; this is an element that cannot be overlooked from either the juridical or pastoral viewpoints, as was noted in the Preparatory Document for the Extraordinary Assembly: “For example, by simply calling to mind the fact that as a result of the current situation, many children and young people”, born from irregular marriages, “will never see their parents receive the sacraments, then we understand just how urgent are the challenges to evangelization arising from the current situation”. In addition, it is necessary to remember that at the Synod the need emerged for particular Churches and their bishops to give greater care to “the judicial aspect of pastoral care” through a discernment that can look people in the face, especially in the context of the ascertainment of the validity of the bond. 

Today, from the viewpoint of the doctrine on legal processes — as Arroba Conde has emphasized on various occasions –the convictions expressed by the parties about their past are assuming particular importance, interpreted in the light of the present they are living which is often richer and hence guarantees the possibility of discovering the person behind the cause, while absolutely respecting the legislation in force. In the context of canon law there is a growing awareness of the need to treat matrimonial matters by taking up the challenge posed by the relationship between individualism, truth and the pronouncement of justice, while being on one’s guard against a twofold risk: on the one hand, of confusing the objective truth with the subjective, which would see the parties in the role of judges of their own cause; on the other, that of identifying the truth, sic et simpliciter, with the judge’s pronouncement, understanding it in a way that suits one’s own wishes, especially in cases of disagreement between the versions offered by the parties. Lastly, at the Synod a proposal was advanced “to study the expansion of the exercise of the potestas clavium and the conditions to address causes that do not require ordinary judgement with an extraordinary judicial procedure; bishops are asked to initiate a careful judicial ministry, preparing sufficient operators, clerics and laymen”. Further, to more strictly juridical questions – which mainly concern the ascertainment of the validity of the bond – the question of the participation of remarried divorced faithful in the life of the Church is assuming particular importance. It was never said that they are affected by excommunication. In this regard let us choose the path of reasonable questions, so that the Synod Fathers – whose task it is to reach the broadest possible consensus through confrontation and profound examination in the light of the Spirit – may offer the Pope the fruit of their work of discernment in accordance with what the very nature of the Synod makes provision for. On at least two occasions it was Pope Francis himself who clearly highlighted the need not to focus attention on the access of remarried divorcees to the sacraments of Reconciliation and of the Eucharist (cf. Relatio synodi n. 52), but rather on their integration into the life of the Church (cf. n. 51). To understand better the meaning of the seven things that divorced people may not do – among which the Pope recalled in particular their exclusion from the role of sponsors – it is worth reviewing the chronological development of the issue through the diverse ecclesial documents whose requirements and stipulations are naturally differentiated. This list appears for the first time in a form reduced to three liturgical services (those of lector, of the ministry of catechist and of the office of sponsor for the sacraments), in a document of the Italian Episcopal Conference, published by the Episcopal Commission for the Family and for the Doctrine of the Faith (26 April 1979), with the explanation that these services “require the fullness of Christian testimony”. Subsequently, at the Synod on the Family in 1980, in John Paul ii’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio (1981), while it is clearly affirmed that care should be taken to ensure that remarried divorced people “do not consider themselves as separated from the Church”, there is no further mention of exclusions other than from those of the sacraments of Reconciliation and of the Eucharist (cf. n. 84). While it does not address the matter directly, the Codex iuris canonici (1983) explains that “one who leads a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on” and who is not “bound by any canonical penalty legitimately imposed or declared” may be admitted to the function of sponsor [or godparent] (874 § 1, § 4); likewise “No one except members of the Christian faithful outstanding in firm faith, good morals, and prudence is to be designated to a pastoral council” (512 § 3). With regard to the remarried and divorced the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) takes up the teaching of Familiaris consortio n. 84, and adds generally that “they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities” (n. 1650). A further specification of these responsibilities which remarried and divorced people are forbidden to exercise (from the preceding three they become five) is found in the Italian Bishops’ Directory for the Pastoral Care of the Family (1993), in which, to serving as lector, catechist and sponsor, is added participation in pastoral councils, while their service as witnesses in the celebration of marriage is not recommended although it is not prohibited. The complete list of these ecclesial responsibilities (which increase from five to seven) was explained by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the introduction to his book On the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried (1998), which contains certain documents, comments and studies and in which he makes an explicit reference to the Italian Bishops’ Directory for the Pastoral Care of the Family. The ecclesial responsibilities from which the remarried and divorced are barred are those of sponsor, lector, extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, teacher of religion, catechist for First Communion and for Confirmation, member of the diocesan or parish council, witness at weddings (not recommended but not prohibited). Indeed a different or more in depth motivation does not correspond with the effective lengthening of the list with regard to what is constantly repeated, namely the lack of fullness of Christian life and the witness of it; the avoidance of scandal; facing the issue in a deeper and broader way; and not being limited to the divorced and remarried. This does not exclude people’s subjective conditions, while it nevertheless takes into account their objective situations (cf. Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1735). It also means that everything possible should be done to avoid confusion and scandal; lastly, that this discourse must also be used to confront other, to a certain extent similar, situations. Later, in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis (2007), Benedict xvi did not repeat his reference to these restrictions. Rather, he chose to highlight that despite their situation “the divorced and remarried continue to belong to the Church which follows them with special attention” (n. 29). How is it possible, therefore, to evaluate the seven restrictions to the exercise of certain ecclesial responsibilities on the part of the remarried and divorced, together with the special attention that they deserve? We first propose three formal observations and then three that emphasize content over form. First of all it is necessary to note that these limitations do not appear in any papal document, nor are they taken up by the post-synodal apostolic exhortations. They cannot therefore be considered binding for the entire Church. Secondly, they have increased in number starting from a document of the Italian particular Church (1979) and from the Italian Church’s Pastoral Directory (1993), until their acceptance and enlargement on the part of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in an introduction to a collection of documents and studies (1998) which, however authoritative, was not followed by an ecclesial norm issued by the competent bodies. Thirdly, the pastoral nature of the above-mentioned restrictions which does not involve any doctrinal content appears obvious. In fact, while it reaffirms the incompatibility between the objective situation of the divorced and remarried and the fullness of life and of Christian witness, at the same time it does not go so far as to sanction this condition with a formal censure (interdict or excommunication). This means that their condition is presumably considered temporary since (or) it is susceptible of change, of conversion, of purification; or is mainly an interior process to be guided. From the viewpoint of content over form, it is necessary to reflect first of all on the liturgical services of lector and of extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Through the exercise of these ecclesial functions every member of the faithful can receive the grace of inner illumination, through contact in faith with the word of God and with the Eucharist, for both his own and others’ edification which is expressed in a humble service to the community gathered by the Lord, ever constituted by sinners called to conversion. In the second place, with regard to catechetical services (First Communion or Confirmation), formative service (teacher of religion) and participatory services (member of a pastoral council), the seriousness and competence of the people designated to them is of prime importance (sound faith, good morals and prudence), qualities which are in fact independent of their family situation. The Christian witness borne by these people can truly be revived by integration rather than by exclusion. In the third place, on the basis of Cardinal Ratzinger’s directives on the deepest and broadest way to confront the issue, a distinction must be made between the exclusion of people aware of their irregular situation who have a sincere desire to draw close to the Lord through the Church and, for example, well-known corrupt politicians, members of the Mafia, criminals and murderers who are formally properly married. Three conclusive considerations derive from what has been noted. The first is that if on the one hand it is true that confusion and scandal among “normal” faithful must be avoided, on the other it is also necessary to avoid confusion and scandal among the divorced and remarried who, while they are not excommunicated, are in fact at the same time reduced to being spectators of ecclesial life instead of being responsible for the different ministries that are requested of every baptized person for the edification of the Church. A second consideration concerns the testimony which possible children born of the second union have a right to receive from their parents, on pain of risking paying the price of marginalization for which they are not responsible but merely victims. A final consideration concerns discernment, that is to say the via discretionis which enables pastors to asses case by case, especially concerning the gradual inclusion of people who, finding themselves in a henceforth irreversible situation, are particularly in need of acceptance, guidance and mercy.

Maurizio Gronchi

The author

Maurizio Gronchi, from the clergy of the Diocese of Pisa is professor of Christology at the Pontifical Urban University, consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. The contribution we publish here in advance is taken from a text that will be coming out in the book edited by Luigi Sabbarese Sistema matrimoniale canonico in synodo (Urbaniana University Press).




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 14, 2019