Pope’s Teaching on Divorce Divides Bishops
Pontiff’s elliptical language leaves meaning open to interpretation, with dioceses going divergent ways
ROME—Conservative and liberal prelates in the Catholic Church have put forth sharply different readings of Pope Francis’ teaching on divorce—a situation complicated by the pontiff’s own ambiguity.
In April, Pope Francis published “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), which responded to a turbulent meeting of bishops on family issues by urging a more lenient approach to divorced Catholics, in effect encouraging priests to grant some of those who remarry Holy Communion.
Instead of settling the issue, the pope has opened the door to divergent interpretations as local bishops implement the document. Conservatives argue that nothing has changed while liberals see more flexibility—with broader implications for teachings on sexual morality.
On July 1, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia published guidelines for his archdiocese, the sixth largest in the U.S., on how to carry out the teachings.
The archbishop, a leading conservative at last October’s Vatican synod, reaffirmed the traditional rule that divorced Catholics who remarry without getting an annulment may not receive Communion—unless they abstain from sex with their new spouses, since the church considers such relations adulterous.
Archbishop Chaput said that the pope’s own words showed that he had no intention of changing this teaching.
The reaction from liberal critics was severe, with even the mayor of Philadelphia tweeting that “Chaput’s actions are not Christian.”
Then last week, a Vatican-supervised theological journal published an interview with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, a leading liberal at the family synod. The cardinal said Pope Francis had reinterpreted the church’s teaching to mean that some Catholics in an “objective situation of sin,” including remarried divorcées, may receive Communion.
A central issue is the pope’s characteristically indirect language. In “Amoris Laetitia,” he didn’t explicitly amend the xisting rule. But in a news conference, the pope said that his document had opened new possibilities of access to the sacraments for remarried divorcées.
Declining to be more specific, he referred reporters to a commentary by Cardinal Schönborn.
The cardinal, in last week’s interview, likewise refused to be specific, saying “there is no general norm that can cover all the particular cases,” and that the matter is ultimately one of “individual discernment.”
In other words, the change isn’t so much a looser rule as a loosening of the very idea of rules.
Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan has gone as far as any bishop in challenging the papal document, which he wrote contains “objectively erroneous expressions” that pose “real spiritual danger.”
Others, including U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, have chosen to play down “Amoris Laetitia” as a “personal reflection of the pope,” rather than authoritative teaching.
But conservatives who object to changing tradition also generally tend to be the most reluctant to oppose a pope.
“The people who traditionally have been defenders of papal authority for the last 50 years suddenly find themselves out of step with the pope, and that’s a very strange situation,” says the Rev. Gerald Murray, pastor of Holy Family Church in New York and a frequent commentator on EWTN Catholic television.
According to the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, Pope Francis is untroubled by the debate.
“He believes that it is up to the local bishop to look at the concrete situation in his diocese and make the pastoral judgment about what is possible,” Father Reese says. “We may have 10 or 20 years of this situation where different bishops are doing it differently in different places but I think there will come about a consensus on where we go.”
Conservatives like Father Murray find such a situation untenable.
“This is an exploding land mine and I regret that it’s going to be a continual fight until it’s changed back to the old discipline,” he says. “The unity of the church’s pastoral ministry is affected severely when you have contrasting practices in different places.”
During the family synod, some bishops spoke privately of the danger of a schism over the issue, similar to the looming split in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality.
“There may not be a schism in the sense of a rejection of papal authority, but there is going to be a debate in the church about the directions in which the pope is taking the church and whether we should go along or we should resist,” said Father Murray.
Write to Francis X. Rocca at firstname.lastname@example.org