Yesterday the full English-language transcript was released of Pope Francis’ Q&A with reporters aboard the papal plane on the way back from World Youth Day in Brazil. Many have focused on the way he discussed gay people, including his line “Who am I to judge them?” and his use of the term of ‘gay’. Some on the political left found little to be excited about in the remarks and downplayed their significance. Many conservatives meanwhile are still choosing to argue that Francis is offering nothing new and seem irritated that he is getting good reviews from the secular press.
The initial reaction that both my husband and I had is that the most important part of the press conference might not have been his remarks on gay people, bur rather his statement on the pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics, including the question of whether or not such persons should be free to receive the sacrament of communion at any point.
Pope Francis is transforming perceptions of the Church through the change in tone and focus that have marked his papacy. It remains unclear whether or not a change in policy in regard to the pastoral approach to divorced and remarried Catholics will occur, but certainly this is among the most plausible and transformative changes that could take place.
This delicate issue has already led a number of bishops to ponder possible changes to this aspect of pastoral care, including those often labeled theological “conservatives.” The bishops have seen the deep wounds that have been caused by the denial of communion to those who are divorced and remarried. Most of us in the West have also witnessed that pain and suffering, that sense of alienation. Meanwhile, our Orthodox brothers and sisters, as Pope Francis noted, have chosen an alternative approach, one that avoids shortcuts, yet is animated by mercy.
Of course, as Pope Francis says, it’s complicated. The preeminent concern in altering these policies is that it would weaken the Church’s commitment to the indissolubility of marriage.
The reality is that the Church’s position on marriage has often not been demanding enough, as it has too frequently promoted “traditional marriage” instead of insisting upon Christ’s vision of one-flesh marriage. The commitment to permanence is even stronger in the latter, since communion in and through God is the ultimate objective.
So can Christ’s vision of marriage be reconciled with allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion? The fundamental question is: would Christ deny these persons a seat at the Lord ’s table? Pope Francis appears to be alluding to this ultimate standard when he speaks about this being a “kairos moment for mercy.”
But can this commitment to mercy and forgiveness, based on a recognition of the frailty of the human person, coexist with a firm, robust commitment to one-flesh marriage? Let us hope and pray that the eight members of the Council of Cardinals, who will meet to discuss this issue (among others), find a path forward so that we can end the alienation felt by far too many of our brothers and sisters in Christ who in the wake of personal mistakes are earnestly desiring and striving for greater communion.