German Bishops Open Way to Communion for Divorced Catholics

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The Cathedral of St. Bartholomew, a Roman Catholic church in Frankfurt. Many German bishops are generally considered to be within the more liberal wing of the Catholic Church.

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Catholics in Germany who have divorced and remarried without receiving an annulment may receive communion on a case-by-case basis, the German bishops’ conference announced on Wednesday. The decision is a major acceleration of a more welcoming — but disputed — stance on family life adopted by the Vatican under Pope Francis.

The decision was not unexpected; many German bishops are generally considered to be within the more liberal wing of the Roman Catholic Church. It was they who, at a 2015 synod on family life, proposed inviting divorced and remarried Catholics who had not had their first marriages annulled to seek the counsel of a priest to determine their future participation in church life.

But several German bishops have dissented, insisting that Catholics who have divorced and remarried must abstain from sex if they wish to receive the eucharist.

After that synod, the pope released a sweeping document on family issues last April that signaled a more welcoming stance toward divorced Catholics. The document — titled “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” and known as an apostolic exhortation — did not require churches to offer communion to the divorced, but it left the door open for bishops and priests to determine.

Bishops in Argentina and Malta subsequently adopted guidelines allowing divorced Catholics to receive the sacrament of communion; Germany has now become the most populous country to do so.

“Catholics who have been remarried under civil law after a divorce are invited to go to the church, participate in their lives and mature as living members of the church,” the German bishops’ conference said in a statement on Wednesday, summarizing the conclusions reached at a Jan. 23 meeting of the bishops in Würzburg to discuss the Vatican’s apostolic letter.

The statement offers “no general rule,” and it does not insist that priests offer communion to divorced people, but it calls for “differentiated solutions, which are appropriate to the individual case.”

Historically, the church holds that unless divorced Catholics have received an annulment, they are committing adultery by remarrying and cannot receive the sacrament of communion. Annulments are often difficult to obtain.

The April apostolic exhortation also called for priests to welcome single parents, gay people and unmarried straight couples who are living together, but it affirmed the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, insisting that gay relationships cannot be seen as equivalent to heterosexual unions.

The German bishops who disagreed with their conference’s decision included Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the former archbishop of Cologne; Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, a scholar of church history; and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is Francis’ chief authority on church doctrine.

Cardinal Müller told the Italian publication Il Timone that church doctrine clearly prohibits divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving communion unless they abstain from sex, a position laid out in a 1981 exhortation by Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Müller also pointed to a 1993 encyclical from John Paul that warned against moral relativism.

“The Word of God is very clear, and the Church does not accept the secularization of marriage,” Cardinal Müller said, according to a translation of the interview provided by the weekly newsmagazine L’Espresso. “The task of priests and bishops is not that of creating confusion, but of bringing clarity.”

Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who is now the pope emeritus, has long opposed communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried, a position he laid out in 1994 when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during John Paul’s papacy.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has not taken a position on the issue. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, a doctrinal conservative, issued guidelines last year that insist that divorced Catholics who have remarried must live “as brother and sister” if they wish to receive communion.

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