Pope Francis calls for flexibility in treatment of divorced Catholics

Pope Francis

Pope Francis has published new guidelines on family life that argue the Church should show more understanding of modern realities.

The document, based on two Synods on the issue, was eagerly awaited by the world’s 1.3bn Roman Catholics.

Entitled “On Love in the Family”, it does not change Catholic doctrine, but it opens the way for bishops in each country to interpret doctrine to suit their own culture.

Pope Francis urged priests to exercise careful discernment over “wounded families” and be merciful, rather than judgemental.

The emphasis throughout is on better pastoral care: better preparation for couples on what marriage involves, and more understanding from parish priests and others for human frailty.

The document is the culmination of three years’ work by the Pope, who sent a questionnaire to families across the world asking them about their hopes and their fears.

He then brought bishops and cardinals together for two Synods in Rome, at which he encouraged them to debate and even to disagree over issues that divide the Church in many countries.

Among the most divisive issues are offering communion to the divorced and remarried, contraception and the treatment of gay Catholics.

Church doctrine forbids the divorced from receiving Communion unless they obtain an annulment of their first marriage or abstain from sex with their new spouses. Otherwise, the church considers them adulterers and unworthy of receiving the Eucharist.

The pope stopped short of changing that rule, bowing to resistance from conservative bishops and leaving space for a future pope to reassert a stricter approach.

But he signalled that priests should be flexible in enforcing it. Priests should take account of “mitigating factors and situations” and make allowances in “particular cases,” the pope wrote, since “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”

His words: “Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged 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.”

On gay people, he wrote: “Every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration… As for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”

The Pope has not changed Catholic doctrine, as some had hoped, but he does open the way for greater devolution within the Catholic Church.

Traditionalists, though, are likely to say that Pope Francis is opening the door to chaos in the future by suggesting that a “one size fits all” Church is not the way forward. Likewise, some liberals will be bitterly disappointed that there is not a greater welcome for gay Catholics – something Pope Francis was never likely to deliver.