Last week, Pope Francis sparked much debate regarding the Catholic Church’s stance on divorce by urging Catholics to be more welcoming of those who divorce and remarry.
In front of a gathering outside the Vatican, Francis said that divorced and remarried couples, “are not excommunicated and they absolutely must not be treated that way!”
Francis focused much of his speech on the harm that can be done to Catholic children when their parents are shunned by the Church because of a previous failed marriage.
“How can we recommend to parents to do everything they can to educate their children in Christian life, giving them an example of a convinced and practiced faith, if we keep them at arm’s length from the community as if they were excommunicated?” he asked.
This is hardly the first time Pope Francis has addressed the touchy subject of divorce within the Church. He issued similar statements in June when he noted that sometimes “separation is inevitable” and “can even be morally necessary” at times to protect children. Last October, he released a preliminary document calling for the Church to be more welcoming of divorced couples. And in September, he presided over the wedding of 20 couples at St. Peter’s Basilica, some of which included Catholics who had previously been married.
His words and actions have led to much deliberation within the Church over whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without receiving an annulment should be allowed to receive Communion.
Current Catholic theology holds that marriage is indissoluble and cites Jesus Christ’s negative attitude toward divorce. Therefore, under Church law, those who divorce are guilty of adultery and are to be denied the sacraments of communion and confession. That includes approximately 4.5 million Catholics in the United States alone.
Although some observers have speculated that Francis wants to make actual concrete change, he has yet to say anything that contradicts existing Catholic teaching and has noted that remarrying “contradicts the Christian sacrament” and conceded there is “no easy solution for these situations.”
Ultimately, how one reconciles divorce with their individual religious beliefs is a personal dilemma and debating Church theology is an extremely politically decisive topic.
However, Pope Francis’ comments are indicative of many of the complexities that come with a divorce.
Surely there are devout Catholic couples stuck in contentious marriages who believe strongly in staying together for the sake of their children. But is remaining in a high-conflict marriage the moral thing to do when there are numerous ways that children can be harmed when they’re constantly exposed to their parents’ bickering? These, too, are complicated questions with no easy answers.
To be clear, a couple considering divorce, regardless of their religious beliefs, should do everything within their power to save their marriage. All the ramifications of ending the marriage should first be considered.
Unfortunately, as Pope Francis has acknowledged, not all marriages are salvageable and divorce is often an unfortunate reality.
But just because a person’s marriage fails doesn’t mean their life is over. That is an important undertone to Pope Francis’ message.
By calling for the Church to embrace divorced couples, he is also helping spread the notion that life following divorce can, and should, go on.