On Divorce, the Pope’s Private Communications Don’t Change Church Teaching

(Photo: Bacho12345/Dreamstime)
In questioning Francis on his ambiguity, the late Cardinal Joachim Meisner clarified the issue.

With the Church divided over the proper interpretation of one of Pope Francis’s writings, some Catholics are cheering on the defense of orthodoxy by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

About two weeks ago, Cardinal Joachim Meisner died. He had been at odds with Francis this past year, over the Catholic doctrine against divorce. For Meisner’s funeral last weekend, Benedict sent a telegram praising the cardinal’s constant defense of the faith.

“We know that it was difficult for him, this passionate shepherd and pastor, to leave his office, especially in a time in which the Church especially needs convincing shepherds who resist the dictatorship of the Zeitgeist and quite decisively from the Faith live and think,” Benedict wrote. “But what moved me all the more was that, in this last period of his life, he had learned to let go and lived ever more out of the deep certainty that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when sometimes the boat is filled almost to capsizing.”

Some conservative and traditionalist outlets tried to paint that as an attack on the reigning pope, but Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, strongly disagreed, complaining that they “exploited” the pope emeritus in their own fight against Francis.

Father Thomas Petri, a dean and theology professor at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., corroborates the view that journalists looking for controversy here got it wrong. Given that it was not the first time that Benedict had used the barque image, it appears to be not an attack on the current pope but rather a critique of the relativism and secularism seeping into the Church through some of its clergy, Petri told me, adding that Benedict is “too classy” to attack the pope.

However, Benedict’s statements ring true to orthodox Catholics, who could apply them to certain problems in the Church, including the lackluster approach that some clergy take to divorce and remarriage. Some priests and bishops quietly set aside the Church’s ban on remarriage after a civil divorce (unless the first marriage has been annulled) and replace that teaching with moral relativism.

Although Benedict did not mention this specifically, Meisner is one of four cardinals who signed the controversial dubia (doubts) regarding Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The dubia were five questions that the cardinals directed to the pontiff, asking for clarification of his teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics.

A pope speaks infallibly only when he speaks formally on matters of faith and morals ex cathedra, as the head of the Church.

In chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, Francis discusses “irregular” relationships, including those of the divorced and remarried. In situations of objective sin, he writes, the putative sinners may not be subjectively culpable and may grow in grace and charity with the help of the Church.

That much is not a problem. The confusion originates with footnote 351, where Francis writes that such help from the Church may sometimes include the use of sacraments. Francis reminds priests that the confessional is not a “torture chamber” and that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Some heterodox clergy ran with this ambiguous statement and said that the divorced and remarried were permitted to receive communion in exceptional cases. A marital union cannot be broken by divorce, however, because it lasts until death, according to the Council of Trent. A Catholic who divorces, enters another, civil marriage, and engages in sexual relations enters into adultery. Receiving communion in an objective state of sin, such as perpetual adultery, would constitute the grave sin of sacrilege.

Catholics divorcing and remarrying? Petri says that the teaching is “simply that it can’t happen.”

He notes two details about Amoris laetitia. First, in the line in question in the main text, Francis does not call out the divorced and remarried specifically but only references individuals in a state of sin, which is ambiguous. Second, in footnote 351, he does not specifically grant those in that state of sin the permission to receive communion. He says only that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect.” Being “not perfect” does not imply necessarily a state of mortal sin.

Remember also that the Eucharist is used in adoration. Adoration is a practice in which Catholics pray before the exposed Eucharist, typically a consecrated host displayed in a vessel called a monstrance. Those in mortal sin can attend and participate in Eucharistic adoration. This can be interpreted a number of ways.

The four cardinals submitted the dubia to ask whether Francis was implying that the divorced and remarried could receive communion, noting that tradition and doctrine do not permit it. Francis gave no formal answer but did touch on the subject in a private letter to Argentine bishops. The bishops had taken the position that when it is not feasible to get an annulment or to live together without sexual relations, a person may be able to access not only the sacrament of reconciliation but also the Eucharist. Francis in his letter to the bishops approved of that application of Amoris Laetitia.

Petri notes that a pope’s communication of “private opinions and ideas” does not constitute doctrine. Catholics do not have to “believe or accept them.” A pope speaks infallibly only when he speaks formally on matters of faith and morals ex cathedra, as the head of the Church.

As we await a formal response, let the doctrine speak for itself.


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