The Pope's divorce problem

Pope Francis is misunderstood on divorce, as on so many other issues. He is a courageous and empathetic Pope who will not yield to relativism but does not want ordinary people with human vices to be excluded from the Church. This will be a tough one

Pope Francis at prayer
Tim Hedges
On 6 October 2014 11:02

Adriana encountered the priest outside one of those village shops which seem to sell everything. He had been buying some stationery. She knew him, of course, and last year had attended a mass; she had stayed at the back.

‘Adriana, isn’t it? I haven’t seen you for a bit. I hope everything is all right?’ Adriana nodded dumbly. Yes, she supposed everything was all right. ‘You haven’t been to Mass for a while. It would be nice to see you. Why don’t you come on Sunday?’

Adriana told me that afterwards she had regretted her subsequent outburst, but it had come from deep down: from anger, bitterness, self loathing. He wanted her to come to church, but as a second class citizen.

She would have liked the comfort of the Mass, the sense of family the Church gives, that would have helped her in her lowest moments. But Adriana could not be admitted to full membership of that family. She could attend the Mass but not receive the Host, the Communion bread.

Because Adriana was in a state of mortal sin. Church teaching was that if she died tomorrow, unforgiven, she would go to Hell.

She had married, twenty-five years before, yes, in a church, and had had two children, but her husband had had an affair and had wanted to remarry and she had consented to the divorce.

But her problem was not, as many people think, the divorce itself: the Church permits you to consent to a civil divorce in order to protect yourself or your children financially – you have to confess it but it is not a mortal sin. Naturally, however,  the Church does not recognise the divorce: it regarded her as still married in the sight of God.

The problem was Salvatore. She had embarked on a relationship with a man a couple of years ago. It was intermittent – he was a travelling salesman – but it was adultery in the eyes of the Church, and to be forgiven she would have to promise not to do it again and to avoid circumstances where it might happen.

Essentially she would have to live a single life, and she didn’t see why she should do that: her divorce had not been her fault.

There was nothing for it. It was just that she felt embittered. Now something might be done for Adriana.

Pope Francis has told the Catholic Church’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family that he wants to reach out to divorced and remarried Catholics. These last four words are treated by many in the church as an oxymoron: divorce is not recognised so remarriage is impossible.

And the signs are he is going to have an unholy fight on his hands. You don’t need to be a conservative bishop to see that if the Catholic Church is not about the family (hence the synod) it is about nothing. Marriage, children, stability, continuity, not divorce, contraception, abortion, adultery.

Those who oppose any dilution of church teaching are already touching up their speeches against this dangerous liberal in the Vatican.

But I think that on this, as on so many other matters, people misunderstand Pope Francis. He is not the man to defend doctrine to his last breath; he thinks people are more important. But at the same time he believes as much as anyone in the sacrament of marriage.

It is just that Francis sees himself and his Church as servants of my friend Adriana. He understands that she has human vices and he wants her inside the Church if it can possibly be done.

Some people are saying that the way it can be done is by making annulment easier. This, hitherto, has been the preserve of the rich and influential. Two separate tribunals must decide that the marriage had no basis from the start. It is time consuming and expensive.

In the future could a poor divorcee claim that her former husband had been incapable of keeping his marriage vows and thus get the union annulled and permit her to remarry?

For my friend Adriana I fear it will be too late. For others it might just open up the Church to some lost souls who would like to rejoin their family.

The Synod will also discuss such thorny questions as contraception and homosexuality. And Francis wants it to centre on how Church teaching is being received by his former congregations in the slums of Buenos Aires and elsewhere.

The Papacy, as well as the house of bishops and the laity, is in for a bumpy ride.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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