Will the Pope shift the church's stance on divorce?

The Takeaway
Pope smiling in Feb 2014

"What God has joined together, let no one separate." For 500 years, the Catholic Church has lived by that decree from Matthew 19:6.

To this day, parishioners who divorce and remarry are denied communion, a symbol that is often viewed as the most important aspect of the Catholic religion. But this week, Pope Francis may chart a new course and break ranks with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, refused to allow for pastoral discretion on the issue. 

While the Pope is unlikely to endorse divorce, he might relax the rules regarding annulments.

An annulment is granted when "a marriage thought to be valid according to church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union," according to the American Conference of Catholic Bishops. An annulment, which can take years to obtain, is a declaration by a church court that a marriage was never valid in the first place because one of the essential elements of a union wasn't satisfied.

Once a marriage between two Catholics is annulled, both parties can remarry and receive communion in the eyes of the church. 

James Carroll is the author of "An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us" and "Toward A New Catholic Church: The Promise of Reform." He's also a columnist for the Boston Globe, and he examines the choices facing Pope Francis regarding marriage and the future of the Catholic Church. 

"[Pope Francis] said in a very pointed way in his so called apostolic exhortation in November, 'The church is not a toll house, it's the house of the Father where there is a place for everyone,'" says Carroll. "But the truth is the Catholic Church has been acting exactly like a toll house for a long time. You have to qualify to be admitted and to be admitted to the sacraments. The question of divorce and remarriage is essential to that. What Pope Francis has indicated in a variety of ways is that it's time for a major change in the way we think of not just that particular issue — divorce and remarriage — but the church itself."

As it stands now, there are millions of Catholics around the world who have been denied sacramental access to the church because of the issue of divorce and remarriage. If the church were to change its position, those individuals would now have a renewed access to the church — making it a much more powerful institution than it has been in the recent past.

"Those millions of people are the church," says Carroll. "Francis has brought back the vision of Vatican II, which defined the church as the people of god—not the bishops and the priests. In a way, the church has already spoken on the question of divorce and remarriage in the ordinary lives of human beings, the Catholic people, and finally the hierarchy is listening. That's why there is, I believe, good reason to expect change."

Carroll adds that he believes that the church will likely take up the issue in October of this year, adding that preparations for the meeting already include serious discussions by church leaders on the question of divorce, remarriage and re-admission to the sacraments. 

"There are signals, loud and clear, that change is coming on this," he says. "It's very clear that Pope Francis has a comprehensive agenda for change in the church. It begins with a basic change in attitude. His attitude has already set in motion profound changes that reach from the pragmatic and institutional, like finances, to the moral and spiritual, like the meaning of the sacraments and the true and ongoing need for church repentance and change over this question of sex abuse. I think the movement has been set powerfully in motion, and there are reasons to be very hopeful and even optimistic about the coming changes."

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