Guidelines For the Pastoral Accompaniment of Christ’s Faithful Who Are Divorced and Remarried Without a Decree of Nullity.—issued by the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
It may happen that, through media, friends, or family, couples have been led to understand that there has been a change in practice by the Church, such that now the reception of Holy Communion at Mass by persons who are divorced and civilly remarried is possible if they simply have a conversation with a priest. This view is erroneous. Couples who express it should be welcomed to meet with a priest so that they hear proposed anew “God’s plan [pertaining to marriage] in all its grandeur” (Amoris Laetitia, 307) and thus be helped to understand the correct path to follow toward full reconciliation with the Church.In order to enable such a journey of healing and reconciliation in a manner that remains obedient to the strong command of Christ that “what God has united man must not divide,” the Church has established its marriage tribunals. These are charged with examining in mercy and truth the circumstances of the first marriage in view of making an official declaration as regards its validity or nullity. Therefore, we remind our pastors that divorced and civilly remarried couples seeking reconciliation with the Church are always to be directed to our Interdiocesan Marriage Tribunal for an investigation into their case. In fact, in order that couples have efficient access to the Church’s marriage tribunals and have their situation examined without undue delay, Pope Francis recently reformed the relevant canons of the Code of Canon Law (cf. Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, December 8, 2015). At the same time, the pastor supports the couple by helping them examine their conscience.Conscience is the capacity to judge what is to be done in a given circumstance in obedience to objective truth. It needs to be carefully and patiently formed (cf. Veritatis Splendor, 54- 64).The truth revealed in Christ, who is the Truth (John 14:6), is handed on in the Church. “For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself ” (Veritatis Splendor, 64; cf. Dignitatis Humanae, 14).Therefore, the pastor will seek under grace to awaken in the couple the disposition of “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (Amoris Laetitia, 300). This will likely require considerable time, and the pastor should be prepared to meet with the couple on a number of occasions in order gently and progressively to lead them by stages to an understanding of their situation.The initial stage will have the pastor listen carefully to the history of the first relationship as well as to the experience of Christ Jesus and the Church in their lives. This will prepare the way for the couple to hear, in a second stage, the Lord’s teaching on marriage. In the third, the priest will summarize his understanding of the situation and the Church teaching relevant to the case, taking time as needed to clarify any points as yet unclear to the couple. In an atmosphere of unhurried consideration and prayer, they would then discuss how the couple can move forward in faithful and trusting obedience to the teachings of Christ in the company of his Church.
As the Holy Father states: “What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which ‘guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. . . . [T]his discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity as proposed by the Church’” (cf. Amoris Laetitia, 300). In our day such guidance can present a significant challenge to the pastor. Many couples are formed in a culture where individual rights are exalted and are no longer moderated by an adequate notion of the common good. This may result in an adversarial stance vis-a-vis the legitimate exercise of ecclesiastical authority. Moreover, in the Church rights and obligations are always set within the context of ecclesial communion. This can be very hard for persons formed in our culture to grasp, and the most common situations where they encounter this divergence between their cultural formation and ecclesiastical doctrine are in the area of marriage. Here faith asks something of them based on the commands of Christ, and they may have difficulty responding. Such a struggle calls forth from the pastor much patience and great pastoral sensitivity, as Pope Francis states often throughout Amoris Laetitia.
Assistance for Pastoral Accompaniment
Pastors may find helpful some of the following questions as they “exercise careful discernment of situations” (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 84).
- Is the couple’s faith one informed more by principles, culture, or theories than by meeting Christ in the Gospels?
- Do they understand who it is that is waiting with the living waters of mercy?
- Do the people have the profound sense of community with God and with the Church such that they experience their own adulterous behaviour or their divorces as having consequences in the lives of others for which they bear responsibility?
- Do they have a clear understanding of what “scandal” is?
- How has this couple dealt with the community that surrounded and emerged from their former marriage?
- What is the difference between the experience of Christ in the former marriage and their current union?
- What has been the experience of the Church through the process of their divorce and remarriage?
- Is there a voice of a family member or friend who has shaped this experience? What kind of a voice has this been – one dismissive of the Church; one dismissive of the couple?
- Have they ever considered applying for a decree of nullity? Do they understand what a decree of nullity means and entails?The gentle and clear guidance of the pastor as he helps the couple to form a right conscience will assist them greatly to live in accordance with their objective situation. Should the tribunal process result in a declaration of nullity, they will understand the need to proceed toward the celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony. In the case where the tribunal upholds the validity of the first union, obedience in faith to the indissolubility of marriage as revealed by Christ will make clear to them the actions that must follow. They are bound to live with the consequences of that truth as part of their witness to Christ and his teaching on marriage. This may be difficult. If, for example, they are unable to separate for the sake of the care of children, they will need to refrain from sexual intimacy and live in chastity “as brother and sister” (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 84). Such a firm resolution to live in accordance with the teaching of Christ, relying always on the help of his grace, opens to them the possibility of celebrating the sacrament of Penance, which in turn may lead to the reception of Holy Communion at Mass.