Pope Francis revisits 'punishing' Catholics who get divorced
Pope Francis married 20 couples from different social backgrounds during a ceremony at St Peter's basilica in Vatican City, on September 14, 2014 (AFP)

Millions of devotees remain banned from receiving communion – but meeting of bishops raises hopes of ban being loosened

Elio Cirimbelli, a 66-year-old family counsellor from Bolzano in north-eastern Italy, goes to church most Sundays. He is a devout Roman Catholic but when he attends mass he cannot receive holy communion and must stay in the pew while the rest of the congregation goes up to receive the sacramental bread and wine. "It's very hard, let's put it that way," Cirimbelli says. "We have a church that can be a mother, but sometimes it is a mother which not does embrace but which punishes."

Millions of Catholics around the world are similarly affected by the church's ban on communion for those who have divorced – as Cirimbelli did in 1987 – and then remarried.

In a global community divided by headline-grabbing issues such as abortion, contraception and gay sex, divorce is far from the most inflammatory topic of conversation. But for a huge number of ordinary people it is a regular and painful reminder that their church considers them ineligible for a right it grants to almost all other Catholics – murderers included.

True to his image as the pontiff who listens to the people and wants to build a less hectoring and more inclusive church, Pope Francis now wants to start talking about it.

Before a meeting of international bishops in Rome next Sunday, hopes are high that the pope might decide to set in motion a loosening of the ban which would finally allow Cirimbelli, who married his second wife in 1991, to take holy communion after 23 long years.

"I met Pope Francis in 2013 and I said, 'We are what the Catholic church considers an irregular family, but we entrust our sufferings – and the sufferings of many people I meet as part of my work – to your hands'," said Cirimbelli, a father of three. "But we hope and believe in a merciful church.' The pope embraced me and said, 'No, the church will not abandon you'."

As the director of a support centre for separated and divorced people in Bolzano, this year Cirimbelli also met Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the synod of bishops. "I can't tell you everything he said, but I can say that they believe the pope this time – unlike other times when he was not pope – does not want the discussion to become solely academic. The pope believes, and they believe, that the time has come for concrete responses."

What Cirimbelli would like to see is the adoption of an idea put forward most prominently by a German cardinal, Walter Kasper, according to which Rome would look to the Eastern Orthodox church for a way forward and allow some people who had remarried civilly to do a period of penance that would eventually lift their ban on holy communion. He is keen to stress that his proposed reform would leave the indissolubility of marriage intact and would merely involve taking a more accepting, tolerant attitude towards the person's second – civil – marriage.

A theologian whose views used to bring him into conflict with Vatican hierarchy, Kasper is a man whose time has, perhaps, now come: praised for his pragmatic and merciful approach by Francis in his first Sunday blessing last year, he was chosen by the pope to make the introductory address to the synod in February this year and, while the pope is being careful about what he says, many believe they are on the same page.

Tina Beattie, a liberal Catholic theologian, believes that the stage has been set for a change, but also for "an epochal, defining struggle".

"The ground has been well-prepared for a shift on the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments," she said. "I don't think this will involve any change in doctrine. It will be a pragmatic shift which will put pastoral practice before doctrinal rigidity."

But not everyone wants this, and opponents of the proposal are not willing to go down without a fight. In the weeks leading up to the extraordinary synod on the family, due to run from 5-19 October, the conservative chorus has been growing louder among the so-called princes of the church, with six cardinals coming out publicly against Kasper and a collection of "anti" essays being published in five different countries on Wednesday. Among the critics are Gerhard Ludwig Müller, head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and George Pell, the Australian picked by Francis to run the Vatican's new secretariat for the economy.

Robert Dodaro, Rome-based professor of theology and editor of the essays, said the Kasper model advocates a form of "pseudo-mercy" which would, in effect, lead the church to treat remarried divorcees as though they were in a "second-class marriage".

"How would you feel if you were told: well, your second marriage – we're tolerating it but we're not accepting it?" he said. "The Catholic church doesn't recognise divorce, so those individuals are still married … in the eyes of Christ. They are still married to their original spouses." The second marriage is a contradiction in terms because as long as that original spouse remains alive that bond is still in effect."

At least one of the cardinals writing in the book advocates the hiring of more canon lawyers to marriage tribunals to enable the streamlining of the marriage annulment process.

And some observers believe that, rather than Kasper's suggestion, this could be the area of eventual compromise. Last Saturday, the Vatican announced a new commission that seemed to be heading in that direction. A statement said its aim would be to reform the annulment-granting process, "with the objective of simplifying its procedure, making it more streamlined, and safeguarding the principle of the indissolubility of matrimony".

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