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In busy week, Pope Francis may float compromise on divorce

In the Catholic church, just like on Capitol Hill, sometimes you can almost smell a compromise solution to a thorny problem taking shape. That may be the case now with regard to allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, among the headaches facing Pope Francis during what promises to be a very busy week.

Believe it or not, the classically Italian concept of “mamma-ism,” meaning control over a married couple by a domineering mom, may play a key role.

Starting today, Francis will take part in three days of meetings with his “G8” council of eight cardinal advisors, a body in which Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston is the lone American. They’re expected to examine Vatican finances and downsizing the bureaucracy.


Next, Francis will preside over a Feb. 20-21 meeting of most of the cardinals of the world just before Saturday’s consistory. That’s an event in which the pope will induct 19 new members into the church’s most exclusive club, the College of Cardinals.

The session with cardinals will set the table for a global summit of bishops in October to talk about marriage and the family. Among the hard questions is whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment, a church declaration voiding the first marriage, should be allowed to receive communion and the other sacraments of the church.

It’s hard to overstate how important the issue is at the retail level. A 2007 study found that in the United States, nearly 10 percent of Catholics are divorced and remarried 10 years after their first marriage, a figure that rises to 18 percent after 20 years.

Finding a way to let those folks receive the sacraments has been kicked around for decades, and Francis seemed to open the door to relaxation of the rules during remarks in July. Senior cardinals have differed, with the coordinator of the G8 panel saying change is possible but both the Vatican’s doctrinal czar and O’Malley signaling it’s probably not.


German Cardinal-to-be Gerhard Müller and O’Malley have argued that given Christ’s teaching on marriage – “what God has joined, let no one separate” – somebody who remarries without an annulment is at odds with the faith, and therefore can’t receive the sacraments.

Sometimes mocked as “Catholic divorce,” an annulment is a declaration by a church court that a marriage never existed in the first place because one of the conditions for validity wasn’t satisfied, such as free consent by both parties.

Facing that tension, a compromise may be coming into focus: No change on the sacraments ban, but an easier and broader process for granting annulments.

O’Malley floated that idea during a recent Globe interview, saying that perhaps annulments could be sped up by eliminating the possibility of appeal to Rome, a provision that often means a case can drag on for years if one of the parties wants to contest the result.

A Feb. 15 conference of church lawyers in the Italian region of Liguria seemed to point in the same direction, arguing that the grounds upon which an annulment can be granted ought to be expanded.

In particular, these church lawyers proposed adding “mamma-ism” to the list, meaning a situation in which spouses are so completely under the thumb of one of their parents – usually, according to the jurists, the mom – that they don’t have free will.


Whatever one makes of “mamma-ism” as a legal or psychological concept, it illustrates how eager many Catholic officials are to make annulments more user-friendly.

Here’s why.

Many Catholic conservatives believe now is the wrong moment to be weakening the church’s defense of the sanctity of marriage, especially in light of growing momentum for gay marriage across the developed world. As they see it, letting divorced and remarried Catholics return to the sacraments en masse would amount to throwing in the towel.

Liberals and moderates wanting change can’t just ignore this pushback from those concerned about the doctrinal and political implications.

Faster, easier, and cheaper annulments may be a way to give everybody at least some of what they want – upholding the indissolubility of marriage, but also providing millions of divorced and remarried Catholics an exit strategy from their form of limbo.

We’ll know soon if that’s how it looks to the almost 200 cardinals of the world, who will be sharing their thoughts with Francis this week.

John L. Allen Jr. is the Globe’s associate editor, covering global Catholicism. Contact him at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr or Facebook.