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Pope offers ray of hope to divorced Catholics

Pope Francis.ETTORE FERRARI / EPA / file

Pope Francis, in a major proclamation on family life released Friday, seemed to open a limited pathway for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, signaling a more inclusive church and emphasizing mercy over judgment.

But he stopped short of changing church doctrine on that or any other major topic, including homosexuality, gay marriage, and contraception.

In an “apostolic exhortation” titled “Amoris Laetitia” — Latin for “The Joy of Love” — the pontiff reaffirmed the church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble. But he also said the church should adopt a more flexible and individualized approach to dealing with divorced and remarried couples.


“A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives,” Francis wrote. “By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.”

He said remarried people should consult their own consciences and, with the advice of their pastors, decide how God wants them to move forward in their faith lives.

Thomas H. Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, said the papal document offered “a much less prohibitive stance toward people who may be in ‘irregular unions.’ ”

Quoting the writings of Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges and the 20th-century psychoanalyst and humanist philosopher Erich Fromm alongside the teachings of Francis’s papal predecessors, “The Joy of Love” is a sprawling and occasionally lyrical handbook for marriage and family life.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, called it a “love letter to families.”

But for some American Catholics — especially those who were hoping for a fuller embrace of gay and divorced parishioners — the proclamation did not go nearly far enough.


Francis offered few specifics on how divorced and remarried Catholics might be readmitted to the sacrament of Communion.

But the Rev. James T. Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College, called the document “a revolution of tone” that aligned with the larger themes of Francis’s papacy: mercy, compassion, and a vision of the church as a “field hospital” tending to the needs of the spiritually wounded.

Catholics at St. Anthony Shrine & Ministry Center in downtown Boston said Friday they welcomed Francis’s pronouncement.

“Anyone that wants to come into a Catholic church and receive Communion, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to,” said Liz Cuff, 34, of Jamaica Plain.

The 256-page “apostolic exhortation,” released by the Vatican at noon Rome time, addresses a sweeping range of challenges confronting modern families: For those living in extreme poverty, it speaks of hunger and homelessness; for the more fortunate, it laments dinner tables where “everyone is surfing on a mobile phone.”

It delves into the real-world practice and pitfalls of marital love, discussing household routines, patience, electronic devices, sex, death. And it describes how the church can support modern marriage and family life.

“This is practical advice on issues our family deals with — ‘Put your phone away,’ ” said Chad C. Pecknold, a systematic theology professor at the Catholic University of America. “Parts of this exhortation really read like you are sitting down with Pope Francis and having a counseling session.”


The document concludes a global conversation about family issues that Francis began shortly after he became pope three years ago.

Some church observers initially thought Francis might update church teachings on topics such as artificial birth control and gay marriage.

But that review, which involved worldwide surveys of dioceses and two gatherings of bishops in Rome, highlighted deep ideological divisions within the global church.

When the second gathering — known as a synod — ended last fall, it seemed unlikely Francis would propose dramatic changes to church teaching.

Indeed, “Amoris Laetitia” clearly states that same-sex unions “may not simply be equated with marriage” and that children need both a mother and a father. That reflects long-held Catholic teachings.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an advocacy group for gay Catholics, said she felt a sad irony reading the document as she prepared breakfast for her daughters at home in Hyde Park early Friday. Her spouse, Becky, was in California with her mother, who is in hospice care.

“There is no sense of the possibility of joy and wholeness and sacredness in our relationships, and the families that we create,” Duddy-Burke said. “We keep hoping for something better from the institutional church, and we keep coming up empty.”

The papal exhortation also proposes no changes to the church’s opposition to artificial forms of birth control, a prohibition that polls suggest all but a small fraction of American Catholics ignore.

And it stops far short of making explicit changes to the church’s teachings on divorce and remarriage. Without an annulment — a formal dissolution of a marriage — Catholics who remarry after divorce are seen as living in sin, and therefore unfit to receive the Eucharist unless they abstain from sex.


Still, Francis embraced a vaguely worded compromise forged by German bishops at the end of the second synod on family issues last October that suggested divorced and remarried people could become more fully integrated into the church, depending on their individual situations, with pastoral counseling.

It is unclear how large an effect Francis’s exhortation will have on divorced and remarried Catholics.

In practice, many already defy the prohibition and take Communion anyway, and many pastors leave the matter up to individuals.

A Malden man visiting the St. Anthony Shrine, who would give only his first name, Jeremiah, said he continued to receive Communion despite his divorce.

“I’ll meet my own maker,” he said. “If Jesus is going to be mad at me for that, so be it.”

The pope had left many questions unanswered about exactly how divorced and remarried people could be readmitted to Communion.

William C. Mattison III, interim dean of the Catholic University of America School of Theology and Religious Studies, said the only explicit mention of Communion in this context came in a single, cautious footnote.

Mattison said this raised the possibility the church “could easily backtrack.”

Other theologians said the pronouncement would take time to understand and implement, and could eventually result in differing approaches in different countries, as determined by local bishops’ conferences.


“This document does not say to [divorced and remarried Catholics], you can go to Communion tomorrow,” said Timothy O’Malley , a faculty member in the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. “It says there may be possibilities that have to be explored.”

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, issued a statement urging people to read the document slowly and carefully, as Francis suggested.

A spokesman said O’Malley was not available for comment.

Globe correspondent J.D. Capelouto contributed to this report. Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.