From his first days as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has consistently presented himself as a more forgiving figure than many of his predecessors. Beginning with a Holy Thursday ritual in 2013, in which Francis bathed the feet of 12 prison inmates (including two women), the former Argentinian cardinal has come to be seen as a refreshing influence by many liberal Catholics. Now, he seems to be turning this spirit of mercy to a controversial topic: divorce.
While it is often overshadowed by hot-button issues like gay rights, abortion and child abuse, divorce has long been considered a contentious subject within the Catholic church. Although there are an estimated 46,523 divorces filed each week in the United States alone, the Vatican and many parishes adhere to a strict Biblical interpretation: unless a marriage is annulled by the church, divorcees are unable to receive Communion or have a religious ceremony if they remarry. In some cases, the spouses of remarried Catholics are also denied Communion, as the Vatican does not recognize their marriages as legitimate.
The controversy of the issue was made clear in February 2014, when a German cardinal, Walter Kasper, delivered a speech at a closed meeting of his peers, suggesting that divorced Catholics be given the right to receive Communion after a period of penance. In response, five prominent cardinals, including the Vatican’s supreme court chief justice, published a book refuting his position. Francis’s top economic adviser also refuted his position in another book.
However, Francis’s response was far more accepting. In his first Sunday blessing as pontiff, the pope praised Kasper by name and mentioned his book, “Mercy,” which argues that mercy is at the theological center of Christianity. Francis also spoke repeatedly of the importance of mercy when he was questioned about his position on divorce. Finally, on September 21, he ordered a group of theologians and papal lawyers to find a way to simplify the annulment process, which is often time-consuming and expensive. By annulling a marriage, the Church essentially states that the partnership was never valid, for reasons such as a spouse not wanting to have children.
While some might find Francis’s 11-member commission a hollow approach, particularly given the popularity of divorce in secular society, theologians say that streamlining the annulment process avoids issues caused by Kasper’s suggestion of penance and mercy. For example, some have called his plan an act of “pseudo-mercy” in which divorcees are told their second marriages are tolerated but not approved, as they remain married to their first spouse in the eyes of Christ. Though an improved annulment process has yet to be unveiled, Francis’s support of such a measure is typically seen as a continuation of his forgiving papacy. While it is unlikely that being granted annulment will ever be as easy as obtaining a legal divorce, this venture offers new hope to Catholic divorcees around the world, who may eventually be able to take Communion with the rest of their parish.