The Church in Ireland should follow the lead of bishops elsewhere and issue guidelines to clarify if and when divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics here can receive Holy Communion, a prominent theologian has said.
It comes after Pope Francis wrote to bishops in Argentina commending them on guidelines that permit some civilly-remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion under strict circumstances.
The leaked papal letter – the authenticity of which has been confirmed – has provoked some controversy with some groups publicly criticising the Pope for what appears to be a relaxation of stance.
Fr Gerry O’Hanlon from the Dublin-based Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice said Irish guidelines on the issue “would be a good idea”.
In his document on family issues Amores Laetitia – The Joy of Love – earlier this year, the Pope was vague on the issue of whether or not Catholics who are divorced and civilly-remarried can receive Holy Communion, but many commentators believed that Francis left the door open. His new letter confirms this reading of the Pope’s document.
Fr O’Hanlon described The Joy of Love as a “major document” still in need of unpacking at a local level. “Any kind of guidance or direction that comes out of such a consultation would be important to mediate to people”.
He added that, “The Pope does make it clear that a universal document has to have local application, so it would be important that the Irish hierarchy study it and communicate it in a way that’s suitable to our own culture here and the questions we have.”
In their document, the bishops in Argentina map out a discernment path allowing some Catholics who have civilly divorced and remarried to receive Communion in certain circumstances. In his letter, the Pope said there were “no other interpretations” of Amores Laetitia. However, other bishops – notably in North America and Poland – have insisted that there will be no change in the Church’s practice on the issue.
Fr O’Hanlon said that discernment processes for divorced-and-remarried Catholics was something St John Paul had envisaged in his 1981 exhortation Familiaris Consortio, but “what is new is that it seems the end product of the discernment process is more open than what John Paul II gave to understand”.
Insisting that this is in line with established teaching, Fr O’Hanlon said, “it’s not a breach in that it’s in continuity with John Paul II and with traditional Catholic teaching that there be discernment with regard to individual cases.
“I think it is more than that in relation to the parameters in which that process was undertaken. Whereas John Paul II put a definite marker in terms of what was permissible for the discernment, this Pope is opening it wider and that is a change,” he said.
Meanwhile, New York-based canonist Fr Gerald Murray said that Church teaching has not changed, but that the Pope had given “a permission” to clergy, not a directive on the issue of Holy Communion.
“The teaching on adultery cannot change. The application in Church law, which is what we call the discipline of the sacraments - that is what is attempting to be changed here, and in fact, I think it’s quite clear that the Pope has given a change,” he said.