The diocese of Freiburg has issued a pastoral manual which allows remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion. So far, it's alone in Germany and it's moved ahead of a discussion in the worldwide church.
The Catholic diocese of Freiburg has issued a manual for pastoral care which reverses a rule saying that divorcees who remarry are not allowed to partake of the church's most important ritual.
The Church does not recognize divorce, so that, traditionally, those who remarry in a civil ceremony after a civil divorce are not permitted to partake of the sacraments. One of the authors, Andreas Möhrle, said the document wants to show that remarried divorcees can take their place as a full part of the Church."
Freiburg is not any diocese and its bishop is not any bishop. Freiburg is Germany's second largest diocese and Robert Zollitsch is chairman of the German Bishops' Conference. Although it's not his name that appears on the manual but that of two leading clerics in the diocesan administration, his name will be associated with it.
The Vatican responded promptly with a statement by its spokesman Federico Lombardi, saying that such unilateral initiatives "run the risk of causing confusion."
It's certainly put pressure on other German dioceses. "It raises questions," says Stephan Haering, professor of canon law at the University of Munich. "I've heard here in Munich that the local archbishop has already been confronted with questions about the topic."
In a statement on Thursday (10.10.2013), Zollitsch said he'd be talking about the issue of remarried divorcees next week with Pope Francis in Rome, and admitted that the manual was still being discussed and had been issued too early.
The issue of remarried divorcees has been a problem for the German church for the last 20 years. From the start, Freiburg played an important role. Its bishop was one of three who issued a joint pastoral letter in 1993, suggesting that remarried divorcees should be allowed to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion.
A hard answer
They received an answer from Rome a year later. In a letter to all the world's bishops, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was then prefect of the Congregation of the Faith and who became Pope Benedict XVI, wrote, "If divorcees are remarried in a civil ceremony, they find themselves in a situation which objectively contradicts God's law. As long as this situation continues, they may not receive communion."
The reply was seen as an affront to the three bishops, but it ended the official discussion, although it couldn't stop the challenge to pastoral care. Divorce - and remarriage in the hope that it will work the second time around - are both part of German social reality. According to official statistics, there were 179,000 divorces in 2012, and a third of all marriages end in divorce.
But divorce is not allowed in the Catholic Church. Marriage is a sacrament, entered into before God and according to God's law. All the church can do is annul a marriage, thus opening the way for a second church wedding.
That has little to do with the reality in many parishes today. Even the marriages of committed church-goers collapse. Even Catholic hearts fall in love again. Any many priests know how torn many church-goers are between their hearts and their church.
When Pope Benedict came to Berlin in September 2011, the then German president, Christian Wulff, himself a remarried Catholic, confronted him with the issue. In his welcome speech, he said, "The Church is not a parallel society. It lives in the midst of this society, in the midst of this world and in the midst of this time. That's why it is always challenged with new questions: how mercifully does it deal with breaks in people's life stories?"
The issue is one which also concerns Germany's other main religious grouping, the Lutheran-Reformed church. It recognizes divorce and remarriage, and its national federation, the EKD, published an "Aid to Orientation" in June in which it recognized the variety of life choices in Germany and moved away from seeing marriage as the only ideal. Many priests and church-goers were relieved at the new line, but it also led to months of controversy, with the Catholic Church being among its most vocal critics.
Nothing like a revolution
Freiburg's new manual is by no means revolutionary. Some theologians said they were pleased, but many said they were skeptical as to whether this would help achieve a consensus on the issue among the Catholic bishops.
Haering, professor of canon law at the University of Munich, says he's not sure that the new manual is a constructive step. "If you introduce rules and then they have to be changed because they don't conform with those of the church as a whole, then that's a problem," he told DW. That applies especially when the Church is just about to consider the issue. "If the new rules turn out to be different from those in Freiburg, then it's not easy to hold back the practice in Freiburg and introduce the church-wide rules."
The manual opens the way for reform - it emphasizes the importance of the individual conscience, and thus goes against the official church line which gives priority to theological considerations.
Pope Francis, who describes himself as a "man of the Church," has been warning the Catholic Church against hard-heartedness. He's used a language of questions and doubts as he spoken thoughtfully about the church's relationship with remarried divorcees. His first global bishops' synod to be held next year will deal with pastoral care in the family and the issue of remarried divorcees will appear as an official topic.