Divorced Catholics who remarry are committing adultery, according to Roman Catholic law, and can't receive communion or sacraments. A group of priests in Freiburg are fighting to change these rules.
"I have not taken a vow to follow the canon law but I have a mission to work with people. That is what spiritual guidance is all about."
These words come from the Freiburg priest Konrad Irslinger, who has had enough. Together with 13 other priests and deacons from the Archdiocese of Freiburg, he is openly criticizing the Catholic Church's position on remarried couples.
The Church views marriage as an indissoluble sacrament. Remarried Catholics are excluded from the sacraments because, according to church law, they have committed adultery with their partner and are living in sin.
The group of Freiburg priests struggle to accept such dogma from a church that preaches compassion. They have launched an Internet petition, which 195 priests from the archdiocese have signed.
"We are using our signatures to make a statement - that we are guided by compassion in dealing with divorcees who have remarried," the petition states.
The priests are aware that they are violating church law. They have acknowledged publicly what is already common practice in many parishes: Officially, priests are not allowed to give communion or the last rights to remarried Catholics, or even hear confession. However, many do so because they believe canon law has not kept up with the times.
Today, there are a growing number of committed Catholics in their second or even third marriage. They say they feel like "sinners" and "second-class Christians" in whom the Catholic Church shows little interest.
"The pressure comes from people sitting here and explaining how disappointed and affected they are and who then leave the Church," Irslinger said. "We no longer want to hide this development but make it public." He and many other priests are hopeful that the Church can resolve this dilemma. For them, it's a constant balancing act between compassion and canon law.
The Freiburg theologians are far from being the first to call for a new policy with regard to remarried Catholics. The topic was addressed back in 1975 at the Würzburg Synod. And a pastoral letter to divorcees published by a group of bishops in the upper Rhine region caused a furore. It was signed by former Freiburg archbishop Oskar Saier, Mainz Bishop Karl Lehmann and Cardinal Walter Kasper, who at the time was the former Rottenburg-Stuttgart bishop. They called for remarried Catholics to be allowed to decide themselves whether or not to receive communion.
Divorced Catholics who remarry cannot receive the sacraments
To reach out to remarried Catholics, the Church doesn't even need to abandon its doctrine of indissolubility of marriage, argues the Freiburg theologian Eberhard Schockenhoff. The Church, he believes, needs to show remarried Catholics a path to reconciliation with their life story.
There is no shortage of theological approaches. But Rome appears to lack any desire to reach out to the faithful. On a trip to the Vatican, Freiburg Archbishop Robert Zollitsch was rebuked by German Pope Benedict for seeking more compassion for remarried Catholics. And the Pope let it be known that no one should expect the doctrine to change.
So it comes as no surprise that the Freiburg Archbishop is cautious and has shown little enthusiasm about the priests' petition. In the past, he has often indicated that he, too, would like to relax the rules - but only in consensus with the Vatican and German bishops, and not all of them are in accord.
Conservative members of this group, such as Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meissner and Regensburg Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, are sceptical about reforming rules for remarried Catholics. Meanwhile, the diocese has invited the group of priests who signed the petition to a meeting on Thursday, which Archbishop Zollitsch will attend. The rebellious priests are optimistic and don't intend to give in. "We have received much positive feedback from priests from other dioceses, from Hamburg to Munich," say co-initiator Father Irslinger.
Author: Antje Dechert / jb
Editor: Joanna Impey
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