Divorced and cohabitating couples: pastoral strategies
The legalisation of divorce will, little by little, bring changes in Maltese society. Or perhaps it will make us realise that the socio-cultural situation had already been changed. The number of couples living together without being married had been on the increase for a number of years. Divorce theoretically gives these couple the possibility of regularising their situation by marriage; something which if done will benefit society. Some will do so others will not. The near future will probably be characterised by the increase of both cohabitating and divorced couples.
This situation presents the Church in Malta with new challenges, threats and possibilities. These challenges will be addressed during a three half-day course of permanent formation for Maltese priest which starts today, Monday June 11. Aided by the input of foreign and local experts in the fields of moral and pastoral theology Maltese priests will reflect on this evolving complex situation.
Such reflection is not only happening in Malta. This is a reality which affects different parts of the world. Debates and actions, some of them very controversial, characterise this debate. Germany is one of the countries where the debate is particularly strong. Former German President, Christian Wulff, himself a Catholic and a divorcee, brought up the issue during the Pope’s visit to Germany last November. A number of German bishops and theologians have repeatedly stated that this issue has to be studied more. The example of the Orthodox Church is often mentioned.
It has just been announced that more than 150 priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Freiburg, in Germany published a statement on the internet saying that they regularly give communion to divorced couples who had remarried. Since then more priests have added their names to the original list. The Archdiocese of Freiburg is particularly important as it is led by Archbishop Rober Zollitsch who is also President of the German Episcopal Conference.
It would be a mistake if the action of these priests would be looked at as just an act of rebellion against church policy on the matter. As they themselves state it should be looked at as an act of pastoral solicitude. They are conscious that their action is not in line with normal practice adding that their pastoral decision was guided by mercy. Their inspiration is the basic pastoral principle salus animarum suprema lex (the salvation of souls must always be the supreme law); even if in the line of the current official position this interpretation is mistaken.
“We take account of the conscious decision made by the individuals involved and the real life situation that follows. … In our communities, remarried divorcees take communion and receive the sacraments of reconciliation and the anointing of the sick, with our approval. … Those who divorce and remarry also participate in parish councils and play an active role in the catechesis and community activities.”
The priests also refer to the Memorandum signed last year by hundreds of German speaking theologians. I had discussed this memorandum in my blog entitled “Church 2011: The Need for a new beginning” (http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110226/blogs/church-2011-the-need-for-a-new-beginning.352002 ). The memorandum was published in the book “An opportunity for reconciliation?” by the theologian Eberhard Schockenhoff who is one of the professors addressing Maltese priests during this course of permanent formation.
The Archdiocese of Freiburg said in a statement that though it may be possible for a priest to make a “conscious,” “responsible and well-grounded” choice in certain concrete cases, this can in no way become a “general and undifferentiated” practice that goes against the universal Church doctrine.
The Pope, during his speeches to the World Meeting of the Families held in Milan during the first weekend of this June, addressed the difficulties that face divorced couples. While answering questions he remarked that divorce is “one of the great causes of suffering for the Church today, and we do not have simple solutions.” He said that the Church must be sensitive to the pastoral needs of divorced couples, and “must do everything possible so that such people feel loved and accepted, that they are not 'outsiders' even if they cannot receive absolution and the Eucharist.”
In his homily at the closing Mass the Pontiff returned to that topic, saying:
“I should also like to address a word to the faithful who, even though they agree with the Church’s teachings on the family, have had painful experiences of breakdown and separation. I want you to know that the Pope and the Church support you in your struggle. I encourage you to remain united to your communities, and I earnestly hope that your dioceses are developing suitable initiatives to welcome and accompany you.”
It is not probable that the Maltese priest gathered for this permanent formation course will issue any statement similar to that of the Freiburg colleagues but it is very positive that the new pastoral challenges are being studies.