BY CRISTINA ODONE
CATHOLICS WHOSE marriages have broken down fear that the new Vatican instruction will prevent the bishops from carrying out recommendations for pastoral actions to help divorced and separated Catholics.
"Divorced and separated Catholics will find this document very upsetting", Christine Hacklett of the Association for Separated and Divorced Catholics told the Catholic Herald this week. "Our biggest fear is that the bishops will now feel they cannot continue to address the issue at their Conference."
In its letter, published this week, the Vatican reiterated that divorced and remarried Catholics cannot receive Holy Communion unless their first marriage has been annulled by the Church.
The letter came as the bishops of England and Wales prepared for their 14-17 November Conference, during which the issue was to be addressed in its pastoral implications.
Fr Tim Buckley, who last Easter submitted a report to the Conference in which he urged bishops to seek reform to give individuals greater freedom to follow their consciences, said that "there may be some bishops who will take the attitude that the matter is now closed Rome has spoken".
But Nicholas Coote, the Assistant Secretary to the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, told the Catholic Herald that the issue will remain on the bishops' agenda when they meet next month. He said it had "gained new urgency" with the publication of the letter, written by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The letter stressed that marriage is not "simply a private decision" but also an "ecclesial and social situation". Catholics in invalid second marriages who wish to receive Communion must separate or go to confession and "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence." Only those couples who live by this "brother-sister solution" can apply to the internal forum, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Head of the Congregation, argues. The hardline letter, seen as part of the Pope's campaign against subjective morality, leaves "no room for manoeuvre" for those Catholics who have hitherto been able to refer to the internal forum.
Jimmy Connelly, of the Association for Separated and Divorced Catholics, said he hoped the seven-page letter would not result in a "clamp-down" on those "parish priests who have been sympathetic to what they sense is a real hurt and anxiety about being alienated from the Church."
Fr John Murphy, of the Catholic Advisory Marriage Council, told the Catholic Herald that he hoped the
bishops would emphasise the need for "pastoral care" for those whose marriages had broken down, and draw up plans for addressing those needs. Divorce and separation "should not be so much of a blind spot in the Church", he said. The number of people who apply for annulment each year ranges from 1,500 to 2,000. Fr John pointed out that 90 per cent of those cases that reach the two-stage process of the Tribunal for annulment actually are granted the annulment. "The one hopeful thing in the letter," said Fr John Murphy, "is its insistence on the community diversifying its care for people who are remarried. That pastoral initiative must include overcoming any form of prejudice which still exists in the Church."
Cardinal Ratzinger's seven page document is seen by
Vatican watchers as Rome's response to the three German bishops who last year wrote a pastoral letter asking for re-evaluation of the existing system of annulment and divorce.
Fr Tim Buckley, who studied the pastoral situation of remarried and divorced Catholics throughout the country in consultation with a number of support groups, said:"there are injustices in the system that need to he addressed. The present Canon Law is flawed."
He urged in his report to the bishops that a "broader ministry be explored to help those who survive the trauma of divorce".
Support groups, including the Association of Separated and Divorced Catholics, Beginning Experience, and Rainbow, in Liverpool were, he said, "examples of this broader ministry already existing within the Church."