In interviews on the eve of his departure for the Austrian bishops’ ad limina visit in Rome, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said he was certain that under Pope Francis the Church would find new ways of incorporating remarried divorcees in the life of the Church.
“This Pope speaks so much about mercy, that I’m sure that a new way of coping with failure will be found,” Cardinal Schönborn said.
“One thing is clear: the Church must pay far greater attention to those whose marriages fail and must reach out to them. No one must get the feeling that their life in the Catholic community has come to an end because their marriage has failed,” the cardinal said.
Ninety-five per cent of Austrians who had filled in the Vatican questionnaire on the family were in favour of allowing remarried divorcees to receive the sacraments, Cardinal Schönborn said, adding that the Austrian bishops would be handing over the questionnaire results in Rome.
The Church must adopt a more rational, down-to-earth approach as far as the reality of life was concerned, the cardinal warned.
“We in the Church tacitly live with the fact that the majority of young people, including those who have close ties to the Church, quite naturally live together.
“The simple fact is that the environment has changed,” he said. This was “in no way” a call to change canon law on his part, he underlined, but he wanted to show how difficult it was to bring the ideal family model into line with reality.
After the Austrian bishops’ two-hour audience with Pope Francis on Monday Schönborn said in a live interview on the main Austrian TV news that the meeting “was a truly great lesson on how to live the Gospel today”.
The Pope had spoken of his observations of marriage in Latin America and underlined that it was the Church’s duty to accompany people on their way through life.
“People are on the way. They live together, have children, some then get married in a register office and later perhaps in church. The important thing is to accompany them on their way,” Schönborn explained.
This sign of the Roman Catholic Church’s willingness to accept the possible failure of Marriage in today’s society will be welcomed by many in that Church who have felt side-lined in their need to be incorporated into the sacramental life of the Church.
What usually happens in my own Church (ACANZP), is that divorced people seeking to be married in Church, are questioned as to their true regret that their original marriage failed, and that they acknowledge their own part in the breakdown of that marriage – before being accepted by the Church for the blessing of a new marriage relationship. This is especially important for Church members whose first marriage had ended in failure, because of irretrievable breakdown of the relationship.
As a priest in the Anglican Church, I have come to believe that God does not abandon those who have failed to live up to a previous marriage commitment, and that the Church should always be prepared to accept that God might prefer the people concerned – having expressed their regret that the breakdown of their first marriage was partly due to their own failure to live up to the marriage covenant – to commit to a new relationship, with the hope that this may be undertaken with the benefit of the lessons learned from previous failure.
This is in line with the fact that the Church is in the business of administering mutual reconciliation of a separated couple where possible, but where this is not possible, to set the sinner on a path to penitence and the possibility of new life – with open access to the sacraments of the Church. This seems to be the thought behind Cardinal Schönborn’s message to the media, that would seem to coincide with the expectation of the Roman Catholic rank and file, who have been waiting for some breakthrough in the deadlock of negativity towards those marriages that have fallen by the wayside; perceiving the need for compassion towards those who seek the Church’s blessing on their prospect of finding stability, with a fresh start in a new monogamous relationship.
This new initiative on the part of the Roman Catholic Church would fulfil a need in the lives of those whose initial marriages have ended in failure, but who are determined to do their best in a new relationship – under the guidance and help of God through their sacramental restoration to the grace that only God can supply.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand