The Pope's statements have the internet abuzz - but their importance has been exaggerated

For the last couple of days Catholic social media and the blogosphere have been preoccupied with some reported remarks by Pope Francis.

The remarks carry weight because they come from an impeccable source – the president of the Chilean bishops’ conference, Bishop Santiago Silva, and its secretary Bishop Fernando Ramos – and because they relate to the great ecclesial controversy of the moment: over Communion for the remarried.

But as far as I can tell, the significance of the Pope’s comments has been greatly exaggerated. Headlines like “Chilean bishops: Pope against Communion for the remarried” go too far.

The Chilean bishops were speaking to the newspaper El Mercurio, which paraphrased their remarks and included a few direct quotations. Here’s the key passage:

¿Comunión a los divorciados? Con la misma decisión, el Pontífice negó que su objetivo con el sínodo al que convocó sobre la familia haya sido autorizar la comunión de los divorciados. Les habló de que no hay “moral de situación”, dicen otras fuentes. “Nos cuesta mucho ver los grises”, les habría dicho, cuando contó un caso personal, familiar suyo. “Tengo una sobrina casada con un divorciado, bueno, católico, de misa dominical y que cuando se confiesa le dice al sacerdote ‘sé que no puede absolverme, pero deme su bendición'”.

The Pope says a few separate things here:

  • The objective of the Family Synod was not to authorise Communion for the remarried (“autorizar la comunión de los divorciados”).
  • “It’s not a matter of ‘situation ethics’.” (“Les habló de que no hay ‘moral de situación.’”)
  • It’s difficult for us to see grey areas. (“Nos cuesta mucho ver los grises.”)
  • His niece is married to a divorced man who doesn’t take Communion, but tells the priest: “I know you can’t absolve me, but give me a blessing.” (“Sé que no puede absolverme, pero deme su bendición.”)

None of these statements amounts to either an affirmation or a rejection of Communion for the remarried. True, the story about the nephew-in-law is suggestive. Like the African Catholics Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith blogged about the other day, the nephew is quietly living by Church teaching on Communion. He is aware that, as long as he is having sex outside a valid marriage, he cannot make the resolution “…by the help of Your grace, I will try not to sin again”, and so he cannot be absolved.

But the Pope has told this story before, going to the brink of reaffirming Church teaching, but not quite doing so.

The Pope’s rejection of “situation ethics” might indicate his scepticism about Communion for the remarried. Situation ethics disputes the idea of exceptionless moral norms. And most of those who support Communion for the remarried propose something quite close to situation ethics: they argue that one cannot simply say sex outside marriage is to be avoided.

But the Pope immediately goes on to talk about the need to see “grey areas”, which is a favourite metaphor of the situation ethicist. So these two vague comments cancel each other out.

Later in the interview, the Pope is quoted as saying that Communion should be denied to politicians who support abortion. Perhaps the remarks have been misinterpreted because one headline conflated the two points, saying: “Pope to Chilean bishops: no to Communion for remarried divorcees or pro-abortion politicians”. Yet in the original El Mercurio article, the two issues are treated quite separately.

Perhaps the Pope is leaning towards making an explicit reaffirmation of the Catholic doctrine on Communion. But those who are waiting for such a reaffirmation may have to wait a little longer.