VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Vatican put a German diocese on notice Tuesday that it disapproves of its challenge to church teaching on whether Catholics who remarry can receive Communion, saying the issue will be discussed by the whole church at a meeting next year of the world's bishops.
The diocese of Freiburg issued an official set of guidelines this week explaining how such divorced and remarried Catholics could receive the sacrament. It said if certain criteria are met - if the couple was trying to live according to the faith and acted with laudable motivation - they could receive Communion and other sacraments of the church.
Church teaching holds that Catholics who don't have their first marriage annulled, or declared null by a church tribunal, before remarrying cannot participate fully in the church's sacraments because they are essentially committing adultery. The issue has vexed the Vatican for decades and has left generations of Catholics feeling shunned by their church.
Annulments are often difficult - if not impossible to obtain - and can take years to process when they do come through.
But the Vatican said Tuesday that Freiburg's local initiative "risks causing confusion." It said the issue will be discussed in 2014 at a major meeting of bishops that was announced Tuesday. And in a polite but unsubtle jab at Freiburg's one-off decision, the Vatican issued a reminder that it was "important to undertake such a path in the full communion of the church community."
Pope Francis has said the issue must be addressed and has hinted that the Catholic Church might follow the lead of Orthodox Christians, who in similar states are allowed to receive Communion. The accommodation would be in keeping with Francis' message of the church being merciful and inclusive.
In fact, the Freiburg diocese quoted Francis in justifying its decision. It noted that the guidelines support Francis' call to find a "new balance" between the church's rules and the need for it to be merciful. It quoted him as warning that "otherwise the moral house of the church will fall like a house of cards."
Francis announced Tuesday that he would hold an extraordinary synod on the family in October 2014, his first synod and the third ever to use the more restricted format aimed at facilitating discussion and decision-making. The issue of married and divorced Catholics will certainly be discussed, as will the church's entire approach to ministering to married couples.
Francis has emphasized how the church needs to do a better job preparing young people for marriage, lamenting how newlyweds today seem to think that marriage isn't a lifelong commitment but just a "provisional" one. At the same time, though, he has also said the church process for annulling marriages isn't working and must be reviewed.
While such synods are held every two years or so, this one will be different because it will involve a much smaller group of bishops - the presidents of national bishops' conferences. Only two other such restricted, or extraordinary, synods have been held since the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that encouraged greater participation of bishops in church governance.
Francis has said he wants bishops to have a greater say in running the church and has already set about reforming the Vatican's synod structure, which to date has proven to be little more than a forum for talking. That one of his first major initiatives as pope involved convening the third extraordinary synod ever is an indication of how important an issue he considers this form of collegiality in church governance.