In principle the church bars divorced and remarried Catholics from the reception of communion, but in concrete situations it can and should act pastorally, like a caring head of a household. The Austrian bishops’ letter put it this way: “According to the traditional practice of the church, [divorced and remarried Catholics] cannot participate in the full sacramental life, except when there are special circumstances that in each individual case will need to be clarified further in a conversation with an experienced priest.”
In a document of the Vienna priests’ council, Auxiliary Bishop Helmut Krätzl then defined some concrete conditions and guidelines for special circumstances—a kind of pastoral checklist for experienced pastors. These guidelines encourage confessor priests to admit remarried divorced Catholics to the sacraments:
• When the first marriage has been dissolved for a significant enough time that a reconciliation is no longer realistic.
• When the person, if he or she played some part in the dissolution of the first marriage, has repented of his or her actions and tried, insofar as possible, to make amends for them.
• When a later marriage has proven itself over a longer period as a moral reality with new obligations toward the partner and, possibly, children born to this marriage, so that dissolution of this second relationship would destroy a moral good and create additional damage.
• When this second marriage has shown clear signs of a faith life, such as personal religious practice (prayer, participation in worship, etc.) and conscientious religious education of the children.
• When under these conditions, remarried divorced people, with sincere religious motivation, ask to be admitted to the sacraments.
• When such permission would not create a scandal in the parish community
This approach reflects what many great theologians said decades ago, including Karl Lehmann, Walter Kasper, and Joseph Ratzinger, all of whom were cited by Krätzl. Today two of them are cardinals and one of them is the pope. Clearly there are good and weighty theological reasons to expand to the church worldwide the kind of practice the Austrian bishops provided for in their pastoral letter.