BY VIVIANE HEWITT IN ROME AND CRISTINA ODONE
ITALIAN BISHOPS BROUGHT
divorce out into the open this week when they issued a document that represents the first public attempt by the Church to examine the once taboo subject.
The Italian Episcopal Conference's 12-page paper, which amounts to a list of guidelines for would-be practising Catholic divorcees, states that remarried divorcees can be re-inserted within the Church if they live chaste lives regarding their new partners as "good friends".
Such couples may partake of the Eucharist but preferably "in a church where they are not known, to avoid scandal".
The document was compiled following a year of private lobbying at diocesan level by Italian divorcees wishing to be re-admitted to the Church.
Observers believe the paper to be the manifestation of episcopal awareness that total closure to problems such as divorce places the Church in a losing position.
It was predicted in Rome that the document could prove the first of many soon to come from bishops worldwide on the subject of Catholic divorcees.
The bishops state that remarried divorcees may be admitted to the sacraments providing they pledge to interrupt their sex lives, transforming their bond into one Of "friendship, respect and mutual help".
In March 1992, Pope John Paul II himself launched an appeal to bishops to adopt a truly "caring" attitude to divorcees in their dioceses.
The Italian statement reiterates the Church's ban on inviting remarried divorcees to serve as catechism teachers or baptismal godparents.
The line Italian bishops adopted on "single" divorcees was being described by Rome commentators this week as the softest ever by a Church body.
The Director of Counseling and Training at the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council, Eileen McCabe, told the Catholic Herald that many Catholics would "welcome" the Italian bishops' statement as "an important easing of the Church's line on divorce. After all the hurt they have endured in making a painful decision between their posi
tion in the Church and their partner, this will be an irnportant step forward."
But for many Catholics, she maintained, the statement would have little effect on their "hurt and pain".
The Italian bishops' statement said that separated couples are still eligible for the sacraments, because "at times of misunderstanding and serious difficulty", the Church "allows for the physical separation of couples and permits them to end their cohabitation".
But in receiving the sacraments separated faithful must be ready to demonstrate forgiveness and willingness to review their situation.
In the case of divorce, the "victim" of the decision may receive the Eucharist while the husband or wife who instigates divorce "must reflect in a sincere way and make a concrete reparation of the ill done". They too would thus be eligible for the sacraments.
The Italian bishops point out that "there exist no obstacles per se to admission to the sacraments if civil divorce remains the only possible way of guaranteeing certain legitimate rights, such as the upbringing of children and protection of assets".
The paper goes on to condemn cohabitation out of wedlock as a "grave phenomenon in total contrast with the profound meaning of marital love".
The Italian guidelines follow a three-way intervention by two French bishops and a leading German moral theologian, Fr Bernard Haering, this summer, in the review Family Today.
The two bishops Jacques David of La Rochelle and Jean-Charles Thomas of Versailles and Fr Hae ring appealed to the clergy and faithful to "invent new ways" for coping with the problem of divorce and the church within the boundaries of doctrine.
"If a marriage fails irrevocably this does not mean that divorcees and abandoned partners are failures either as people or Christians. It would be no less tragic if the Church were to fail in its commitment to bring comfort and in its urgent task of reconciliation".
The Secretary of the Association of Separated and Divorced Catholics, Christine Hacklett, told the Catholic Herald that she feared the document would have little bearing on Catholic divorcees, because they "are looking for a much more clear-cut answer to their status within the Church.
"This statement sounds like they are thrashing out the same old issues," she said.