by Viviane Hewitt in Rome FOR the second time in a month, Pope John Paul has suggested that the church should soften its pastoral approach to divorcees, saying they need "spiritual help and affectionate care", especially if they have remarried.
His comments, made to a visiting group of French bishops and closely echoing a similar message made to Scandinavian prelates a fortnight ago. suggest a change of direction at the Vatican which Rome observers have described as totally unexpected.
They believe John Paul is moving away from an intransigent approach towards Catholic divorcees who remarry despite having failed first to obtain an annulment. The present position, under which they remain part of the church but are barred from the sacraments, is unlikely to be changed, but the Pope's more sympathetic stance is probably directed at ensuring that Catholics "in irregular unions" get a more compassionate hearing in the parishes.
The Pope told the French bishops that pastors should welcome people living "in such, situations", and "remain attentive to their needs so that they can live their life in baptism".
Divorced and remarried Catholics should not be made to feel separated from the church, he said.
"Men and women who live in situations which are irregular from the religious point of view and, primarily, remarried divorcees need spiritual assistance and help from the church that is both attentive and caring," he went on.
In a passage which seemed to elaborate on his recommendations for pastoral care for the divorced given to the Scandinavian bishops, John Paul said pastors must not allow remarried divorcees to live without what he significantly called "their baptismal dimension".
Despite his softer tune. the pontiff was clear that he was not on the verge of admitting remarried divorcees to the sacraments. "This is because the church is the custodian and not the owner of the sacraments instituted by Chris-t," he explained.
After his address, a source at the Congregation for Divine Worship stressed that there were no major changes in the offing which would admit remarried Catholics to the sacraments. "The church is not changing but it never abandons its faithful even when they err. It is the duty of bishops to he attentive to divorced Catholics and to administer the sacraments to their children," he said. It was also a pastoral duty to try to guide divorcees towards "full repentance".
Other Vatican observers, however, suggested that if the Pope has addressed the issue twice in almost as many weeks, it meant he felt "pressurised" to a degree by the phenomenon of Catholic remarried divorcees.
He also encouraged the bishops to continue improving preparation courses for marriage. Marriage, he said, presupposes a spirit of giving and sacrifice, as well as the ability to welcome. and forgive, the marriage partner.
During the same address. the Pope repeated the church's traditional condemnation of premarital relationships and advised bishops to provide young couples with "a vision of the meaning of life, of loving relationships and of the virtues of chastity". This would help them rediscover the "sense of human sexuality and the value of the period of engagement" before marriage.
Meanwhile the Vatican condemned Italy's zero birth rate increase one of the lowest in Europe which has emerged from a new population census. The Osservatore Romano said Italian society was "without hope" and that current egoistic trends on Vatican home ground would transform Italians into "a people in agony".