In the 256-page document "The Joy of Love," the pope introduced a more lenient approach to how the church embraces divorced Catholics. Instead of issuing hard rules to the reception of Communion, he called for pastors to engage those who otherwise may feel the church no loner welcomes them because of divorce. The document, however, makes no change in church doctrine.
Guidelines from Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput, which took effect July 1, say that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, unmarried couples living together and same-sex couples are welcome in the church, but should "refrain from sexual intimacy" in order to receive Communion.
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"This is a hard teaching for many," the document states. "But anything less misleads people about the nature of the Eucharist and the Church."
The guidelines, which emphasize the importance of upholding Catholic teachings about traditional marriage, are meant for priests, deacons and others working in the fields of marriage or human sexuality.
Since a Catholic divorce is only recognized if grounds are found for nullification, separated couples whose marriages are found valid are unable to marry again within the church.
"Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly-remarried to receive reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist," the document states.
According to Catholic author and speaker Rose Sweet, these Catholic teachings do not renounce sex as if it were evil. She said practicing Catholics opt for celibate lifestyles for many reasons and added that "church teachings maintain that sex is very good," but only belongs within a committed marriage that allows for a family to thrive.
"In this case the remarried couple understands and agrees that their prior marriage must be publicly held valid until proved otherwise," Sweet told NBC. "This is a great respect for marriage as something both private and public. Despite their affections for one another, they know that living as 'brother and sister' --which is different from ‘renouncing’ sex-- will keep them in full communion with what we believe God intends."
Chaput extends this call for celibacy to unmarried couples living together. The guidelines say that a pastor should encourage the couple to separate if they are unwilling to commit to marriage.
However, if a couple does plan to marry, the guidelines encourage continued abstinence until marriage, because "this fasting from physical intimacy is a strong element of spiritual preparation for an enduring life together."
This encouragement of celibacy is also emphasized for same-sex couples, who are barred from holding positions of responsibility within a parish and can't carry out any liturgical ministry or function.