Pope Paul VI has agreed to halt, retroactively, the automatic excommunication of divorced and remarried Catholics in this country, it was announced yesterday.
The action was taken in response to the near unanimous request for the change made by American Catholic bishops at their semiannual meeting last May.
While suspension of the automatic excommunication for Catholics remarred after civil divorce does not change the church's traditional stand on the indissolubility of valid marriage, it does offer hope to tens of thousands of divorced Catholics for reconciliation with their church.
According to church law, divorced Catholics may retain their church standing after remarriage only if a tribunal, or church court, finds that the original marriage was not valid.
Along with the other changes that have swept the church in the last 15 years, the concept of what constitutes a valid marriage has undergone extensive changes. Aided by psychologists and sociologists as well as theologians, the church's canon lawyers, who constitute the tribunals, today recognize a vastly wider array of circumstances as ground for a decree of nullity, as the church divorce decree is called.
The action of the church hierarchy in lifting the automatic excommunication is expected to encourage many divorced and remarried Catholics to seek regularization of their status through church tribunals, said the Most Rev. Thomas C. Kelly, general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Many people who got a negative answer 10 years ago could get their previous marriage annuled in the tribunals today," he explained.
In addition, he said, the move to lift the automatic excommunication is an important symbol to "the bishops are willing to address the needs of their people."
He emphasized that the "intention" of the bishops in lifting the penalty "is pastoral - to extend a reconciling gesture to divorced and remarried Catholics and encourage them to seek regularization of their status.
A person who is excommunicated may attend services and participate in parish activities but is barred from receiving the sacraments such as holy communiion, absolution after confession or the last rites.
The action announced yesterday by the Vatican's representative in this country, Archbishop Jean Jadot, will not permit divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments unless they have regularized their second marriage in the eyes of the church through the tribunal process.
Depending on where they live, serious problems still remain for many Catholics otherwise eligible for a church annulment.
Tribunals are administered on a diocesan basis; in some dioceses there is a waiting list of years to get a case before church courts. Others have developed innovative procedures for both speeding the process and keeping costs down.
The automatic excommunication penalty was imposed in this country by the church's Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 and existed only in the United States.
Lifting of the penalty was one of the recommendations to come from the American church's widely representative Call to Action Conference in Detroit last year.