Pope Francis declared on Wednesday that divorced Catholics who remarry, as well as their children, deserve better treatment from the church, warning pastors against treating these couples as if they were excommunicated.
Catholic teaching considers divorced Catholics who remarry are living in sin and are not allowed to receive Communion, leaving many of these people feeling shunned by their church.
Francis' emphasis on mercy in church leadership has raised hope among many such Catholics that he might lift the Communion ban. Catholics who divorce after a church marriage but don't take up a new union, such as a second marriage, can receive Communion.
The Vatican this fall is holding a month-long follow-up meeting on family issues, after a similar gathering last year left divorced Catholics who remarry hoping in vain that a quick end to the ban would have resulted from those discussions.
In his latest remarks on divorce, Francis didn't go that far. But he insisted on an attitude change in the church. "How do we take care of those who, following the irreversible failing of their family bond made a new union?" he said.
"People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way," Francis told pilgrims and tourists at his first general audience after a summer break. "They always belong to the church."
The pope acknowledged that church teaching considers "taking up a new union" after divorce wrong.
"The church knows well that such a situation contradicts the Christian sacrament," of marriage. Still, Francis said, the church must always "seek the well-being and salvation of persons."
Francis wondered how the church can insist that the children of these failed marriage be raised by their parents "with an example of convinced and practiced faith, if we keep them (the parents) far from the community life (of the church) as if they were excommunicated?"
He exhorted pastors "not to add additional weight beyond what the children in this situation have to bear. Unfortunately the numbers of these children and young people are truly great."
In his papacy, Francis has frequently suggested seeing situations through the eyes of others.
"If we look at these new ties with the eyes of young children ... we see ever more the urgency to develop in our community true welcome toward people living in these situations," Francis said.
Other than being widowed, the only possible way for Catholics who marry in the church to remarry is receiving an annulment. That long, complicated process essentially involves examining whether the marriage never existed in the first place. Grounds for annulment include refusal by a spouse to have children.
Previous pontiffs had complained that annulments in some places, notably in the United States, were being granted too liberally.