Christ with the Eucharist, Vicente Juan Masip, 16th century.

Pope Francis' communion test

Christ with the Eucharist, Vicente Juan Masip, 16th century.

Christ with the Eucharist, Vicente Juan Masip, 16th century.

Forget about clerical celibacy, contraception, same-sex marriage, and (of course) women priests. The threshold question on whether Pope Francis intends to make actual alterations in church doctrine will be divorce. Specifically, will Rome change its tune and let divorced and remarried Catholics take communion?

The German bishops want the answer to be yes. At their plenary assembly next month they are expected to approve guidelines permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to be readmitted to the sacraments in “justified individual cases.” It's the kind of inclusionary pastoral move that Francis would seem to be in sympathy with, and some remarks he made to reporters on the papal plane last summer suggested that such is in fact the case.

But push back has come from The Vatican's Big Dog for Doctrine, Cardinal-designate Gerhard Mueller, in an article last October that he said had the pope's approval. And now, weighing in on Mueller's side, comes Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the one American on Francis' G-8 Council of Red Hats, in Vaticanista John Allen's maiden article for the Boston Globe.

Saying he didn't "see the pope as changing doctrine," O'Malley said he didn't "see any theological justification" for departing from Jesus' own criticism of Jewish teaching on divorce. “The church needs to be faithful to the Gospel and to Christ’s teaching,” he said. “Sometimes that’s very difficult. We have to follow what Christ wants, and trust that what he asks of us is the best thing.”

It is worth noting, however, that the Eastern Orthodox do permit people to remarry twice, based on the Greek concept of oiconomia -- a recognition that sometimes it's necessary to interpret church law in a way that acknowledges the human condition. As the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America puts it:

The Church grants "ecclesiastical divorces" on the basis of the exception given by Christ to his general prohibition of the practice. The Church has frequently deplored the rise of divorce and generally sees divorce as a tragic failure. Yet, the Orthodox Church also recognizes that sometimes the spiritual well-being of Christians caught in a broken and essentially nonexistent marriage justifies a divorce, with the right of one or both of the partners to remarry.

It may also be noted that the issue of divorce has not been considered a bar to reunion between Rome and the Orthodox churches, and, indeed, that Rome has permitted the Orthodox approach to divorce to continue among its Eastern rite churches (just as it has permitted married priests). In other words, on the question of divorce, Pope Francis has the door of Orthodox exceptionalism open to him, should he want to walk through it.