The ages-old conflict between individual conscience and the authority of the pope came to the fore yesterday as the Vatican issued a strong warning to divorced Roman Catholics without annulments, denying them Holy Communion if they have sexual relations with a new partner.
The strong reaffirmation of church policy was met with displeasure by some people who seek to help divorced Catholics.
But Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, who is in Rome for a meeting of church leaders from around the world, called the new document "sensitive and practical advice for divorced and remarried Catholics."
He urged them to "remain faithful to Mass and prayer" even though denied the sacrament of Communion, which the Catholic Church considers the essential spiritual nourishment of the body and blood of Christ.
Under church law, divorce does not end the marriage of Catholics unless they are granted annulments.
The nine-page letter seemed aimed especially at bishops, priests and theologians in Germany and the United States who have suggested to the faithful that if they are convinced their first marriage was invalid they could effectively exempt themselves from the need for an annulment.
The process of obtaining annulments from church tribunals is often costly and can take years.
It denounced the "mistaken conviction" that "personal conscience is considered the final analysis" on the dissolution of marriage or worthiness for Communion.
Speaking as the elected president of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States, Archbishop Keeler said, "With the Congregation, I wish to clearly state that this teaching is not a punishment or a discrimination against those who are divorced and remarried. . . .
"It is indeed in their continued union with the church that the divorced and remarried have the possibility of finding a way to readmission to Holy Communion in accord with the teaching of Christ."
But in Baltimore, people who work directly with separated, divorced and remarried Catholics emphasized the need for "healing people who are hurt and reinforcing their sense of worthiness," rather than issuing doctrinal warnings.
"I don't ask people what they do in their bedrooms -- it's none of my business," said Sister of Mercy M. Joannes Clifford, who has worked with groups of separated or divorced Catholics since 1980.
She organizes annual series of Sunday afternoon lectures at Mercy High School for people -- both Catholics and non-Catholics -- who are separated, divorced or widowed.
Said Sister Joannes, "I try to follow what Jesus Christ did, accept people who are deeply hurt. Jesus was gracious and kind, and never made them feel that they were not worthy."
Doctrinal statements such as yesterday's from the Vatican are not what her work is about, she said.
"Our group is here to help people. We don't deal with problems of sex. We are trying to build up people's self-esteem."
Lynne Ann Westcott, a divorced Catholic who is a leader of Friends of Mercy, an organization for "single and single-again" people that grew out of Sister Joannes' work, said she has observed increasing progress in Catholic leaders' relations with the separated and divorced.
"For years, they did not recognize divorced Catholics -- didn't recognize divorce as legitimate," she said. "At least now, there are meetings for divorced people."