Pope Francis and atheists / Deacons allowed to remarry?

Q. I am on Facebook, and I find it a good way to connect with family and friends. I know that some of what I read on Facebook is reliable, but some is not.

Recently I read that Pope Francis said the following: "It is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person. In a way, the traditional notion of God is outdated. One can be spiritual but not religious. It is not necessary to go to church ... for many, nature can be a church. Some of the best people in history did not believe in God, while some of the worst deeds were done in his name."

That strikes me as a strange quote to be coming from the pope. Can you confirm for me whether he actually said it? (Philadelphia)

A. I have never seen the quote that your Facebook friend attributes to Pope Francis and I cannot believe, in particular, he would say that "the traditional notion of God is outdated" or that "it is not necessary to go to church."

I imagine this Facebook quote is a "gloss," a fanciful expansion of two things that Pope Francis actually did say. In a homily in May 2013, Pope Francis told morning worshippers at the Vatican that "the Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone." To which he added: "Even the atheists."

Following that, in September 2013, in a letter published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, as to whether the God of Christians can forgive unbelievers, Pope Francis wrote: "Given that ... God's mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience."

Note that the pope did not say salvation is automatic: The opportunity for salvation (for anyone, including atheists) comes through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ -- but to achieve that salvation, effort and sincerity of heart are required.

Although these two papal quotes were sensationalized by some in the secular media as breaking new theological ground, they were simply restatements of what is solid Catholic belief.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 847), quoting the Second Vatican Council document "Lumen Gentium," states: "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by his grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience -- those too may attain eternal salvation."

Q. I was ordained as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church more than 40 years ago. Now I am a retired deacon, although not by my own choice. (In our diocese, deacons must retire at 80.)

About two years ago, my wife died after 63 years of marriage. I am wondering what you think of the requirement in canon law that a deacon whose wife passes away is not permitted to marry again.

At the moment, I have no strong desire to remarry, but I would like to have that option. (And since I can no longer function as a deacon, it seems, practically speaking, that I am back to being a layman.) (Venice, Florida)

A. The church's Code of Canon Law (No. 1087) states that "those in sacred orders invalidly attempt marriage." In other words, there is a canonical impediment to marriage for bishops, priests and deacons.

However, a separate provision in the Code (No. 1078) allows the Vatican to dispense from such an impediment.

According to current church guidelines, the pope may allow remarriage for a permanent deacon whose wife has died when the following two circumstances are present: the deacon's usefulness to the diocese is considerable and he has young children still to be raised.

Since the Vatican sets the conditions for such a dispensation, the permissible circumstances could conceivably be broadened in the future.

And since you asked me directly for my own opinion, here it is: Young children need the nurture that comes from a mother, and so that dispensation has typically been granted; but a man who has enjoyed the care and companionship of a loving wife for 63 years has certain needs, too. So I would prefer to see the guidelines expanded.


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.

- Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service