Vatican protocol has been rewritten to enable divorced Catholic leaders and their new spouses to be received jointly by Pope Francis, Holy See sources confirmed on Thursday.
The move is unlikely to be officially announced but has already been applied once; when Argentinian President Mauricio Macri visited Francis on Saturday accompanied by his third wife, Juliana Awada.
Under the previous protocol, Awada would have been made to wait in a separate room before being greeted by the pope after her husband’s audience -- and after the official photos of the visit had been taken.
That practice was based on a belief that the pontiff should not be seen to endorse relationships which Church teaching maintains are adulterous unless a first marriage has been annulled. Since coming to office in 2013, Francis has tried to steer the Church away from such a judgemental approach, arguing that divorced and remarried believers should be able to play a fuller part in the life of their congregations.
At present their marriages are considered invalid and they are banned from taking communion. Francis has also ordered a streamling of the annulment process in a bid to help many Catholics caught in limbo between unhappy personal situations and their faith.
The treatment of divorced people was one of the hot button topics discussed during a major synod of Catholic bishops and others which concluded last year.
The Church is now waiting for Francis to announce what, if any, conclusions he has drawn from those discussions which exposed a deep rift between Catholic leaders in Europe and North America and more conservative clerics in Africa and Asia.