Implementation split on new family teaching

Catholic intellectuals, moral theologians and journalists seem to be just as divided as bishops when analyzing whether Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), permits Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church to receive absolution and the Eucharist.

But James Keating, a moral theologian at Providence College, says he believes the heated controversies over Amoris Laetitia will eventually “work themselves out” at the local level, which Keating said appears to be the pope’s intention.

“There is a whole class of Catholic intellectuals who consider this a question on which the Church stands or falls, and some bishops are upset about it, but my guess is most bishops welcome the flexibility, and most priests also welcome the flexibility,” Keating told Our Sunday Visitor.

Dueling interpretations

Regardless of whether they believe the exhortation provides them with flexibility, the fact is that many bishops in the Church have taken the same document and arrived at very different conclusions on what it says about admitting back to the sacraments divorced and civilly remarried Catholics whose first union has not been annulled by the Church.

For example, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, head of a task force of bishops tasked with providing resources for implementing Amoris Laetitia in the United States, has already ruled out the possibility of granting Communion to such Catholics in his archdiocese. Last summer, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia released its guidelines for implementing the exhortation. They reference the pope’s statements that the exhortation neither changes Church teaching nor the canonical discipline concerning marriage. The guidelines also say that Amoris Laetitia “is best understood when read within the tradition of the Church’s teaching and life.”

But in mid-January, the bishops of Malta published their own set of pastoral guidelines that allow for the divorced and civilly remarried in some cases, after a period of discernment and prayer, to receive Communion. The Maltese bishops said people in such relationships cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments if they believe “with an informed and enlightened conscience” that they are “at peace with God.”

The list of opposing episcopal interpretations has been growing for some time. The Polish bishops agree with Archbishop Chaput, as does Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona, who wrote in his diocesan newspaper that Amoris Laetitia, while calling on pastors to accompany the faithful in complex and difficult situations, does not permit them to give Communion to the divorced and remarried.

Bishop Steven J. Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (the U.S.-based structure for former Anglican communities who have joined the Catholic Church) has also written that the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage has not been changed, and that couples who are remarried without an annulment cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist without the intent to refrain from sexual relations.

“Pastoral discernment admits of no exceptions to the moral law, nor does it replace moral law with the private judgements of conscience,” Bishop Lopes wrote.

In Pope Francis’ native Argentina, however, the bishops of the pastoral area of Buenos Aires released guidelines last year that say Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility, in some cases where complicated personal and family dynamics are a factor, of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. The sacraments, the bishops wrote, dispose the faithful in those situations “to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace.”

In a letter to the Argentine bishops last fall, Pope Francis wrote approvingly of their guidelines, calling them “very good” and saying they “completely” explained the meaning of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which deals with the pastoral care of those in “irregular” marital and family situations. Of the Argentine bishops’ approach, the pope said, “There are no other interpretations.”

Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that his position on Amoris Laetitia was the same as that given by the Argentine bishops. And Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna said during the press conference to unveil the exhortation that the document did not change Church teaching or discipline on marriage.

Last fall, Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego told pastors to invite divorced and remarried Catholics to “utilize the internal forum of conscience” to decide whether they should receive Communion.

“Some Catholics engaging in this process of discernment will conclude that God is calling them to return to full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist,” Bishop McElroy wrote in a pastoral letter. “Others will conclude that they should wait, or that their return would hurt others.”

In an interview published Feb. 1, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, criticized bishops who took a more open view, but the same day, the bishops of Germany issued a letter expressing openness in particular situations.

Claims of confusion

Even given what is described as ambiguous language in Chapter 8 and Footnote 351, which describes the Eucharist as medicine for the weak instead of a prize for the perfect, the differences in interpretation among bishops of the same magisterial document is astounding, especially in the era of modern telecommunication and the internet.

“It’s very confusing, and it’s completely intentional on the part of Francis,” said Keating, who suggested that the pope did not want to issue a blanket rule allowing the divorced and civilly remarried to receive the sacraments, but at the same time wanted to “open the door” a little bit more than what his immediate predecessors did.

“To me, the fairly clear message from Francis is that there is no absolute prohibition on the divorced and remarried, who are living as husband and wife, from receiving the Eucharist,” Keating said. “But he’s not going to force unwilling bishops to do it.” While Keating does not believe the present situation carries any significant danger to the Church’s unity, other observers argue otherwise.

Father Gerald E. Murray, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and a contributing editor to the online forum The Catholic Thing, told OSV that it appears Pope Francis is contradicting the teaching of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI that the divorced and civilly remarried cannot be admitted to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist without the intent to stop committing objective acts of adultery.

Father Murray noted the pope’s letter to the Argentine bishops and the fact that the Maltese bishops’ guidelines were printed in L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, to support the conclusion that Pope Francis intends to change what two previous popes taught.

Said Father Murray, “I pray that Pope Francis will come to understand that any change in the perennial teaching and discipline of the Church regarding worthiness to receive the sacraments undermines the doctrine of the Church on marriage, adultery and the obligation of sinners to conform their lives to the Gospel.”

“All of us, no matter our situation, are called to reject and confess sin, live rightly according to the commands of the Lord and his Church, and not seek excuses or exceptions that justify our situation or weakness,” Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, told OSV.

Finding the path forward

Pope Francis leads an ecumenical prayer service at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome Jan. 25. CNS photo/Paul Haring

But Austen Ivereigh, a British journalist, co-founder of Catholic Voices and author of the biography “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Picador, $16), defended Amoris Laetitia as an “organic development” of previous magisterial teaching and the fruit of two synods and much prayerful discernment.

“It has to be accepted, and it will be over time,” said Ivereigh, who told OSV that the exhortation will take a generation to be received in the Church as it recovers a pastoral tradition of moral theology and the use of conscience that he said had been sidelined.

“What faithful Catholics need now to do is ask not, ‘How can I argue against it?’ but ‘How can I try to understand it?’” Ivereigh said. “Bishops and theologians need to educate the faithful, demonstrate its essential continuity, and show that the understanding of conscience in it is part of a long tradition associated with St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori.”

Jesuit Father James Bretzke, a moral theologian at Boston College, noted that Pope Francis’ reluctance to further clarify the document and its application is intentional.

“Pope Francis is well aware of what’s going on, but I think he believes, methodologically as a way of governance, that these sorts of issues are best interpreted at the ground level,” Father Bretzke said. “He has by and large avoided the temptation to come down on high and cut off discussion or responses at lower levels, and not just in this area, but many others as well. This is the principle of subsidiarity in practice.”

As to how long the debate continues, and if it eventually works itself out, as Keating suggested, or remains a controversy for the next pope to address, are questions for the future. What the experts agree on is for the faithful to remain hopeful and to pray for the Church.

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“The Church will survive because we have been promised the Holy Spirit will never depart from the Catholic Church,” Father Bretzke said. “I believe that. It’s an article of faith.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.